What Would Socrates Say?

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I’ve never really believed that old adage that any press is good press as long as you spell my name right. I get the concept and we do see how even bad press can equal short-term gains, but as a faculty member at a university, I’ve got to tell you that I could easily do without the press lately. Consistently, we are bombarded with criticism regarding the cost-benefit aspect of a degree. The average student graduates with, essentially, a 20 year car payment with debt from more prestigious schools equaling a $100,000. The constant criticism impacts our students’ perceptions of faculty and the university, creating what is increasingly becoming an adversarial classroom relationship.

I have sympathy for students who want some sense of how certain classes matter and I don’t want to criticize their sense of practicality. “How will sophomore literature help me as a physical therapist?” a student might ask. Unlike some colleagues, I don’t find that question offensive. I find an opportunity to talk about the relevance of the humanities and how literature teaches us to interact as human beings, treating both the physical ailment and the larger emotional interaction between injury and the clients’ sense of self. Additionally, great literature (and art) often forces us to confront ideas and images we might normally ignore. Who are we when things aren’t certain and, as Faulkner once noted, when the human heart is in conflict with itself? Those questions matter when a 65 year old man can no longer extend his leg well enough to drive, I might say to my student. Physical injury challenges our identity, not just our mobility.

Obviously, my students don’t always believe it, but I feel comfortable knowing that someday they will.

But such ideas aren’t measurable, we can’t assess them, and, quite frankly, they don’t translate into identifiably practical skills. A few days ago, Stanley Fish wrote about attending a panel discussion on the future of higher education. He noted these discussions are proliferating across the country, mostly as a result of higher tuition prices. Increased media attention, coupled with higher than normal unemployment rates and increased student loan debt, have placed higher ed squarely into the national conversation.

Fish writes:

The tension between a market model and a Socratic model was nicely captured by two statements Spar made in succession. The first warmed my heart: “We want to teach students things they don’t want to know.” That is, rather than regarding students as consumers (all the rage these days in places like England and Texas), we should regard them as yet-to-be-formed intellects who are often best served by saying no to their desires — as we have traditionally. But then Spar immediately added, “Yet, we can’t be too removed from the marketplace.”

It’s always nice to read an article and find yourself nodding the entire time. In many ways, Fish’s article here captures the dilemma of higher education. While I’m sure we could find faculty member’s on the fringe who argue student debt doesn’t matter,  most of us realize we can’t maintain a system that saddles kids with mortgage payments coming out of college. Likewise, while I’m sure we can find legislators on the fringe, most of them realize college presidents and faculty work hard and want our students to succeed. Our own governor here in Texas wants more $10,000 degrees. I think the idea is goofy and we are seeing the creation of gimmicky ideas that meet the goal but not the intent. But, and I could be totally wrong, I think the governor’s heart is in the right place–he wants affordable college degrees. Depending on your political bent, you might think his brain  . . . well, I’ll leave that to you to finish.

Discounting cost and tuition, though, I think Fish nails down a central conflict between those of us who teach and our critics. For teachers, the Socratic model, a model that encourages active learning and enhances critical thinking skills is directly connected to the market place because, in a perfect world, smart people would get jobs. Our critics, though, see that method as inefficient, time consuming, and expensive. Such teaching is virtually impossible to measure and requires that we trust our teachers to do their jobs. (See my previous blog about teacher education and the reader comment about teachers learning along the way–I don’t have all the answers but we clearly need to train teachers better and provide adequate professional development to help them during their careers.)

We are both correct. The Socratic method is time consuming, inefficient, and expensive. It also creates independent, active thinkers. But, it also needs to somehow situate itself as a pathway to employment. They don’t have to be in conflict with each other. Literature and art is relevant to business. Business skills are relevant to art.

The national conversation we should be having about education at all levels should be centered around that tension but, as I’ve noted before, we need to be prepared to enact some radical changes. Let’s think beyond signing kids up by age and start thinking about ability. Schools should have a math wing where kids are placed in the class they need not the age group they are born into. (That’s a subject for another blog, though.)

In some respects, let’s embrace the tension, apply the Socratic model, and develop some practical solutions.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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Inside Higher Ed

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Scott Adams' Blog

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The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

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