Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Ideas Should be the Teacher in a College Classroom

On Principle, v8n2

April 2000

by Sean Mattie

Last semester I often resorted simply to lecturing during my freshman classes on American politics. This was my reluctant but hard-to-resist response when students became silent, reverted to note-taking, and seemed unwilling or unable to engage in any kind of interactive discussion about the material. It was always puzzling when these students failed to speak up during class—it was hard to believe they didn’t have questions or comments about material that is both serious and provocative, for example, the Lincoln-Douglas debates about slavery, or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s economic bill of rights.

The main cause for my disappointment in the lack of the students’ contributions was that without the participation I had expected, there was very little way to tell if the students were actually learning anything. This problem was compounded by the fact that in examinations and essay assignments, students would often repeat to me my own phrases and formulations—sometimes verbatim—as the only answers or comments they could provide. Even, or especially, if they restated my own comments about Lincoln or Roosevelt, what was lacking was evidence that the students themselves understood the causes that these statesmen represented.

Students’ Expectations About College Education

I have wondered if their silence indicated shyness, or indifference—or simply (and frustratingly) that they had not prepared for class. However, I suspect that the explanation lies mainly in freshman students’ (mis)expectations about college courses. In particular, it seems as though students expect college teaching—and learning—to follow the style of high school.

In high school, instructors in American and world history teach students (or at least ought to teach students) the rudiments of civic life. The style of education appropriate to this subject, and to the intellectual capacity of adolescents, is lecturing and note-taking. My own high school history teacher was a fountain of facts, and we students did all we could do to catch every drop in our notebooks. And we needed those facts as a basis for future learning and for understanding the context of the world around us. Laying down a bed of facts on which to build a better and deeper understanding of the material is the appropriate method of education in high school.

However, it is a problem for that style of education to be perpetuated—consciously or unconsciously—by college students and college professors. Students should not expect college courses to be merely series of facts about Lincoln, Shakespeare, the Constitution, or any subject worth studying seriously. Neither should students expect college classrooms to be a place where they go to collect predigested opinions presented as a series of facts. In the same vein, college professors should not view their job as one of broadcasting information about their subject to passive recipients. When students and professors merely translate a high school experience of education to a college setting—when students look at the person at the front of the classroom as an authority to whom they should and can defer in matters intellectual—the special purpose of college education is frustrated.

What College Education Is

College education is instruction not in facts, but in ideas and principles. Though this education differs in content from what students learn (or should learn) in high school, it builds on that high school instruction. To use my class as an example, students should come to my class already having been instructed in the facts about the Lincoln-Douglas debates: when, who, where, why, et cetera. My class should provide the opportunity to learn the ideas and principles behind the debates—Douglass’ idea that democracy allows a majority to approve even slavery, and Lincoln’s idea that majority rule must respect the equal natural liberty of all persons. A grasp of ideas and principles—not just passive reception of facts—allows students to understand the politics of the past, as well as the politics of their own times.

Reading Great Writings

The best way to examine these ideas and principles about politics is through the great written works about politics. Political treatises, like the Federalist Papers, and political speeches, like the inaugural addresses of presidents, set out complex moral ideas about government, rights, and citizenship. These writings are direct arguments about justice and government, and each writer of these great texts expects readers to consider what he writes as not just one political perspective among many, but as the truth. These great books and speeches can indeed be bracing, as a reading of the Lincoln-Douglas debates shows. But political ideas are invigorating only when one has close access to them. A college education should provide this intimacy with those materials, and college students should make use of it.

To say that political ideas are intellectually invigorating is not to say that they are easy to grasp. On the contrary, principles of self-government, for example, are often very difficult in their subtlety and complexity. Therefore, college students have a responsibility to read great texts with great care. Unlike the textbooks to which students have been accustomed since high school, great texts are not immediately mastered. Since great texts do not focus on facts and information (though they sometimes assume them), students cannot simply peruse these writings as they would glance at a newspaper. When I have assigned parts of the Federalist Papers to my students, I have advised students to read them at least twice in order to recognize the “whys” behind the many “thats” of the Constitution. For example, the Framers separated the executive from the legislative branch; ideas about liberty and tyranny explain why.

Close readings of great texts, although often a painstaking effort for students, uncover such ideas.

The Mode of a College Classroom

Since the goal of a college education is for students to grasp and be able to apply difficult ideas and principles, not simply for them to receive information, the mode of a college class should be guided discussion about ideas, not monologues delivered to an audience of transcribers. Students should come to class having read the assigned texts thoroughly and having struggled with the great ideas that they contain. I do not expect my students to have mastered these texts on their own (though I am happy when they show signs that they have). But I do expect them to have opinions about the texts. More importantly, I expect students to have both the intellectual confidence to submit an opinion, and the intellectual humility to abandon a flawed one.

Class discussion is the forum for students to make comments and raise questions about the ideas presented in class texts—to measure their views against those of other students, and also according to the common standard of reason. In this way, opinions about political ideas may become knowledge about political ideas.

My role as teacher is essentially as the spokesman for the great writings that my students read. Since books and speeches cannot literally talk to students and answer their questions, I stand in for the writers—Lincoln, Douglas, FDR, and Publius, for example. Their ideas about justice and politics, about government and rights, are, of course, the subjects in my classes. But, in an important sense, the ideas are also the teacher in the classroom. For students to learn from such a teacher means they must approach these ideas directly and actively, not second-hand and passively. The authoritative statements of a scholar, however knowledgable, cannot take the place of a student’s own effort to comprehend political ideas. For a student to grasp these ideas on his or her own is the heart of college education. It equips the student to think about and to understand political life in general.

Fortunately, this semester I addressed the problem by explaining to my freshman classes right from the beginning the active study and participation that is expected of them in our examination of politics. New freshman classes were useful occasions to remind myself and to clarify to students the special purpose and methods of a college education. I can only continue to emphasize, both to my students and my colleagues, that college classes are about ideas. Professors ought not, and, in truth, cannot, teach ideas by lecturing or dispensing opinions about them. Students also should not, and cannot learn ideas by passively receiving the professor’s or others’ views about them. College education is an education in ideas, which students can grasp only if they first engage these ideas in great writings and then bring their opinions and questions about these ideas into the college classroom.

Sean Mattie is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and History at Ashland University.

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