Recently, two alumni spoke of trying to give their students an educational experience like they received as Ashbrook Scholars. Joseph Postell (2001) completed his Ph.D. at the University of Dallas in 2010 and now teaches Political Science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Luke Loboda (2004) began teaching high school social studies upon graduation from Ashland and in the following summer began working toward a degree in Ashbrook’s Master of American History and Government program. Both Postell and Loboda find that the skills of reading texts closely and conversing about them carefully—central to the Ashbrook Scholars’ experience—are “hard work” for the students they now teach.
Both Postell and Loboda work in strong schools. The Colorado Springs campus of the Colorado University system attracts serious, well-prepared students, in part due to a high number of effective charter high schools in the area from which the university draws applicants. Loboda’s high school, Upper St. Clair in Pennsylvania, is one of the best public schools in the state.
Nevertheless, “the education offered at Ashland is fundamentally different from that at any other place that I know of,” Postell says. For one thing, “Ashland has an academic culture crossing several disciplines that supports what the Scholar program is doing.” Postell’s colleagues in the political science department at Colorado Springs “all agree on the importance of teaching from primary texts,” but they cannot expect students will get the same coaching in close reading from their courses in other programs at UCCS.
Postell’s students arrive at the university thinking, “that education is simply information transfer.” With information readily available on the Internet, they don`t see the need for classroom discussion. Postell must show them that to read well they must learn how “to grasp a text in the fullest sense” and “how to distinguish what is important from what is not important.”
At the high school level, Luke Loboda finds a challenge in “helping kids approach controversial topics from a rational perspective.” He notes “a fear among students to stand strong on their opinions,” since in today’s culture, civil debates are rare. Students who do express opinions often “appeal to emotional arguments or anecdotes. A lot of kids don’t want to debate, because they think they’ll be shouted down.”
Both Postell and Loboda struggle against social media. On Facebook, students “represent their opinions in one phrase with an image, then ‘click,’” Loboda says. They habitually “sit next to each other while texting someone else,” never learning to converse. In both writing and discussion, “they have to be taught how to unpack an argument in a multi-faceted way. When you introduce a large question like ‘What is justice?’ you need to allow an awkward silence” while students search for a response. And when his questions provoke quick reactions, Loboda must say, “We need time to think and to listen to others before jumping on them.”
Omnipresent technology disrupts thought. “Students always want to have ear buds in,” Loboda says. “I’ll say to them, ‘I don’t want to teach students who are part human, part machine. I want all of you here in my classroom.’” Postell challenges his students to stop checking their phones, saying, “when I have free time, I spend it thinking!’” He mentions his brother, another Ashbrook Scholar. “He laughs at the idea that students would be using their cell phones in class.”
Loboda said the Ashbrook Scholar program “exercises your mind to strengthen your mental muscles. It teaches you how to think, in a way that becomes natural over time. It’s not necessarily a system; it’s more of a practice.” Those who learn the practice will seek opportunities for rational discussion throughout their lives.