Although I have been teaching for almost three decades, I feel I have only recently begun to teach. For years, I was doing what was expected: preparing detailed syllabi, grading piles of papers, and pontificating in front of a class about the importance of the subject matter that I had assigned. I thought I was teaching, and some of my students thought so too. But they were the diligent, receptive ones, and lately I've come to feel that diligent, receptive students don't need teachers. The ones who do are the ones I used to gripe about: those who went directly to the SparkNotes, who didn't proofread their papers, and who gave rote responses in class. They were the students whom I traditionally wrote off as not belonging in college--or at least not in my classroom.
Why did my thinking change? I suppose the precipitating factor came when I had children of my own. There is nothing more humbling to one's self-esteem, more profoundly disruptive of one's established worldview, than children--those creatures who know nothing of convention or tact, who speak truth to power (that is, their parents) because they haven't yet learned to pretend or been cowed into doubting themselves. My children, though like me in some respects, were unlike me in others, and I eventually came to see myself through the lens of their difference. Their stubborn individuality forced me to acknowledge otherness in a new way and to question some of my most cherished assumptions. Watching them develop their tastes and interests spurred me to recall how I developed the tastes and interests that define me.
What I realized was that my reverence for books and learning had a dubious beginning. I began reading very young because it pleased my parents and I liked pleasing them. I continued to be studious because I wasn't a particularly athletic or popular child, and getting good grades was something I could do with relative ease. Those who were like me--"the library crowd" as we called ourselves--used our book knowledge to feel superior to our peers--and to rationalize the fact that we weren't invited to the prom. Many of us went on to become college professors and thus gained power in the classroom, where we could lord it over those who were not like us. Louis Menand in a recent book on the stagnant state of the American university, The Marketplace of Ideas, makes the same point indirectly: "The [undergraduate] major is set up in such a way that the students who receive the top marks are the ones who show the greatest likelihood of going on to graduate school and becoming professors themselves." In other words, most professors aim their teaching at people who resemble them--which is to say, people with the same sort of intellectual proclivities and learning styles that they have. Thus, the profession reproduces itself.
You may argue that there is nothing wrong with this. Whatever the reasons that people become readers and scholars, it is important that they come to do these things well. That maybe so, but an inbred, homogeneous learning community is bound to be detrimental both to the knowledge circulating within it and to those who are not part of it. It means that many people are left out of the academic mix: they are never encouraged to discover the joys of reading and scholarship; their ideas never gain authority. Over the past 50 years, education has sought to be more inclusive of minorities formerly left on the margins of serious learning. But the seemingly "deadbeat" college student, viewed apart from his or her affiliation with a disenfranchised group--that constituency has been overlooked.
Until recently, I supported the method of teaching that was used in the undergraduate and graduate institutions where I received my degrees. In each case, the courses were designed as endurance tests to see which students would be able to muscle through the requirements: read a ton of books and write a slew of papers without cutting corners. I will never forget my first day in my first English class in 1971, where the professor handed out a syllabus that was 10 pages long. It included a list of required reading, a list of recommended reading, and a list of assignments...