An education, not a credential

by David Alm on October 17, 2011

Imagine taking a class on n on-Euclidian geometry. Now imagine that your professor doesn’t know anything about geometry at all, let alone an obscure, archaic branch of it. Inste ad, she h as a PhD in art history. But imagine, too, that this is an extremely rigorous class, at one of the oldest colleges in the country, famous for its emphasis on the Great Books.

If you know your American liberal-arts colleges, you know the school is St. John’s, in Annapolis, MD, and that the professor is probably do ing a pretty damn good job of teaching non-Euclidian geometry, despite her lack of knowledge or training in mathematics. If you don’t know St. John’s, you’re probably wondering how in the hell someone without any background in a subject can be qualified to teach it, especially at a prestigious college more than 300 years old.

In today’s New York Times, an article about St. John’s explains how: by relying on the students as much as the teachers. In classes at St. John’s, professors act as facilitators, and the students, who take the same 16 courses over the course of their four years at St. John’s, learn from one another as much as from their textbooks and teachers. It’s a community of schol ars, in which knowledge is born of ignorance. The “sage-on-the-stage” model of most academic environments is replaced with the “guide on the side.”

I first learned of St. John’s when I was college freshman doing a tutorial on Franz Kafka with a philosophy professor who had received his B.A. there. That professor set the tone for my college career. He was brilliant, inquisitive, and almost childlike in his love of ideas. Though his expertise was in Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, he was the perfect guide with whom to read Kafka and related thinkers. He was my first truly great teacher.

He ended up marrying a math professor at the same college, and I remember one night, early in their courtship, seeing them engrossed in a lengthy conversation about triangles.

With all the recent talk of education becoming too focused on the credential, and not enough on hard-to-quantify intellectual skills, the St. John’s model stands as a beacon of hope. The real test, of course, comes when its graduates enter the job market.

Does the world still have a place for people who have studied, essentially, how to think ?

Jeff McMahon October 17, 2011 at 10:56 am

I was blessed to work closely for a number of years with the University of Chicago philosopher Candace Vogler. She once said this about teaching:

“It’s sitting side-by-side with them, looking at something else (on the assumption that what you are seeing matters very much), rather than looking at or into each other. That’s the image–like rowing a boat with people when you’re by far and away the strongest rower and are quietly showing them how to manage their oars on the assumption that everyone needs to learn this and there’s no shame in not knowing how to do it already.”

David Alm October 17, 2011 at 12:48 pm

That’s one of the best descriptions of teaching I’ve come across. Thanks, Jeff. I especially like the idea of education as the study of an object, whether the object is a theory, an idea, a book, or a math problem. You consider it, turn it around, analyze it from every angle. I like to approach my writing courses that way, in hopes of helping students see writing as both an expression of one’s self and a mechanical thing with a function. If it isn’t well executed, it doesn’t function. It’s not personal. But learning to address ideas, and something as personal as writing, in such a way takes a great deal of effort. And in that effort, I think, is where real learning occurs.

Roscoe Nicholson October 17, 2011 at 5:56 pm

I love that quote too Jeff. But I have also found that I am more excited about teaching the content/object, but rather the “critical thinking skills” that are said to be the hallmark of a liberal arts education. Unfortunately, many times at liberal arts colleges and places like the University of Chicago it seems like it is assumed that these critical thinking skills will just naturally emerge over the course of 4 years. My experience with some, but certainly not all, fourth year students suggests that this is not the case. So I’ve made more efforts to work in explicit how-tos on critically analyzing a text.

David Alm October 19, 2011 at 6:24 am

Can you share some of those, Roscoe? I think many of us assume that critical thinking is one of those skills you just develop through practice, by being placed in situations that demand it of you. By that logic, anyone who’s taken quality courses from quality instructors should have developed at least *some* critical-thinking skills by the end of college. But I agree that not all do, and I’m curious how you go about teaching the skill itself, as opposed to allowing the skill to be “discovered” by a struggling student.

Archer October 17, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Imagine taking a class on non-Euclidian geometry. Now imagine that your professor doesn’t know anything about geometry at all, let alone an obscure, archaic branch of it.

I’m thinking my professor is reading Wikipedia and disseminating it to her students 😛

David Alm October 19, 2011 at 6:21 am

Except they’ve been doing this at St. John’s since, like, way before Wikipedia!

M Washburn October 19, 2011 at 9:56 am

just curious about the academic model of st johns. though my instincts and sympathies cry out in agreement with the principles behind the school, i’m not sure they need to rely on such arcane foundational texts. the geometry example is a prime case and it prompts some questions about the nature of critical vs instrumental reasoning. i’m not sure that thinking critically about 300 year old mathematical concepts is necessarily better than thinking about 300 year old ethical principals. on it’s face it’s obvious that it isn’t better – that, i suppose is the point of the school, and i know they’re hitting up their plato, their boethius, their whatever – but i’m wondering about any intellectual distortions of disfigurments that might accompany the teaching of a skill (critical thinking in the humanist vein) through the content of something that was actually, at the time was science. how does that prepare one to deal with science or math as it’s practiced today? i know that changes the terms of the debate, but speaking as a sympathizer to the project i wonder if that is a worm in the apple.

David Alm October 20, 2011 at 5:36 am

From what I know of St. John’s, the theory is that students develop a deeper, richer understanding of the subject, as well as sharper critical-thinking skills, when they engage with primary texts and classics. That’s why they actually read Euclid in their study of geometry (and besides, how many college students do you know who are studying geometry at all? for most people, it’s a subject you believe you’ve exhausted by age 15, though as any St. John’s student would tell you, nothing could be further from the truth).

The professor I had who’d done his BA there had a far more thorough understanding of Western thought than most, but what really set him apart was his frame of mind, his ability to think abstractly and deeply. He had a reputation for being uncommonly brilliant, and I’m sure some of that was just who he was. But I also believed it had something to do with his undergrad experiences at St. John’s (despite the fact that, he once told me, he’d developed an unfortunate taste for PCP while he was there).

Regardless, you make a good point, and I’m sure pedagogues debate this question all the time. But for what it’s worth, I hope that St. John’s doesn’t change its approach. In an age when people get B.A.s in sports marketing and new-media advertising, I take some comfort in knowing there are a at least a handful of students wrestling with Boethius.

David Alm October 20, 2011 at 5:35 am

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: