But I've got to be concerned when a professor of philosophy declares to his first-year students in a Huffington Post blog that
...I am your professor, not your teacher. There is a difference. Up to now your instruction has been in the hands of teachers, and a teacher's job is to make sure that you learn. Teachers are evaluated on the basis of learning outcomes, generally as measured by standardized tests. If you don't learn, then your teacher is blamed. However, things are very different for a university professor. It is no part of my job to make you learn. At university, learning is your job -- and yours alone. My job is to lead you to the fountain of knowledge. Whether you drink deeply or only gargle is entirely up to you.
I don't know if I can enumerate the number of levels on which this is wrong, but I'm certainly going to try.
To get credentials out of the way first: I am one of those who has seen both sides, university and K-12 education. I obtained my terminal degree, taught in university for over a decade and could have stayed there, but chose to go to K-12. As my mother would say, I've been through it.
Now, if I were going exclusively for snark with this post, I would say that the professor in question is searching for a way to justify his laziness. Lecturing is easy. Standing up in front of people and talking about what you've been studying for decades is a pretty chill job.
But the professor has also made a good point. He is correct that students should take charge of their learning. As he writes later in the piece,
[Students] need to learn to listen. The kind of listening you need to learn is not passive absorption, like watching TV; it is critical listening. Critical listening means that you are not just hearing but thinking about what you are hearing. Critical listening questions and evaluates what is being said and seeks key concepts and unifying themes.
Bravo, professor. You're on the right track. But is the professor responsible at all for cultivating these skills? Apparently not:
Your high school curriculum would have served you better had it focused more on developing your listening skills rather than drilling you on test-taking.
Oh, no you didn't. You didn't just dump on K-12 teachers for not sending you pristine little vessels that magically know how to listen and evaluate. And you didn't just opt out of helping those vessels do what, as you say, the high school curriculum omitted.
Prof, I've got news for you. Learning how to learn doesn't end at age eighteen. At eighteen, it's really only beginning.
My most engaged students at the university level were the continuing ed students-- the ones in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties who had worked at a job and then come back and were there because they wanted to be. They were settled; adolescence was behind them. Often, they were parents. They had matured.
My 18-22 year olds were a mixed bag-- some engaged, others not. Many were still in the throes of figuring out who they were, what they wanted from life, and rounding out their brain development. Some of them drank a lot; some of them worked twenty hours or more a week to afford their education. Not all of them were really suited to be in college, but a number of them became suited while they were there. I think that's something a university can help with.
It's true. Many college students are not naturally interested in academic pursuits such as philosophy, nor are they psychologically equipped to be. Many students do not have active listening skills, even if they were taught them (and by the way, many are. K-12 education is not just a test-taking factory).
Learning is a lifelong process.
And so, Herr Doktor Professor who leads students to the fount of knowledge but doesn't "make" them drink, I would encourage you to get with the program and do something-- not to "make" students learn, but, for all that is good and holy, at least to help them.
Along with expecting students to be engaged learners-- which I applaud, if you haven't already noticed-- maybe you could learn a few techniques about good teaching:
- If you're going to lecture, help the students brush up their active listening skills. Do you know how this is done? If not, you might want to learn yourself and share what you learn.
- Think about and communicate why the students should come to class rather than just read a transcript of the lecture or watch a video. What value do you add as a real human being interacting with them in real time?
- Give a handout with some open-ended questions to discuss. Nurture their curiosity. Pique their interest.
- Heck, connect philosophy with their experience if you can. It doesn't have to be 1850 forever in the university.
In fact, if it does stay 1850 in the university, then I think the university is going the way of 1850-- it's going to be a thing of the past. Because knowledge, as 21st century education types are fond of saying, is now available at the click of a button.
It's not a question of the professor as the "sage on the stage" versus the "guide on the side." That is a false dichotomy. It's a matter of equipping students to make use of knowledge rather than simply handing them knowledge and letting them take it from there. There is so much knowledge now, students need a way to make sense of it all.
Knowledge is no longer a fountain. It is a firehose.
And really, as a professor of philosophy, this guy should know better. It was Socrates who was the first innovative teacher, and if he were alive today, I have a feeling he'd be supplementing his Socratic method with the most effective teaching techniques he could find.
Because, unless I miss my guess, Socrates really cared, not only about his subject, but about his students and his city, Athens. So I think he would have done what this professor encourages his students to do: "make your world richer and yourself stronger" by learning how to reach his students.
And, truth be known, this professor has made a good start, if a small one: the blog actually signals a change in his curriculum based on student need. As he explains, instead of just lecturing about philosophy, he's going to take at least part of one lecture to give students a message about being engaged learners.
Now that's something to build on.