Campus News

"Teaching and Learning: Martial Arts?"Dennis Hutchinson '69Trustee of the CollegeOctober 6, 2000

Story posted October 06, 2000

Delivered at Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremonies
2000, Dennis J. Hutchinson. All rights reserved.

Thank you, Bob. I am deeply honored to join you and the faculty in celebrating the achievements of the Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars for the academic year 2000. Congratulations to each of you. More than three decades ago, I spoke at this ceremony as a student; I am absolutely delighted to return today to bear witness to your achievements.

Three years ago, I chaired a committee charged with revising the General Education curriculum in The College of The University of Chicago. A dreary committee assignment, you think? More like the academic equivalent of juggling Molotov Cocktails. Our work was attacked internationally on a web-site mounted by infuriated alumni. Colleagues were pitted against each other across generational lines. Our work made the front page of both The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. In a vain attempt to provide soothing context for the controversy, the President of the University, Hugo Sonnenschein, told the Chicago Sun-Times that curricular debate at the University has always been a "contact sport." The statement was oil on troubled waters. Our critics called the President's views "vulgar" and "out of touch." One of my more insightful colleagues-an anthropologist, by the way-told me privately that the statement was naive: "Not a contact sport-a blood sport." He was right: we reduced the general education component of the curriculum by 15 per cent and the citadel refused to crumble, but the President was a casualty of the process and we are operating under new management, so to speak.

Bowdoin is in mid-passage of its own curriculum review. I come to you today not as an advisor, however, but as a survivor-and a survivor of a distant land, both in terms of location and mission. Debates over curricula are wrenching for colleges and perilous for Presidents. President William DeWitt Hyde, Bowdoin's most celebrated educational theorist, clashed frequently with his Governing Boards over requirements.1 Twice, according to college legend, he went to meetings where curricular revisions were placed before the boards of Overseers and Trustees with a signed letter of resignation in his pocket. In those days, the bitter issues were the entrance pre-requisite of Greek and the proportion of electives permitted in a student's course. In both instances, Hyde prevailed and the letter remained tucked secretly in his breast pocket.

Now Hyde may seem a quaint relic to us today, with his whiskers, frock coat and emphasis on spiritual discernment as the keystone to undergraduate education. But he was also on to something else: he viewed the student's personal development, and the standards by which courses were taught, as more important than the specific checklist of classes completed.

To those who yearn for a prescribed curriculum of general education-be it by subject-matter, or by skill development, or by moral dimension-I am fond of quoting a syllabus suggested to me by a tutor at St. John's College (Annapolis). As you probably know, St. John's has a prescribed curriculum which consists almost exclusively of the so-called Great Books. To this tutor, a refugee from the Holocaust, even that curriculum was insufficiently rigorous. When The Program, as they call it at St. John's, was reviewed several years ago, the tutor proposed the following course of study2:

In the first year, students would read the Bible--both Old and New Testaments--and there would be daily beatings. In the second year, to demonstrate the limits of the human intellect, students would read Kant. In the third year, to show the human intellect gone astray, the text would be Hegel. In the final year, students would re-read the Bible, but there would be no beatings.
Now that is rigor, with a vengeance, but no one can doubt its coherence and integrity.

President Hyde thought that prescription was the enemy of intellectual and moral development, and that breadth of opportunity was superior to the highly constrained conventions of the day. I am not implying that we should summon his shade to inform our modern debates, however. Times have changed; students are better prepared than ever before; and faculty are now highly professionalized. (In Hyde's day, professors of mathematics were tasked to teach political economy, and professors of religion taught scripture and secular history in alternate turns).

I agree with Hyde that more choice for students is better than less, and now-under the changed circumstances I have just mentioned-that fewer requirements are more sensible than more. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Bowdoin College would not collapse if distribution requirements were jettisoned completely. The College's distribution requirements resemble that of many institutions, what unsympathetic critics sometimes call an intellectual carry-out menu-two from column A, two from column B and two from Column C. (I leave to one side the "non-Eurocentric requirement," which has always struck me as more political than pedagogical) The problem with the distribution requirements here and elsewhere is this-they substitute unrelated components of specialized fields for truly introductory and cross-disciplinary exposures to the various ways of organizing human knowledge and making disciplined sense of the world that we have inherited and inhabit. Education should not rest on a foundation that resembles a carry-out menu or an obstacle course.

The comparative advantage that American institutions of higher education enjoy turns on the disciplinary expertise of their faculties. Our universities are the envy of the world, and the teacher of the world's teachers, especially in the natural sciences, and more and more of late in the social sciences. Our curricula would probably be stronger and more coherent if we capitalized on our advantages and tried less to provide mix-and-match general education along side full-blown majors and minors.3 In sum, undergraduate education-in research universities and in what in Hyde's day were called "country colleges"-might have more integrity and more richness if the course were composed of a major, a minor and electives.

Now this is a controversial claim that requires more elaboration than either you or I have time for today, and I do not want to abuse my welcome more than I have already. But I can testify-from rueful personal experience-that debates over general education requirements, distribution requirements, and core curricula are ultimately unsatisfying and tend to fracture communities more than to unite them. Sooner or later, debate over the contents of general education sound like a quarrel over what constitutes the list of 100 best books.4 The review process, hazardous as it is, may be more important than the actual outcome. Like Frost's neighbors at "The Mending Wall," it his healthy from time to time to meet and "walk the line." The chilly wisdom of experience is that frank debates over curricular issues tend to produce untidy compromises, and compromises driven as much by institutiuonal culture and imperatives as by educational theory.

Nor should you hear me as saying that relying on a major, a minor and some electives resolves all of the dilemmas over the most desirable structure of undergraduate education. The dirty little secret in our world is that a student's major tends to bear very little relation to ultimate career. My colleague Andrew Abbott, the chair of Sociology at The University of Chicago, is now completing a pathbreaking longitudinal study of the relationship between undergraduate concentrations and career fields. With a few predictable exceptions , his conclusion is that the Venn diagrams of those periods of one's life do not often intersect except in some fields of medicine. What Hyde chronically referred to as the "development of the whole life" requires just as much attention as the composition of the 32-course list. The revamped residential life program here is a substantial step toward that fundamental if elusive goal.

For students, the elective may therefore equal or even exceed the major and minor in ultimate importance. Electives are an occasion to tailor your education to the person, in the exercise of growing maturity and responsibility, who you are choosing to become. "A human life is composed of performances," Michael Oakeshott observed, "and each performance is a disclosure of a man's beliefs about himself and the world and an exploit of self-enactment. He is what he becomes; he has a history but no Œnature'. . . .Human beings pursue satisfactions which they believe to be desirable, but human conduct is not the flowering of settled potentiality."5 You stand in the shoes of the protagonists at the end of Milton's Paradise Lost? "The world was all before them, where to choose/Their place of rest, and providence their guide:/They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,/Through Eden took their solitary way."6

The elective provides the means for you to exercise self-definition, to develop taste and discernment if not authority, and to shape a life's attention. In vulgar terms, this will be, for most of you, the last chance to receive expert tuition in what may be yearning curiosities or perhaps even the source of sustained pleasure from now until rigor mortis sets in. In many respects, the elective provides a tailor-made liberal education to complement your major field of study, and allows you to prevent your education from becoming another brick in your own wall.

What brings us here today is not our majors or minors or menus of electives, of course, but a level of academic attainment that merits recognition and applause. At the risk of reviewing the obvious for the benefit of the most perspicacious, allow me to spend a moment on what I trust is being rewarded today-not powers of memory, not flashes of cleverness, and not flights of fancy. You are here today because you have succeeded admirably in interpreting the material of your courses with honesty, clarity and cogency. After all, liberal education is, at base, a series of interpretative acts. The world does not come pre-packaged in units labeled "declining biodiversity," or "displaced aggression," or "Pareto-optimality." Describing, labeling, and measuring are all social acts committed with a deliberate purpose. Basic analytical skills of reading and writing provide the techniques for disciplining claims about what we observe. Those claims form the bases for interpretations, which generate arguments. If arguments are developed with care and discipline, then responsible judgments are possible. "Education," my colleague Jonathan Z. Smith says, with italic emphasis, "is argument about interpretations.".7 Whether you are patiently developing an argument in the classroom or preparing a research paper, you are making a claim, identifying a thesis, substantiating your position, anticipating counter-arguments, in short, offering your "take" on a problem deserving serious and sustained attention. Argument instructed by these simple protocols is the life-blood of our common work.

Sometimes arguments generate heat as well as light, so that even the seminar can feel like a martial arts class with different weapons. It should go without saying that all arguments should be substantive and not personal, authoritative and not authoritarian. Bad arguments should be recognized for what they are, good arguments used as the basis for further analysis. If good and bad arguments are allowed to peacefully co-exist, if passion or personal ethos displace reflection and deliberation, then reasoned inquiry is impossible. The cause of such disfunction quite simply is bad teaching, which can take one of two forms-the most common of which is indifference to the distinction between good and bad arguments.

The indifferent or bumbling professor was a staple of novels between the world wars, with Evelyn Waugh's treatment of Oxford's idiosyncratic faculty probably the most well-known.8 Now, the fictional poster-children for bad teaching tend to be the politically correct or the vainglorious: Malcom Bradbury's Dr. Howard Kirk9 or David Lodge's Morris Zapp,10 for example, respectively. But both characters are conspicuously empty and therefore not very dangerous. Kirk stirs a political hotchpodge in his seminars,11 and Zapp shamelessly pursues his only goal in higher education-to combine the fewest duties with the highest income of any English professor in the world. In the end no one takes either of them seriously, and Zapp relishes in the transparency of his sophistry.

The bad teaching that worries me is more dangerous because it is more plausible, and sometimes even well-meaning. The peril to which I refer might be called the "Curse of the Charismatic Instructor"-the "awesome" lecturer who, much like a rock star or television evangelist, inspires, informs, impassions and uplifts his or her students; in short, the instructor who does all of the student's thinking, solves all of the knotty problems in the field, and provides an intellectual matrix through which all future difficulties can be briskly sliced an diced. No stone is left unturned, no loose end untended, and no question left open. Teaching and learning becomes a process of installing intellectual software and up-loading data, not engaging in deliberative and reflective inquiry.

The obvious danger is that the student simply mimics the views, and perhaps even the style, of the instructor without ever reflecting on what is happening. The impulse is natural, because much of education, for better of worse, consists in inspired imitation. My colleague Charles Wegener has remarked, "It may be that all. . .teaching. . .amounts in the end merely to saying, ŒWatch me; do what I do, and I promise you something interesting will happen.'"12 The intertwined problem is obvious: the teacher becomes the course. When subject matter is reduced in the mind of the student to the intellectual style of an individual instructor, the process of reflection has broken down. Or, as Wegener more elegantly puts it: "[M]ere imitation runs the serious risk of confusing the character of the activity with the way in which it is carried on by a particular person or persons-even, perhaps, a school or a tradition, whether of fly-fishing or physics."13

One neat solution to the problem was suggested several years ago by Grant Gilmore, the famed commercial law teacher: "Great Teachers should be hunted down and shot."14 There are less severe solutions, of course. The first step is to be reflective not only about substance but also about method. If you recognize that you are doing one type of literary analysis, you will simultaneously recognize that you have not exhausted the possibilities of the genre. That realization logically raises the possibility of other approaches. Anyone who insists that they have a corner on the ideal, in astrophysics or in literary analysis, should be subjected to thoughtful skepticism, if not to Gilmore's brutal dictate.

Some weeks ago, I was asked by the development office at The University for an interview which could be used in a brochure designed for raising funds to endow professorships in the College. To the question, "What do you understand your job to be," I said something like the following:
I don't think teaching is designed to be a satisfying job. It's designed at both ends to be unsettling. If you can feel the flush of success, you're probably playing to yourself and not to the students. The exchanges that go on in the classroom are the tip of the iceberg of intellectual development. The only time I think I really have accomplished something is if I change a student's reflex. Instead of thinking one way, the student stops and says, "Well, I might be wrong" or "I'm not sure." Those instructors who clarify too well or too expeditiously have frustrated the very purpose of their job, which is to get students to see complexity, difficulty, contingency, and the other elements that make thinking so difficult an act. I'm convinced that the true test of what we are doing may happen an hour, a month, or a year-maybe five years-after class.

Teachers and students are separated by gulfs of age, culture, taste, and the like, but they come together on a common ground, with a mutual respect in a mutual enterprise. We are here for a common purpose and that is to battle with ideas.
Although my statement was prepared with my own University in mind, the purpose is common to research universities and "country colleges" and really varies only in local color.

Despite my somewhat forced emphasis on the metaphors of warfare, neither learning nor teaching, or even curricular reform, is a martial art in any sense. The simple point is that none of us has done our job if we allow ideas or claims to go untested. That is why our artificial residential communities exist-not to comfort the combatants but to protect the sanctity and the possibility of the contest. I join the President of the College and the faculty in congratulating your appointment as Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars, and trust that you will continue to prize the rough and tumble pursuit of learning just as I relish my small part in the process.

Good luck and Godspeed.



1My understanding of Hyde is heavily dependent on Charles T. Burneet's study, HYDE OF BOWDOIN (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931). back to text

2Dennis J. Hutchinson, The Aims of Education Address, 1999, III OCCASIONAL PAPERS ON HIGHER EDUCATION (Chicago: The College of the University of Chicago, 2000),p. 9. back to text

3Lest anyone think I have turned traitor against The University of Chicago's battled-tested "Core Curriculum," I fear that I am merely bowing to the inevitable General Education at The University of Chicago will be under growing pressures in the next decade. The engine of reform this time will be a faculty culture which is increasingly dubious of non-specialized course work and more eager to teach what they practice rather than what their predecessors in title esteemed.) back to text

4Cf. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: "The advice of the elders to young men is very apt to be as unreal as a list of the hundred best books. At least in my day I had my share of such counsels, and high among the unrealities I place the recommendation to study the Roman Law." "The Path of the Law," in COLLECTED LEGAL PAPERS (Harold J. Laski, ed.) (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1920), at pp. 167, 197. back to text

5Michael Oakeshott, "Education: The Engagement and Its Frustration," in Timothy Fuller (ed.), THE VOICE OF LIBERAL LEARNING: MICHAEL OAKESHOTT ON EDUCATION (New Haven: Yale UP, 1989) p. 64. back to text

6Book XII, ll. 647-50. back to text

7Jonathan Z. Smith, "The Aims of Education [1982]," in John W. Boyer (ed.), THE AIMS OF EDUCATION (Chicago: The College of The University of Chicago, 1997), at p. 226. back to text

8Evelyn Waugh, DECLINE AND FALL: AN iLLUSTRATED NOVELETTE (London: Chapman & Hall, 1928); BRIDESHEAD REVSITED (London: Chapman & Hall, 1944). back to text

9Malcom Bradbury, THE HISTORY MAN (London: Secker & Warburg, 1975). back to text

10David Lodge, CHANGING PLACES (London: Secker & Warburg, 1975), SMALL WORLD (London: Secker & Warburg, 1984). back to text

11Bradbury, op. cit., at Ch. VIII esp. back to text

12Charles Wegener, LIBERAL EDUCATION AND THE MODERN UNIVERSITY (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 93. back to text

13Ibid., p. 93. back to text

14Grant Gilmore, "A Faculty Opinion by Grant Gilmore," 1959 Yale Law Report, at p. 4. back to text

2000, Dennis J. Hutchinson. All rights reserved.


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