Conversations on Teaching

Improving education via the Open Conspiracy

Most people perceive college as some form of trade school, preparation for what really matters: professional school or a job. When students tell their parents their major, unless it is business, they generally hear one of the all-time dumb questions: "So what are you going to do with that?" The popular perception is that a few majors feed the student directly into a lucrative career, while the rest are just fluff.

Education as a value unto itself has many enemies: television, state legislatures and a pervasive anti-intellectualism. Even many academics accept that learning matters only to the degree that it is practical to future employment. When the Secretary of Education spoke recently on the importance of a college education, his only stated justification was that the average college graduate makes more than twice as much as the average high school-only graduate. Even Emory feeds this functionalist evaluation. Freshman orientation, devoted largely to social activities, has a single component on the value of academic programs. During those 45 minutes, the new students must choose from among 12 different sessions, including pre-law, pre-medical school and pre-business school. They could also attend a session on majoring in the liberal arts, which must therefore be pre-something else.

The reason to select any subject as a major is for what it has to offer: a mode of analysis transferable to any other area of human endeavor, and a body of knowledge that can enrich and inform all intellectual pursuits.

Unfortunately, professors have not done a very good job selling the value of their work. To combat the trend toward seeing colleges as trade schools, professors need to conspire openly against this denigration of teaching and learning. Such an effort would reject the notion that a college education is job training, maintaining instead the intrinsic value of all that we offer. But we need to acknowledge that we have not, as a group, been very successful in persuading our students of the worth of intellectual pursuits.

Obviously many people at Emory already feel the need for change. The Commission on Teaching and the funding for the creation of new courses bespeaks a realization that we have taken our primary task for granted for too long. Several departments have launched their own initiatives in this regard. There is no shortage of specific recommendations, some of which are applicable in some courses and not others. I should just like to offer two suggestions.

There has been much talk over the last few years of adopting some of the lessons of the visual media. Our classes should become more multi-media and we should become more entertaining. I think that this notion is grievously stupid. There is simply no way that any educator can compete with MTV's mind-numbing barrage of graphics and sound. People's brains shut down when they watch television; we desire the opposite effect. There is no way that we can reach everyone, but I think we can have an impact on most of our students if we communicate to them the enthusiasm we must all feel (or at least, once felt) for our subjects, and for learning in general. I want my students to feel for themselves the thrill of discovering the secrets of their past. History can be taught most effectively by making the students historians. We use this principle of learning through practice in any physical activity--you do not learn to play baseball by watching it on TV--and should not hesitate applying it to the classroom.

However, truly effective teachers reject the television metaphor entirely. We are not actors and our students should not be passive spectators. There are many ways of involving students in their own education; this past year I experimented with doing so at the start. When several students told me that they planned to take my legal history class, I invited them to help plan the syllabus. They borrowed some books and we exchanged e-mail messages. Then we got together over lunch and planned the course. The results were very satisfying. Based on this single experience, it seems that students involved in preparing a course are committed to its success. They viewed the class as theirs, helped to ensure its success, and I think, took pride in its development. Inadvertently, I had brought these students into the open conspiracy against the mediocrity of popular culture and its devaluation of education, and helped them share in the excitement of the pursuit of truth in the company of friends.

Michael Bellesiles is director of undergraduate studies in the Department of History.

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