Every honest college teacher – at least every one who has been around long enough to judge -- knows that teaching, really teaching, is getting more and more difficult. One reason is the prolongation of adolescence, which I discussed yesterday. But there are others.
For example, even intelligent students have lost the reading habit. Recently – a common complaint -- a student protested that one of my courses assigned “so much reading,” with the phrase “so much” doubly underlined. Yet in that particular course he was rarely expected to read more than thirty pages a week.
An even bigger reason why teaching is harder than it used to be is the spread of the practice of having students rate their professors, with the results used as a factor in salary and promotion. Empirical research shows pretty conclusively that most students evaluate their teachers not according to how much they learned, but according to whether the assignments were easy, the lectures were entertaining, and the grading was relaxed. Is it difficult to fathom why college courses are turning into fluff? One of my students commented that although he had written essays in other courses, “This was the first time I’ve had to use arguments.”
Yet every semester, I am encouraged to find that it is still possible to get something across.
I administer a questionnaire of my own devising, which is different than the required rate-your-teacher survey. One item on my questionnaire remarks that the ideal of the liberal arts is to liberate us to reflect on the permanent goods and persisting concerns of human life. Then it asks, “In what way, if any, do you consider yourself most deficient in what you may need to reflect more deeply and rationally on these matters?”
A student in one of my courses responded last year that he was trying to “let go of his relativist tendencies” and remarked that his greatest difficulty lay in considering the question, “Are these values my values because they are true and good, or because they let me do what I want?”
Since the questionnaire is anonymous, I don’t know how much he had learned about Augustine, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas. But if that was all he learned about himself, I’d say that he did pretty well.
Tomorrow: Spilled Eschatology