Monday, September 28, 2009

A Proposal

I had the rare pleasure of teaching two classes last week, one-shot deals during orientation to discuss the themes of democracy, inequality, and education. It was a great experience—reading three excellent texts (not that I didn’t have my quibbles with them), and spending a couple of hours preparing for a good discussion, and then having a good discussion—two of them in fact.

The thrill of closely reading arguments about the place of education in society, filled with hope—and, yes, criticism (though Martha Nussbaum’s critique of education outside of her model of the liberal arts is misplaced, and Geoffrey Stone’s fears about political correctness have been revealed to be somewhat overstated)—was overwhelming! I could have taught a three-quarter sequence based on these essays.

The most striking thing about these essays was they way in which they each recalled Robert Maynard Hutchins’ belief that education was for freedom. The forces restricting freedom which worried Hutchins were Fascism and Communism, but any of these writers would have to agree that Hutchins arguments stand equally strong when the enemy is ineducation—unequal education, that is—in the form of unequal opportunity and the violence it breeds, as well as the anti-intellectualism rampant even on college campuses.

Both the experience and the material—Danielle Allen’s piece in particular—inspired a revolutionary thought. As an institution, the College should require undergraduates and graduate students to teach or assist teachers in either the University’s Charter Schools or through the Neighborhood Schools program. “A university seeks to advance the reach of knowledge through open intellectual inquiry and exchange,” Allen writes, “but presently this university presents itself to its neighbors armed and in uniform rather than carrying books and ideas.”

We believe, as a University, that teaching and research are complementary. We require faculty to teach, and specifically to teach in the Core. Why not require teaching of our students?

I can imagine some of the objections: The students might say: “Oh, that would interfere with my own studies!” I’d suggest that they start by talking to their own professors and see whether they view teaching as an unalloyed betterment to their own research. A betterment, yes, but truly a suck of one’s mental energy. No, it’s an investment with hard-to define returns.

The admissions office may say, “But this will scare off high school seniors!” I have two responses. First, do we want more applicants or better applicants? Yes, this will discourage the selfish and the cowardly. It is the job of the admissions office to make students (and their parents) aware of the fact that this is a feature, not a bug. Second, the programs I’m proposing expanding are not a matter of throwing a 19-year-old into a room with a bunch of fourth (eighth/first/tenth) graders. There is (and must continue to be) training and support for student teachers. Yes, this will cost money.

We’re well-positioned to revolutionize higher education. It’s a great leap from complimenting ourselves on 19 graduates earning spots in Teach for America (out of 1,200) to requiring a few years of part-time teaching in the classroom, but this is a University known for having, and acting on, important ideas about education in the past. As Hutchins himself wrote:
The attitude of the University is experimental because it is willing to try some things when success is not guaranteed. It is willing to change if change seems, on reflection, to be desirable. But it is not striking out blindly in the effort to do something new merely because it is new. I might say in passing that almost everything in education is experimental, for we can seldom prove that anything we do is conclusively better than something else we might do, or indeed, than nothing at all.

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