No one can be that fascinating

There really isn't a debate any longer about whether active learning strategies work better than lecturing. The data is in and the argument is over. It's far better to put students into groups and assign them various tasks or problems related to the material than to gas on over the material. I know this, I get it, but sometimes I miss lecturing--well, maybe not standing in front of the class and droning on for 45 minutes, but that kind of free-flowing lecture/discussion that is peppered with periodic stops to wrestle with students' questions or the implications of some big idea.

My teaching fantasy is to walk into a class each day and put such a profound or unsettling question on the board that the students would immediately feel compelled to seek an answer. Then I would briefly lay out some possible historical approaches for answering the question. After which we would together explore the implications of answering a question a certain way. On Wednesday, for example, we were discussing Phaedrus in my freshmen honors seminar, and the big idea could not have been more far-reaching or important.

Plato had suggested that the human soul was composed of reason and desire, and that desire was two-fold: we have an innate desire for pleasure and an acquired capacity to desire excellence for its own sake. The former was irrational (you can't reason away hunger), but the latter requires reason and self-control. The implication, of course, is that we are only distinguished from animals by reason and a cultivated desire to be more excellent.

This means--and here's a doozey of an implication--that being human isn't some taxonomic category; it's a potential that can be cultivated or squandered. In other words, some people walking around today have blown their chance to realize their humanity. They are leading lives more akin to animals. Like beasts, they can be motivated only by external rewards or threats of punishment, the whip or the sugar cube. The first line of Plato's dialog is “Where have you come from, my dear Phaedrus, and where are you going?”

Where indeed!

So I asked the students to ponder what it might mean if Plato was correct about human nature. What would be the implications for how we should approach parenting? What should we do with habitual criminals, the mentally-challenged, drug addicts? Indeed, if we define a human being as only a creature possessing rational self-control and a desire for excellence, just how many of us are really human? Now I find this a profoundly fascinating question with all kinds of interesting and disturbing social, political and even religious implications. But I confess that looking around the room on Wednesday it didn't seem to be much of a conversation starter.

One young woman had a glassy stare and another had those "I just carbo-loaded" drooping eyelids. A couple of the students were dialed in (maybe two or three), but most had slipped into a post lunch coma. So despite my best effort to gin up a fascinating conversation, to live my fantasy class, I know it just isn't going to happen. I simply have to accept the fact that no one can be that fascinating four days a week for 16 weeks. So it's back to the old bag of tricks: pair-share activities, problem based learning, in-class analysis tasks with group discussions, staged debates...

Even though I know the fantasy doesn't work, I still have a hard time giving up on it it. If I had a choice between using all these gimmicks and living the fantasy.... Well, let's put it this way: I'd rather be fascinating.

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