Talking to learn

I graduated from Berkeley in 1969 with a degree in history. But, as the song says, I don’t know much about history. I suspect that my failure to fully understand the dynamics of the Hapsburg Empire or the rise of the Robber Barons had much to do with the university system.

Imagine that you are one of a thousand students sitting in a vast lecture hall. The professor stands before a lectern at the front of the room. If you’re lucky, the professor is mildly entertaining, bringing some life to the past. For the most part, or at least for me, the lectures were, well, boring. Lots of words with little relevance, as we used to say. In my four years at one of the best universities in the world (and at the time I attended, Berkeley was ranked at the top) I never got to know a professor, save one, who volunteered to be my undergraduate advisor.

To be sure, I was an athlete first and a student second or third. My Big C jacket was more important to me than the stacks of books on my desk, which I rarely opened. That I graduated at all was a small marvel. But graduate I did.

Then a few years later circumstances led to me to California State University at Hayward, as it was called back then. Having taken a philosophy of education course for a teaching certificate, I became hooked on philosophy. And I learned, perhaps for the first time in my post-secondary academic career. What was difference?

My philosophy classes were much, much smaller than my Berkeley lectures. Often there were just a half-dozen students studying logic or Bertrand Russell or existentialism. Also, the professors were more engaged with their students, perhaps because there were so few of us. And, of course, I was a bit more mature, having exhausted my baseball-playing days, and better disposed to absorb the subject matter.

Yet, I think the most important element in my learning was my interactions with both my fellow students and my professors during and, especially, after classes. There were lots of discussions, and philosophy invites thinking and talking and writing.

Harry Brighouse is a philosophy professor who blogs on the Crooked Timber site. He recently posted a piece on the importance of classroom discussions, in which he limits his own speaking to a quarter of the period, encouraging and facilitating conversations about what he’s said, what the textbooks say, and what students are thinking. He writes:

So they need to discuss intellectual issues in class, both to do the learning of the discipline-specific content and skills that can only occur through discussion – through practical application if you like – and to get habituated to doing the same outside of class. They need, I think, to be told explicitly why classroom discussion is such an important part of the class, and that they should discuss the material with friends or classmates outside of class – not just when they have a test, but all the time, instead of discussing the much less interesting things that make up small talk. (And, just as a general matter, I have become much more explicit over time about everything I want them to do.

Most of his students, he reports, experienced the “factory model” of learning, what I encountered at Berkeley. As he describes it:

[They] have been taught, since middle school, on a kind of factory model – you go to class, you learn things, you regurgitate them on tests (or, very occasionally, in papers) and then you either (if you are poor or working class) go to your job, or (if you are middle or upper middle class) devote yourself to being a semi-professional athlete, or musician, or actor, or debater, or whatever.

Though I attended one of the elite universities in the world, I learned a great deal more at Hayward, a few miles down the road. My grades were certainly better at the latter. And I’ve kept many of my philosophy books and discarded nearly every history text, of which there were hundreds, all told.

I should close with an anecdote from my philosophy days. There was a fellow student by the name of Ira. We began a discussion, really an argument, one day. It lasted through a couple of quarters! The topic, as best as I can recall, was: Which comes first: thought or language? I argued the former, he the latter. Our months-long conversation took place over coffee, in between classes, in our respective apartments, or at any time we accidentally bumped into each other. As”philosophers” we could pull this off, respecting each other’s person and point of view.

I wish that more of us philosophized as Ira and I did. I think the world would be a better place.