Showing posts from September, 2008

The Monastery or the French Fry?

Over the past few days I have been mulling over a conversation I had recently about the need to locate the "value proposition " in liberal arts education for our students' future employers.  Apparently those who hire our grads don't quite get how our work addresses their needs and bottom lines. 

Whenever this conversation arises--as as it does with tedious regularity--I am always reminded of a depressing little article I once ran across.  Called “The Organization Man Goes to College,” it details the efforts of a major U.S. corporation to exploit the value of liberal arts education for grooming middle managers into top executives.  Here's the gist:

In the early 1950s, AT& T selected a small number of talented middle managers and reassigned them for nine months of intensive liberal arts education (philosophy, literature, art, music, history).  The motive for this was economic. The company felt  its younger middle managers (former GIs from World War II) lacked t…

The One-Headlight Club

I am, for whatever reason, constitutionally incapable of being well-organized. I misplace things, forget things, and am always just two steps ahead of catastrophe. I do try, and I believe it's important to be organized, but I've come to accept that I will never will be very good at it. I first came to this conclusion many years ago. I had an old car, a 1981 Toyota Supra, and one day the right headlight went out. I knew I had to get it fixed--driving around with one headlight will get you a ticket in this state--but somehow I could never get around to it. I kept saying to myself, "I really have got to get that fixed."

For over six months I drove around town with one headlight and worried that I'd get pulled over by a cop (never did, thankfully). Anyway, I quickly realized something I had never noticed before. There are actually a lot of people driving around with just one headlight. One night I found that three of the four cars at a four-way stop had only one headl…

Pagan Days of Glory

I had such an amazing day in the classroom yesterday. We were starting a new text (one I haven't taught before), which always makes me a bit uneasy. Teaching new books is like learning a new dance step. You're clumsy at first and find it hard to know when or even how to move. How do I make the transition from what we've been discussing to this new discussion? Where are my points of contact? Will they get it?

So I'm jumpy and nervous about how class will go, but I've got my gimmicky question exercise to fall back on. So we do the exercise and the students ask really good ones. The discussion is rich and everyone is involved. If you teach for very long, you begin to realize how rare, wonderful and precious such days are. You are doing what you love and doing it well. Whenever I get the gift of one of these days, I am high for about two or three hours after class. I know that sounds goofy, but it's true. It was such a good day that I couldn't help re-running it…

What is the Question?

Well, things went a little better last night in the capstone seminar. I just had to go back to an old trick, something I've used before. So here's what I did. I first laid out a criteria for a good knowledge-generating question. I had them write three questions about the text. Then I had them select what they thought was their strongest and most provocative question, the one that would generate the most discussion and insight into the text. I have to tell them that the goal is to generate discussion or they'll ask content/factoid questions or yes/no questions. They've been in school so long that in many cases will think I am looking for test questions: What was Thomas Edison's middle name? What year was Israel founded? And why shouldn't they ask these kinds of questions? In many cases, that's what students have been conditioned to think learning is.

Next, I asked them to evaluate their own questions using the "good question" criteria. They had to c…

Where Socrates Went Wrong (and got it right)

Socrates believed that the bad were simply misinformed, that if they rationally understood what was truly good they would slap their foreheads, say d'oh, and become good. Aristotle recognized the error of this, and even explained how it is we go bad. Yet time and again Socrates’ misreading of human nature reappears. Indeed, much of modern educational theory tacitly assumes that if we could only write better lesson plans, teach differently, get back to the basics, or become more “hands-on” that all students would finally love learning. But this is no more true than the vain notion that warnings on packs of cigarettes will dissuade people from taking up smoking, or that an awareness of fat content will cause people to eat better.

The truth is that knowing what’s good for us and wanting what’s good for us are quite separate things. All students know that they need to study; they know that blowing off the reading and sleeping through class is ruinous to academic success, but knowing th…

Blank and Suspicious

It was bound to happen (and it did). For the first time this semester, I really stunk it up. I went into class last night without bothering to devise some flashy gimmick to engage the students in active learning. Instead, I thought I could simply lead them in a discussion of the material. But they were having none of it. I would ask a question and all I would get was silence and somnolent stares. I must have looked desperate as I tried to gin up that discussion. Imagine yourself as a nightclub comedian who knows he's bombing yet must stay out there at all costs. You don't even have the saving grace of getting booed off stage.

So, as I always do when this occurs, I went to my "A" material too quickly, which meant that I was pretty much done with what I had prepared in the first hour (and still had over an hour to go). Nothing was working and I could see on the students' faces that they thought the entire course was a waste of time. I half agreed with them. In The C…

Human Excellence 2.0

Today my Humanities class starts to discuss The Apology. I asked last Friday if anyone had read it before and only one student said yes. So this is perhaps their first introduction to Socrates, or as I will bill him: Human Excellence 2.0. For with the life and death of Socrates, the Greeks find an entirely new kind of hero to venerate. For centuries they had modeled themselves after the martial-warrior hero, a figure who succeeds in competition and emerges with glory, fame, honor, and wealth.

Socrates will challenge this notion of heroism. He will argue that one's excellence (or arete as the Greeks called it) is solely an internal matter. For Socrates, good human beings are those who question every assumption, retaining only the ones that meet reason's demand for consistency, logic, and evidence. Moreover, such people will act only on their internally-arrived at convictions about what is right and wrong and never as a result of external rewards or punishments. You might call su…

Did I Miss Anything Important?

The following is an email exchange I had with an oft-absent student:


Sorry about missing the last 3 days of class. I missed Monday and Wednesday because I got very sick (a little better today though), and i missed today's class because my grandmother is in the hospital because she blacked out so I went to see her. Did I miss anything important?


And my response:


Hope you're grandmother is feeling better now. As to what you missed? Let's see... Well, I laid out the definitions of heroism in the Iliad (both for Achilles and Hector). Then I compared these definitions to Socrates’ new definition of human excellence, which prizes intellectual and moral courage. Next, I led the class through an absolutely brilliant analysis of The Apology, and today I was on fire (possessed by the muses, you might say) as I led the class in a step-by-step analysis of The Crito.

I then used a personal anecdote to delineate the difference between ‘eye-for-an-eye justice’ and justice…

Don't Blink (And Don't Use the Force)

A few years ago a writer by the name of Malcolm Gladwell wrote a wildly popular book he entitled Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell's thesis was that human beings have innate instinctual abilities that provide them with fast, accurate assessments of how to act or react to given situations. He noted that many of us form amazingly accurate snap judgments about strangers or potential dangers in as few as two seconds. This ability makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Those of our ancestors who weren't any good at sizing up potential dangers probably didn't last long enough to pass on the their traits, while those good at fast instinctive judgments did.

Gladwell was careful to include many caveats about how our instincts often go wrong and mislead us, but you only have to scan the reviews on to see how most of his readers ignored these caveats while embracing with enthusiasm the idea that it is possible to think well without having to act…

Miles and miles of it...

If the Iliad were a modern Hollywood screenplay it wouldn't last much beyond the events in Book XXII. I mean what's the point? We've had the climactic battle. Achilles has slain Hector just as Batman inevitably dispatches the Joker. We know who wins, so why drag it on for a few more books?

But Homer does drag it on because he's an artist and being an artist means telling the truth about what's just happened. And the truth is that the crap is just getting started. And I do mean crap. We get a sense of this right away when Homer takes us back inside Troy's walls to witness the consequences of Hector's death. Achilles' great martial-warrior hero triumph--his achievement of Human Excellence 1.0--is immediately followed by three harrowing lamentations. Priam, Hector's father, who has been watching from the walls, has to be restrained from running to his slain son. He begs to be released, rolls in the dung, and groans pitifully:

My grief for him will lay me…

Side Benefits

Last week I had my students debate which ethical system had integrity: Machiavelli's or Stephen Carter's? Carter wrote a book that we use in the senior capstone. He defines integrity as a three-step process involving moral discernment, acting on the arrived at moral principle even and especially in the face of adversity, and stating openly one's reasons for acting. So I gave the class a workplace scenario asking whether a manager should keep a promise to an employee when the circumstances under which the promise was made have changed.

Carter's three-step process might allow people to come out with opposing solutions and still be considered people of integrity. Why? Because his definition involves a process rather than an outcome. Machiavelli, on the other hand, also operates with integrity, but to the outcome rather than the process. He argued in The Prince that the ultimate good is the safety, prosperity and stability of the state. Anything the leader does (lie, break …

Where to begin...

Every once in a while my students quote a line or two of scripture in their essays. I usually have a mixed reaction to this. On the one hand, I am happy that whatever we are reading and discussing in class has provoked a strong response. When students bring their faith into the debate it is often because something important is at stake, and I want students to feel that something is at stake when we wrestle with ideas in class.

My excitement, however, does not usually last long. More often than not, students employ scripture as a kind of high-powered-argument-stopper, not unlike the 16-ton weight that used to drop from the ceiling to end Monty Python sketches. Often the following phrase (or one quite like it) appears after a quotation from scripture: "The Bible says it, I believe it, end of story." At this point, I set the paper aside and wonder where to begin.

I could try to explain the long history of Biblical exegesis, to detail the many translation issues that arise when go…

Textbooks Make you Dumber

A while back there was a flurry of newspaper articles pondering whether Google is making us dumber. I don't think so. I think it's the textbooks. The worst thing about most of them is that they are premised upon the assumption that learning is simply a transfer of information: "Here are the key points, here is a timeline, here is the chapter summary."

That's okay if learning is simply an instance of ingesting data to be spit out for immediate use (as in looking up a number in the phone book). The problem is that such learning does not last (or it lasts about as long as it takes you to dial the number). It's bulimic learning. You just shove data in and vomit it out, but it has little nutritional value. I sometimes try to demonstrate this in class with the following exercise:

Study the following words for 60 seconds. Then turn this sheet over and jot down as many words as you can remember: Girl, Heart, Robin, Red, Finger, Flute, Blue, Organ, Man, Hawk, Yellow, L…

And as I handed back her paper

I woke up this morning thinking back to my first semester in college. The five years prior to that I had worked construction, attended an apprenticeship program with a labor union and earned a journeyman's card. But after several years in the field making good wages, I just quit one day and wandered over to a little city college to enroll. There was a lot going on in my life at that time. I had just broken up with a woman and I needed to make a change of direction. Even so, it had been almost six year's since I had last been in a classroom, and I was feeling not a little intimidated by the smell of chalk dust and all those small wood and plastic desks.

That first semester I had to take English composition and one early assignment was to write about an "interesting place." I really couldn't think of an interesting place, but I had spent the summer working in an old transient hotel downtown that was being converted to offices for some rich lawyers. It was odd the wa…

The Glitch in Excellence 1.0

Today we discuss Book IX of the Iliad. If, as many scholars contend, the Iliad is ground zero of Western literature, then Book IX is ground zero of the Iliad. Okay, why is that? It's because the model for human excellence in Homeric society is about to hit a software glitch in the character of Achilles. Indeed, we might even think of Achilles as Human Excellence 1.0. He's the original program for what it means to realize one's full human potential. At first glance, of course, it may be difficult to see anything excellent about Achilles. He appears boastful, vain, ruthless, greedy, and motivated primarily by his own ego. He sells captives into slavery if they are poor and holds them for ransom if their families have money.

So far from invoking a model of human excellence, Achilles appears little better than a greedy, hot-headed thug. But we have to shed some of our modern ideas of proper behavior when we read the Iliad, for the Greeks Homer depicts have different notions ab…

The Reading Problem (part II)

In class today we discussed whether the habit of reading will whither and die in the age of Facebook, My Space, Twittering, and the ability to fill up every empty moment with electronic amusement. There is some evidence that it will. A few years ago, the National Endowment for Humanities issued a survey and found that half of all young people between the ages of 18-22 had not read any imaginative literature (novels, poetry, even comic books) in the past year.

That's certainly true among my students. In an evening seminar a while back, we were discussing a book by the classical scholar Martha Nussbaum. Her thesis was that imaginative literature has a special capacity to awaken our empathetic imagination. It can--better than any other medium--emotionally arouse a sense of compassion in us for people unlike ourselves. I asked the students to name the books that have been meaningful, life-changing, whose characters made them feel something deeply. About two-thirds of the seminar said …

9/11 and Book VI

This morning I have to teach Book VI of the Iliad to a room full of undergrads who probably would rather be somewhere else than in my class. Anyway, I have just been reading it in preparation and thinking how I should come at the text. I have been trying to hammer home to my students that what makes a nearly 3,000 year old poem worth readings is its relevance (a hard sell to most 18-year olds). And it strikes me all of a sudden that nothing could be more relevant as we approach the anniversary of 9/11 than teaching Book VI of the Iliad.

It begins in furious battle. The Greeks have pushed the Trojans nearly to the walls of the city and we are treated to one of those graphic Homeric lists of who killed whom and how. Amidst this slaughter, the Greek king Menelaus takes a Trojan prisoner, Adrastus, who then begs for his life with promises that his father will pay dearly to ransom him home. Menelaus is just about to order his men to take Adrastus back to camp when Agamemnon (Menelaus' b…

Where did I go wrong?

The traditional method for teaching an Introduction to Humanities course is to select a textbook with lots of glossy photos, chapter reviews, bullet points, and maybe even an accompanying CD Rom or website. You then march chronologically through the years, assigning the chapters and showing a few PowerPoint's of the Parthenon, Chartres, and—if you’re really cutting edge--Angkor Wat. Toss in a few edited down excerpts from important works, give the pre-packaged multiple choice test, and call it a day.

And who knows? Maybe that is the best way. But for some damned reason I got it into my head to do it differently, and now I just don't know if I made the right decision. Are they getting anything out of it? Sometimes I feel like I am talking in porpoise. I know what I am saying, but all they hear are odd, indecipherable pops, clicks, and squeaks.

My idea was this: I wanted to trace two big ideas over time: Greek humanism (what Matthew Arnold called Hellenism) and Judeo-Christian mon…

I Can't Be Serious

Whenever I go to airports or out to lunch in major cities, I see all these men and women yakking into cell phones, wearing nice suits, talking about money, strategy. Maybe they are heart surgeons or investment bankers. Who knows? It just seems like the world hangs on their decisions. Stuff happens as a result of their choices: buildings go up, markets expand, new devices are developed. And if they screw up, there are real consequences as well.

And then I think about what I do. What consequences are there if I fail to correct some kid's semicolon error? Will the stock market crash or India implode if I give a C- on an essay that should have gotten a D? Perhaps it would be different if I were in the sciences or social sciences. Perhaps my research would affect real change. But who needs another take on the Iliad or Moby-Dick? Who wants another re-hash of Plato's Apology? Sometimes my job doesn't seem like serious work.

I remember from grad school a professor who was an expert …

Education IS just a Big Game

Yesterday in my senior capstone we went over The Apology. We teased out Socrates' standard for human moral excellence. My usual procedure is to argue the text's point of view until I'm reasonably sure most people have grasped it. Then I turn on the text and argue just as vigorously against it. So I had most students nodding in agreement with Socrates' argument that good human beings question all assumptions, retaining only those that meet their reason's demand for consistency, logic and evidence. Moreover, good human beings act only on their rationally-arrived at convictions about what is right and never as the result of external reward or punishment. This, the students agreed, was a high standard for personal integrity, but the right one.

Then I turned. This isn't a high standard, I argued. It's a recipe for disaster! People who follow this standard will almost certainly find themselves at odds with their society and possibly end up with the same fate as S…

Grade Inflation Deflated

I recently read about a professor out east somewhere who gives every student two grades on assignments, papers, etc. The first grade indicates the professor's true evaluation (C= average, B= above average, and an A = outstanding). Then he issues a second grade that he calls the "ironic" grade. This is the mark he puts in the gradebook, and, eventually, the total of all ironic course grades is printed on the transcript. The actual grade is known only to the student and the professor.

His reasoning is that it makes no sense to honestly grade student work when none of his colleagues are willing to do so. All that happens is that students are punished for taking his class, so they quite reasonably decide to go elsewhere. At least with the actual/ironic method, students aren't deceived about their ability. Moreover, if the actual and ironic grade are both an "A", the student can really feel good about it.

Am I missing something, or is this idea oddly attractive?