UNIVERSITY TEACHING–THE STATE OF THE ART

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<ul><li><p>METAPHILOSOPHY </p><p>Vol. 3, No. 1, January 1972 </p><p>THE PHILOSOPHER AS TEACHER ARTICLES, COMMENTS, CORRESPONDENCE </p><p>Editors Note: From the Muscutine Report at Berkeley to the Scrunton Commission Report on campus unrest, all recent major studies of higher education in America agree that tradi- tional undergraduate teaching is in serious trouble-is simply not working anymore. The teaching of philosophy is no excep- tion. We in philosophy face the same difficulties and short- comings as our colleagues in other departments. </p><p>A t a recent SUNY-wide conference on the improvement of college teaching, Frank W. Wadsworth, Professor of English and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the State University of New York College a t Purchase, delivered the keynote address. We believe that Professor Wadsworth eloquently stated a number of the problems and provided an incisive analysis for many of the disputes and disagreements that plague academic departments across the country-including philosophy depart- ments. We asked Professor Wadsworth to permit us to publish his address because we think i t will prove beneficial to philo- sophy teachers. </p><p>UNIVERSITY TEACHING-THE STATE OF THE ART </p><p>FRANK W. WADSWORTH </p><p>I should like to state at the outset that I do not think, nor would I like you to think, of the remarks that follow as com- prising a formal, professional lecture. My comments are based neither upon a wide acquaintance with educational literature, nor upon intensive special research. Rather they represent the personal observations of one who has been engaged in college teaching for most of his adult life, in university administration for the past eight years, and has been in love with his own particular subject field, literature, as long as he can remember. To complete this characterization, and to make it honest as. </p><p>85 </p></li><li><p>86 FRANK W. WADSWORTH well as accurate, I should confess they are the comments of someone who has a t times had to be dragged into the twentieth century, but who, now that he is here, does not find it half so terrifying as he had once feared. On the other hand, they are the comments also of one who does not feel that higher educa- tion in America is a total disaster, and who believes that we should retain what is useful in our tradition at the same time that we scrap what is not. </p><p>Since I have now, with disarming candor, excused the lack of organization that will characterize my remarks, let me begin by qualifying one of the implications of my title. The modern university is a vast and complex institution whose concerns mirror those of society and whose teaching efforts are of many kinds. Within our own institution you will find instruction offered in Yoruba and Epistemology, Hematopoietics and On- tology, to mention only a few of the better known fields. You will also find persons teaching Camping, Cooking, Photography and Interior Design. The students themselves range from post- doctoral fellows to school children, from the physically and mentally healthy to the mentally retarded, the deaf and the blind. Obviously university teaching covers a multitude of activities, and probably a multitude of sins. I of necessity am going to limit what I have to say to the only kind of teach- ing I know anything about-the teaching of the liberal arts, and I am going to focus my comments upon instruction at the undergraduate Ievel. </p><p>Of liberal arts teaching, at the undergraduate level, then, I would say that at the moment the state of the art is not good. The curriculum is under constant assault, invested typically by a wild, undisciplined but multi-weaponed army, and guarded by a group of traditionalists whose usual defense is the academic equivalent of dropping rocks on the heads of the invaders. Traditional teaching techniques are criticized as being im- personal, authoritarian, dehumanizing, and sometimes just downright inefficient. The faculty no longer enjoys the beati- tude of sanctity, and there are some who aver that the typical college professor finds it easier to change the length of his sideburns than his mind. </p><p>In all of these charges there is some truth. The typical liberal arts curriculum rests upon assumptions that are patently false- for example, that all students learn at the same rate, and that four years of two semesters each is, as the result of some kind of divine revelation never identified, the perfect and only time </p></li><li><p>UNIVERSITY TEACHING 87 span in which to educate a young man or woman. And then, as if this were not artificial enough, it presumes to tell the student that during these four years he must amass 120 things called units or credits-a thing invisible, incidentally, to the naked eye of any one but a registrar-at which exact moment he will be educated. He will not, it is made very clear, be educated if he has amassed a mere 119 things. And pre- sumably if he has somehow managed to collect 121 he will be even worse off-he will be overeducated. </p><p>For the convenience of many people, including computers- but not presumably for the convenience of the student-we usually make these things available in groups of three, to be picked up in fourteen or fifteen weeks precisely, Thus beginning language study, advanced laboratory work, and the history of the novel are all designed-I use the word with some reluc- tance-by compression, excision, expansion, whatever the necessary method may be, to fit the same instructional period. Having packaged our product, we watch carefully as the student tries to take it off the shelf, evaluating his effectiveness by means of traditional symbols which imply a quite unattain- able accuracy. I would suggest that no matter what kind of wine one tries to pour into this bottle it is going to turn sour very soon. </p><p>Our teaching techniques are often not much better than the curriculum they profess to grapple with. Even assuming that the instructor knows his subject and is actually anxious to teach it, traditional methods of instruction have become fossilized, not necessarily because they are intrinsically bad but because they have been unable to cope with the changing needs of the academic community. Although much has been made recently about the overcrowding of lectures and classes, I would hazard a guess that the trouble does not lie primarily in class size, but rather in the stultifying concept of the function of the class or lecture that has typically characterized undergraduate education. It has been my experience, particularly on the campuses of public institutions, that the classroom or lecture hall is more often than not simply a place for the mechanical dissemination of knowledge that the student could in fact pick up in large part for himself. Instead of interacting creatively with his materiaI, of bringing his greater experience and expertise to bear upon his chosen subject, the instructor simply grinds out standard information that is available to the student in many other ways, sometimes indeed by means as outrd as reading. Lectures and classes do not </p></li><li><p>88 FRANK W. WADSWORTH have to be dull and unrewarding, and seminars and tutorials are not necessarily helpful and exciting. The Grammar School at Stratford was not overcrowded, but there is no evidence that Shakespeare had a blast there as a result. </p><p>Is the trouble then the teacher himself? Are we-are you-as ineffective as critics say? As I listen to faculty talk I am re- minded of John Donnes lament about the new science of the seventeenth century, which, by upsetting old values including the idea of a hierarchical social structure, created a world where every man alone thinkes he hath got To be a Phoenix, and that there can bee, None of that kinde of which he is, but hee. There may be trouble, but its the other fellow whos got it, not me! Recently I happened to read a description of the ideal secondary school teacher. It went as follows: </p><p>The teacher should deeply love his own subject in particular and learning in general with a love that insures continuing scholarship throughout his career. He should be interested in young people and respect them. He should constantly assess and understand the moral as well as intellectual ends for which he teaches. As a person he should have integrity, vitality, stability, and courage. </p><p>I think that the typical college or university faculty member would agree-modestly, possibly shuffling his feet a little in embarrassment-that this is a not inaccurate description of him- self, although it is, of course, a grossly distorted picture of the majority of his colleagues. If we ask students whether in their experience these characteristics have any relationship to the typical faculty member, the answer might also, I am afraid, be discouraging. Yet I would argue that more faculty members have at least the potential to come close to this description of an ideal than we may be aware of. Unfortunately many things con- spire against their realizing this potential, Some problems they share with all mankind, such as wives, husbands, children, debts, ill health and so forth. But more important, colleges and universities, generally speaking, have not told their faculty that they want them to be like this. True, they may have described their teaching staffs in some such words as these in the catalogue, but in reality they have seen fit to reward their faculty for qualities and accomplishments quite different from those I have just described. Naturally the basis for reward varies from institu- tion to institution, and there are some places, most typically private girls colleges, where to be interested in young people </p></li><li><p>UNIVERSITY TEACHING 89 and to respect them represents just about all the qualifications for getting and holding a teaching job one needs. But more typically the institution, if it cares a t all about what its faculty is doing, is most interested in a teachers continuing scholar- ship throughout his career, and rewards him therefor and only therefor. Existing in a world where footnotes pay the milk bill and teaching is praised but seldom rewarded, inhibited by a curricular structure that has Iittle to do with education, the teacher has in many ways been shortchanged as much as his student. </p><p>Now I, you understand, am not alone in recognizing these inefficiencies in our system of higher education. My percipience is shared by most students, many administrators, and some faculty; and by every educational expert writing for the journals, each of whom inevitably begins his jeremiad by applying to liberal arts education a list of adjectives that seem to have been lifted from a Red Youth rally in Peking. Sometimes, I must admit, I wonder if an institution that produced me can be all that bad, but the evidence is clear and the indictment telling- the ways of educating young people that may have worked in an older, different, perhaps more stable society, simply are not effective today. </p><p>In addition to questioning the efficiency of our educational system, society is beginning to raise questions about its rele- vance. If students have led the way here, they are now being joined by some administrators and faculty, the latter usually young and just recently students themselves. Of course none of us has a very clear idea of just what relevance amounts to, although all of us, students, faculty and administrators, go around mouthing platitudes about meeting students needs or desires, about the importance of value-stressing courses, of the problem-oriented approach, and so forth. I find such phrases not very helpful and think that with their tendency to encourage simplistic solutions of complex problems they can at times be very harmful. For example, it is not a t all clear what students wishes really are, inasmuch as their demands tend to be ad- vanced emotionally in times of political stress and to be articulated by an activist minority who may or may not speak for their silent peers. As for students needs, these too would seem to be more difficult of definition than is usually granted, involving as they do questions of what students think they need, what past experience indicates they would have needed had the world not changed so quickly and dramatically, and what our </p></li><li><p>90 FRANK W. WADSWORTH blurred vision of the future suggests may be needed. What is relevant? ask the liberal arts, but in our mixed mood of guilt and recrimination nobody seems willing to wait for an answer. I t is far easier to equate relevance with immediacy, because then, unburdened by doubt, all we have to do is to shout together, go man go ! </p><p>So here am I, standing somewhere to the left of Texas but to the right of Black Mountain and trying to be an enlightened educator. What kind of new light shall I cast on the old darkness, what kind of clear, loud voice shall I raise against the Gregorian chant of educational tradition? First, I will announce that four years do not an education make, nor 120 credits a bachelor of arts (whatever he may be). Just why four years has become sacrosanct in American education I do not know, but it does seem clear enough now that it is an arbitrary and artificial time span predicated upon the indefensible notion that every ones learning pace is the same. Instead of being forced into an arbi- trary time mould, the student should be allowed (within reason, and by that I mean up to the point where he begins wasting his time and the time of others) to take as much time as he wants and needs to complete his undergraduate education, inter- rupting it if and when he wishes to do so. Furthermore, his progress, when it is proper to measure it, should not be measured by the mechanical compilation of course credits, but instead by his ability to reach certain kinds of academic bench- marks, benchmarks that he should be allowed to arrive at in a multiplicity of ways, through independent study, proficiency exams and tutorials, as well as by means of formal course work. It should be what the student does, not how he does it that counts. </p><p>Second, we should start thinking innovatively and imagina- tively about our teaching methods. We should insist that the student himself reap what man has sown. He should be shown how to gather information and then be given reading lists and told to read. Formal lectures should be made available to him not for the purpose of compiling grade point averages, but so that he can experience the intellectual phenomenon of a trained expert coming to grips with his subject under formal and demanding conditions. But he should also come in contact with his teachers in other ways, through traditional classes, seminars, laboratories and tutorials. In every instance, however, the emphasis should be on an intellectually stimulating interaction among teacher, student and material, and not upon the grinding </p></li><li><p>UNIVERSITY TEACHING 91 </p><p>out of factual information presented as being somehow valuable in itself, although it may in fact never be used. The potential of modern teaching aids sho...</p></li></ul>