In a recent New York Times article, Michael S. Roth bemoans his students’ collective inability to construct an argument. Their argumentative process, he finds, consists only of one skill: battering the opposing side’s arguments by pointing out apparent contradictions. “But this is thin gruel,” he protests. Roth counters that students must embrace an author’s inherent contradictions and explore why he or she incorporated such contradictions. The answer is usually that such contradictions are meant to make us ask specific questions and then to come to new awarenesses about the topic under discussion. When we embrace this critical process, Roth concludes that “we “increas[e] our capacity to understand and contribute to the world — and reshape it, and ourselves, in the process.”
In other words, when students are trained not to simply rebut an argument, but to really engage with it by thinking through the argument, they are prepared to innovate and create new knowledge or new understandings about our world.
Roth assumes that students do not engage with arguments because they are not trained to do so. While I don’t disagree, the problem is more complex: students do not engage with academic arguments because such arguments often are or seem to be irrelevant. Arguments in the classroom tend to ask specialized, discipline-related questions that matter to the teacher, but often don’t connect to the student or the world we live in. When there is a disconnect between education and the ‘real world’, learning and the liberal arts become about rhetorical posturing rather than a practice that can, should, and will change the world.
I’m trained in the Humanities. The big Humanities question right now is: do the Humanities matter? (Other versions of this question: are books dead? do teenagers still read? should we have shorter English classes so that students can learn ‘real-world skills’ like woodworking?) The answer from the Ivory Tower is resounding: the Humanities do matter because we teach critical thinking skills, writing, and other tasks that are essential to most professional careers.
I once read an academic forum where adults with Ph.D.s worried that if they could not find a tenure-track job they would end up … bagging groceries. How do we teach our students the tangible value of a liberal arts education if we don’t understand it ourselves? if the very people who argue that the liberal arts teach relevant skills are unable to see how their own skills are relevant?
What we need to do is transform our classroom practices into learning environments that provides discipline-specific skills to students and then show them why those skills matter.
DO WE ASK OUR STUDENTS GOOD QUESTIONS?
One reason it’s so difficult to translate academic skills outside the classroom is that many of the topics we teach in schools are isolated from the work that our students will do (and often are doing) outside the classroom. This doesn’t mean we should transform every subject into career prep. (Such a process limits student learning rather than expands it.) What it does mean is we should teach the big themes and skills of a discipline alongside explicit reference to why these concerns are important.
This is what separates the good teachers from the great: the ability to help us see how the classroom intersects with the world we live in, the world that we spend most of our waking hours in.
But this shouldn’t be what separates good and great teachers.
This should be what education is.
I spent many semesters as a TA for literature classes. Looking over my notes from a literature class, I see how we failed to do this for our students. We taught them, for example, how Spencer was influenced by Chaucer. We also asked them to think about the power of storytelling and why authors who were deeply engaged with the major political and religious issues of their day chose to write fiction. We failed our students not because we talked about these issues. We failed them because we only talked about these issues.
We did not ask the obvious question: how do these authors also relate to our present concerns? Why do we still read Chaucer and Spencer? Or, even more obviously, why did Spencer adapt Chaucer to being with? Not because he was particularly interested in Chaucer’s views on 14th century politics. But because Spencer found adapting Chaucer allowed him to talk effectively about contemporary political and religious concerns. In other words, Spencer’s deep knowledge of Chaucer and his works wasn’t a purely antiquarian project — it was a deeply relevant re-reading of literature. When we teach students about Chaucer’s 14th century politics or how he uses storytelling, we should use such conversations as entry points to talking about why we read Chaucer and what he has to tell us.
When we teach any work of literature, we should frame questions about theme, characterization, plot within a larger set of concerns about: ethics, justice, economic equity, familial relations, community, and so forth. These are the very issues that inspired writers to write, but they are the ones we avoid because we’re concerned about avoiding ‘political’ issues in the classroom.
But we cannot teach students how to argue effectively if they have nothing worth arguing about. We can teach them to go through the motions, but we cannot inspire them with the potential for what ideas can do.
image credit: flickr/msiebuhr