My next blogging topic will be Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter. My main motivation for reading this book is that I am trying to understand the roots of current educational fashions, and I believe that the roots lie outside the academy. Higher education is currently in the grips of two awful fixations: One is that there are easy solutions to timeless problems, and the other is that the Sage on the Stage is part of the problem.
Opposition to sages on stages is a rather strange stance for academics to adhere to, especially given the sizes of our egos. An easy explanation would be that those of us who have spent the longest time in school have encountered more bad lectures than anyone else, so of course we hate lectures. There's a valid point there, but most of us in academia also encountered some absolutely dazzling, inspirational lectures, and the sages who gave those lectures inspired us to go farther in our academic disciplines. Why is it that current educational fashion is more focused on the first case than the second? Another very easy explanation would be that there's a tremendous body of data in favor of active learning approaches in the classroom. That is certainly an argument against any classroom approach that is 100% lecture, and I certainly don't lecture all of the time.
However, if you listen to people who were inspired by an educational workshop, they aren't talking about learning gains that are statistically significant with a p value of less than 0.5% or whatever. They aren't talking about studies and control groups. Rather, they are talking about how it transformed their approach to their teaching, and how it resonated with them. There is something psychological going on, some sort of deep resonance with something in the mind of the modern academic. I want to understand this, and I believe that I might learn something about this issue if I combine discussions with colleagues and readings on American culture. Hence I will read Hofstadter's book and blog my reactions.
Besides the cultural and psychological resonances in the minds of workshop attendees, there's also something interesting going on in the minds of workshop presenters. I am quite certain that many of them are cynical hucksters and shills, people who would have peddled some other ware to the unwary if they had lived in a different time or entered a different field of endeavor. However, I am also certain that some of them are quite sincere and well-meaning, and I freely admit that some of their wares have real benefit--indeed, I do use clicker questions in my introductory classes! I know some truly sincere and intellectual careful ones (just as I know at least one shill...). What is interesting is that more than once I have heard both presenters and attendees speak of the value of letting go of their expert role, and how learning isn't occurring if the professor is talking and the student is listening. Leaving aside the fact that I'm pretty sure that some of these people would advocate for an approach of "Shut up and listen!" in other contexts, there is clearly a deep psychological resonance for them in letting go of the authority figure role. I believe that American views on intellectuals and expert voices might play a role here.