Thinking Is Good for You and It’s Fun

Peter W. Schramm

March 19, 1992

Professor Peter Schramm, associate professor of political science, chairman of the History and Political Science department, and coordinator of special programs at the Ashbrook Center, is selected as "Professor of the Month" by Kalon, the local senior honorary. The purpose of this award is to recognize faculty members who, through their efforts both in and out of the classroom, make a significant contribution to academic integrity, the university community, and the lives of their students. In a recent interview, Schramm discussed his thoughts on the subject of education, teaching, and higher education.

Q.: As a teacher, what do you think is the most important thing you can do for your students?

A.: I guess, to sum it all up, it would be something like this; to show that thinking is good for you and it’s fun. It seems to me that being a good teacher has less to do with the subject than it does with the character, both intellectual and moral, of the teacher and his attitude toward the subject. I think that the main thing that a teacher has to be able to convey to a student is that particular subject, at that particular moment, in which the student and the teacher are talking, is the most important subject and therefore the most important moment of their lives. And that’s true of chemistry and politics. If a teacher can’t do that, either because it is so obvious to the students that he loves his subject and/or because he can convey that deep affection for a subject by complete mastery of it, then the teacher will not be successful in conveying any facts or information or thoughts on that subject.

Q.: How do you convey this to your students? How do you get them to be interested in a liberal education and then, once they’re interested in it, how do you help them attain it?

A.: The first thing is that you’ve got to overcome a lot of prejudice that they have, and the prejudices are that they all want to be technically trained and they’re not really interested in an education because they don’t know what it is-or-if they have some sense of what it may be, they’re afraid of it. And that in part, has to do, of course, with the fact that their educational backgrounds, in high school and so forth, are not very good.

Q.: What so you mean by saying that they are afraid of education?

A.: They’re afraid of it because when they open up Jane Austen
or Aristotle, they think "Oh my God! This is something that I can’t handle," which is, of course, not true… the human mind is capable of handling all kinds of detailed particulars about life, but what it loves above all is to engage itself with those things that seem higher than other things, if not the highest things. And what the teacher tries to do, it seems to me, in virtually any discipline, is to show the student that way to higher things. You just sort of point the student in the right direction and you also, in the process, explain to him that most of the work will be up to the student himself, and not the teacher. The easiest way to do that, from the point of view of the teacher, especially in the kind of subjects (politics and political philosophy) that I teach, which I think is particularly difficult, at least for me, so the easiest way to do that is to allow the student to be engaged in what used to
be called a "great book" which means another humans mind, much superior to mine, with whom the student can have conversations across the centuries, across oceans, and those conversations will become more and more meaningful to the student the more he participate in them. And I think that’s clear for the "A" student and it’s perfectly clear for even a "C" student. The conversations take on different forms, but the interesting thing about doing it this way is that all students benefit.

Q.: So what would you say is your criticism of the current state of education?

A.: The main criticism that I have of high school education and below, and what therefore, one tries to overcome in "higher education"-as people are pleased to call it- is that students have never been pressed to test their mettle. Their hands have been held, and they’ve been sort of walked through mine fields, and the main concern of their previous teachers, as a rule, has been to make sure that they don’t get blown up in these mine fields. Instead of teaching them how to navigate through such problems, they’ve been holding their hands, So the vast majority of students have no way of knowing what they’re capable of; not only what the important things are or what they should do with the rest of their lives, or anything like that
– but what they themselves are capable of doing. The unfortunate part of that has to do with the "self-esteem" school that dictates everybody ought to come to school thinking well of themselves. Of course, they haven’t the slightest idea why, it’s just that everybody should think well of himself. Well, that’s poppycock. Education, rightly understood is similar to training for a sport. The virtues that are required are very similar. Those virtues are doggedness and perseverance and a minimal element of trust, having to do with trusting your coach who has more experience in these things and may have thought it through more than you have. That kind of element of trust is the same that a student should have towards a teacher because the teacher has thought about these things more.

Q.: Once a student has this trust you talk about, what is the most important thing for him to understand about his teacher?

A.: Well, I guess what a student really has to understand, ultimately, is that you’re not given an education by a teacher, you take an education from life. The teacher is there to help you in that search, in the taking, and in that sense he is no different than any other student, just a little bit more experienced in things–maybe, at most he happens to know why he loves the thing more than the student does. The difference between the teacher and the student is about thirty years.

Q.: Do you have any criticism of higher education?

A.: Oh yes, plenty. I mean we could spend hours on it, but the main criticism of higher education is similar to the one of secondary education, and that is to say that not enough is demanded of students, and therefore many teachers and many institutions paternalize students and that’s bad for everybody. It’s bad for the individual student primarily, it’s certainly bad for the teacher, it’s bad for the institution, and it’s bad for society at large. What you want to do is give the student the opportunity during the four years or so
that he’s at a university to find out what he’s capable of, what he loves, and what he may want to do for the rest of his life. These four years are precious because during them your ordinary worldly needs are taken care of and you are therefore given the opportunity to think about higher things. When I have high school students walk into my office for interviews, frequently with their parents, one of the first questions they’ll ask me is "What can
I do (or what can my child do) with a political science degree? What can he become? What kind of job can he have?" and as soon as I’m asked that question, my hackles go up and I tell them it’s an irrelevant question, you have no right to ask that question when your eighteen. It’s ridiculous. Those things will take care of themselves, what you want to do is come to college, you want to find out what it is that you may love and, therefore to some extent, what it is that you may want to do with the rest of your life. If you already know that at age eighteen, you know, either you’re a genius (which is, of course, unlikely) or you’ve got your priorities mixed up.

Q.: What would you tell a student who, when he comes to college finds himself faced with these kinds of problems in his education and, though he senses the problems, is not sure exactly what they are or what he ought to do about them?

A.: Fifty years ago that question was easier to answer because colleges had a curriculum. Whether you studied chemistry or philosophy you had a general education, or a "core curriculum" that you had to take. One of the reasons for doing that was to give the student an opportunity to dabble in many different things that for the purpose I have mentioned, in other words, to find out what it is that he loves, what it is that he ends up seeing as important. Nowadays, that curriculum doesn’t really exist, so the institutions (and that’s true of Ashland or Harvard) do not give the students guidance. So the students have to rely much more on their own instinct and judgement in these things, which is, of course, much more haphazard ultimately and much more difficult for the student. So what I tell a student is to start off with what you think you like in terms of subject matter, and as soon as you get your feet wet, also take those teachers– which the rumor mill will, of course,
tell you about– who, whether they’re in chemistry or politics, seem to be the most difficult; who seem to love their subject so much that they want to protect it from ignorance. So take those teachers. Introduce yourself to those teachers and then see what happens.

I’ll be radical in this. A student, in order to get an education, ought to study those things that are not useful. If you have an opportunity on how to use a computer, or to take a philosophy class on Plato’s Republic, take the philosophy class on Plato’s Republic. Because, without knowing anything, you can sense that one of them may have something to do with an education and the other one probably doesn’t, and therefore the latter is, of course, easier ultimately. Anybody can be taught to use a computer and not everybody can have a profound knowledge, or does have a profound knowledge of Plato’s Republic. You’ve got to take those things that seem to be the most difficult, which means the most mysterious, which ultimately means, of course, the most engaging. I mean, after all, even those people who spend their time with computers, for example, will do it because computers, to them, are mysterious. So they’ll come up with various games and so forth, try to get
a computer to beat a master chess player or something like that.

When you buy a horse, what you want to do is to buy the best horse that you can for the money that you have. But you want to buy a horse that is slightly better than the one you think you’re capable of riding, because in doing that the horse will end up teaching you to go beyond yourself, to make you a better horseman than you would be with a horse that is easier to handle. And to do that, trust me, is very difficult, because your afraid.