Excerpt from:  "Real Teaching and Real Learning vs Narrative Myths about Education," Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 6.1 (2007): 7-27.


It is certainly true that from 1870-1970, and especially from 1970 the present, the circumstances of education in America have changed profoundly, and it is also true that, to some extent, the humanities have changed along with them. We have endured the trauma of attacks from logical positivism that spanned the closing decades of the 19th century and the opening decades of the 20th century. We have survived the competition of scientific education that surged during the Sputnik era and led to sustained government funding on a huge scale for university science research (we have “survived” this competition, at least, in the sense that we have not disappeared). We have kept watch as the ancient aims of humanities education, character development and social responsibility, have given way to the aims of research as the research university created in Germany in the 18th century made its way to America first at Johns Hopkins University in 1876, then at the University of Chicago in 1890, and now everywhere. We have seen education as a community enterprise based on face-to-face relations turn itself into a corporate octopus with armies of administrators marching in all direction and tentacles of “outreach” that go everywhere at once, into government funding, into the community, into evening instruction, into “semesters abroad” programs, into surging new majors in pre-professional fields, into programs of massive endowment growth, into online courses, and into “enrollment management” rather than student recruiting (meaning that colleges and universities now know how, no less than shampoo or car manufacturers, to “spotlight their demographic” rather than simply open their doors to young people who wish to become educated). We have seen our campuses transformed from the fairly austere physical facilities they were in the 1950s, consisting of bare classrooms, cold dorm rooms, and scruffy playing fields, into the typically lush facilities of contemporary campuses marked by health-and-fitness centers complete with Olympic pools and climbing walls, field houses and stadiums that bring to mind colossal Egyptian temples, 24-hour food courts, hot cookies and free massages during exam week, and, in short, amenities that make most American college campuses look like centers of assisted living for wealthy twenty-year-olds. We have seen the percentage of high school graduates in this country who go to college grow from about 15% in the 1950s to more than 65% today. And we have seen the nature of campus culture and classroom instruction turn itself over and over as the technologies of photocopiers, computers, Google “research,” internet plagiarism, “mediated” classrooms,” “clicker” feedback, paperless classrooms, cell phones in class, “instant messaging,” customized textbooks, and wireless connection have come to be common on all campuses.


In the humanities, classics departments have disappeared, English departments have transformed themselves from centers of canonical study into centers of culture studies, language departments have seen French and German shrink as they now teach endless sections of Spanish, pride themselves on teaching languages that would once have been considered “exotic” (such as Japanese, Hindi, and Chinese), and run complex media labs in which students can do anything from watch foreign films and European soap operas to receive endlessly available instruction via headphones on pronunciation subtleties and conversational conventions. Philosophy departments are now as likely to teach “business ethics” as they are to teach the Apology, and history departments gave up teaching European and American survey classes back in the eighties in order to introduce history courses that veer sharply away from the traditional instruction in “big moments” and “important figures.” In light of all of these changes—if, indeed, our parents’ humanities is not our humanities—why is the history of humanities education relevant?


The beginning of the answer is that, somehow, just like the theory that schoolboys who translate Virgil every day should automatically turn out to be morally superior but then don’t, we find that the changes and reforms we have advanced with such energy and good will to persuade our students that a humanities education is superior to pre-professional training aren’t actually doing the job. We find, sadly, that our arguments on this front not only do not stop students streaming steadily away from humanities majors, but wouldn’t persuade a grass cricket to sing in high summer. Every year since the early seventies, the number of students who major in humanities disciplines gets smaller. The 1960s mantra of “is this relevant?” still sounds like a fresh and cogent question to contemporary students who are asked to read the poems of John Donne and Thomas Gray in British literature survey classes. The fact that we are now likely to teach Julian of Norwich and Mary Wollstonecraft along with Donne and Gray has not generated any collective response of “ah, now I get the humanities.” Students are flocking to pre-professional majors. Every revision of a liberal arts Core program in every school inevitably winds up decreasing the required hours that students must spend in classes of literature, history, language, or philosophy. Humanities professors wring their hands and deplore the barbarian hordes at the gates of civilization. They feel professionally assaulted and demeaned, and they are. In response, they blame television, the internet, commercialism, capitalism, and Pop Tarts. “Why isn’t our stuff working for us,” we ask. “We have changed so much, and we are so well intentioned.”


Pardon me, but it isn’t so. As for our good intentions, they are, to adapt John Nance Garner’s evaluation of the vice-presidency, “not worth a pitcher of warm spit.”  I don’t mean that we shouldn’t have good intentions—let us always be well-intentioned, and, while we are at it, nice—but neither good intentions nor niceness will solve any of our problems. As for humanists’ claim that they have changed so much, the only part of their educational program that humanities educators have ever tinkered with in any systematic, thoughtful way is the curriculum. Curricular reform, curricular tinkering, and explanations of the wonderful aims accomplished by the curriculum are favorite faculty obsessions. The myopia with which educators in general suppose that every problem in education has either a curricular fix or no fix—and humanities educators are not only no exception to this principle, but are, in truth, more wedded to it than any other constituency in academe—is, frankly, breathtaking.


It’s breathtaking because there are a large number of obvious considerations showing us, if we would only look, that the curriculum is fairly far down on the list of crucially important variables that determine how fully and effectively students learn, but humanities teachers by and large ignore these considerations. They do so not because this issue is too subtle for them to see or to think about—we are all smart people—but because no matter how far down on the list of crucial variables the curriculum may be for students, it is vitally important for faculty members. The curriculum may be, let us say, the eighth most important component of our students’ education, but it’s always first on the faculty’s own list because the curriculum is where faculty specialties exist, and it is thus where faculty interests and futures and career-making exist. So far, a period of time that spans about 600 or 700 years, the faculty in western universities and colleges have shown no sign of being willing to give up the position of prominence that they accord to the curriculum merely because it is less important to students’ educations than it is to faculty careers.


Thus, if faculty perceive an education problem, any educational problem, they address it by revising the curriculum: they invent new courses, they pull in new authors, they add or delete prerequisites, and so on. To highlight the shortsightedness of the single-minded curricular approach to every educational problem, I offer here a discussion of several educational variables crucially important to student learning that are visible to humanities teachers in every class they enter, but that, because they are not variables that can be either defined or understood in curricular terms, have not from the Renaissance to the present received any serious attention. (I speak, of course, of serious attention across the profession, including institutional attention. There are many individual teachers who pay attention to these issues as a matter of personal insight and personal integrity, but such efforts do not change the shape of the profession.) There are many considerations that we “know” but that we nevertheless refuse to bring into hard focus. Thus the fact that we “know” these things doesn’t wind up making a difference in our classrooms.


It doesn’t matter, for example, that we know in advance, or should know, that learners forget most of what they learn in our classes unless they keep reinforcing that knowledge by becoming disciplinary specialists in our own fields. What students remember or don’t remember is important to their education, but students are left mostly on their own to figure out what to do with the fact that the material they learn always evaporates on them.


It doesn’t matter that we know in advance, or should know, that teacherly modeling is what our students remember. Unfailingly, graduates with whom I have spoken over decades never mention one single piece of class content, but they are full of memories about me and their other teachers’ tones of voice, everyday habits, boring talk, inspiring talk, tough grading, jokes, hairdo, kindness, wrinkled shirts, contempt, unavailability, and on and on. A half hour’s conversation with past students would lead even a Barbie Doll to see that teachers teach themselves in ways that remain much more memorable to their students over time than the content they work so hard to “get across.” We also seem never to focus on the truth that an important part of student learning is seeing their teachers modeling for them the process of genuine learning. Most teachers are good at modeling the product of learning—what it looks like when you get there—but not the process that gets you there.

Back to Top

Back to TEACHING

©2009 Copyright Marshall Gregory. All rights reserved. Please ask permission before using material on this site.