Teachers Needed!

The New York Times Sunday Magazine today published a special “College” issue. Wesleyan figured prominently in it. A story about the use of student evaluations features a teacher whose contract the university did not renew last year. Another article describes a recent Wesleyan grad, Jordan Goldman ‘04, who has developed UNIGO, a web-based guide to schools based on mass input rather than on “expert evaluation.” Jordan had an idea that defied the well-worn genre of the college guide. His Internet version gathers information from anyone who wants to send it in. This young entrepreneur is launching his business with the help of some other Wesleyan alums.

A key focus of the magazine is teaching. Reading it led me to think about some of the inspirational teachers with whom I studied over the years, and about the great faculty I see here at Wesleyan. When you think about your best teachers, what is it that makes them great?

Mark Edmundson introduces the theme of the magazine with an insightful essay on the ingredients of good teaching. Mark has been an English professor at the University of Virginia for many years, and he underscores that “really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does.” The strong teacher opens up new ways of seeing the economy or works of art, new ways of recognizing patterns in cell division or in music. Fundamentally, strong teachers undermine conventions — they don’t appeal to whatever happens to be popular.

It is also vital that teachers not merely offer an alternative orthodoxy in their classes. The classroom isn’t a place to convert students to a model that has all the answers; it’s the place to discover that nobody has all the answers, and that inquiry, self-criticism and an openness to changing one’s mind are key to leading a meaningful life. That’s probably why Mark Edmundson writes that the great enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance but “knowingness.” When teachers encounter students who think they have all the answers, our job is to undermine their certainty. And when students find teachers who think they know it all, they are usually savvy enough to look for different classes.

One of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much is that students open up new questions for me about things I thought I’d understood. At the same time, it is thrilling to see them changing their perspectives on things they had thought were clear. Together, we open ourselves to new ideas and to different ways of seeing the world. At least that’s what we’re aiming for. When we open ourselves to new ideas, we stand a better chance of discovering what we love to do.

Perhaps this all sounds too easy, too positive. It isn’t. It’s difficult to open yourself to questioning the things you deeply care about, and there is always the temptation to defend oneself against painful uncertainty by latching onto some orthodoxy – something that “goes without saying.”

This may be why there is so much anti-intellectualism in the current national election (see the Times interview with Charles Murray today). We should have learned in the last two presidential elections the danger of choosing someone on the basis of the candidate being “the kind of guy you want to have a beer with.” In this time of international crisis, the last thing we need in our country’s leadership is more close-minded arrogance masquerading as friendly populism. We do need leaders with the courage to defy knowingness – leaders who can think as well as act. We need teachers, teachers who are open to learning!

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