Professor, heal thyself: In praise of the college lecture
Two hearty cheers to Molly Worthen for daring to defend the endangered art of the college lecture. As Worthen points out in her lively New York Times essay from this past Sunday, lecturing has been under assault for years now, with professors in trendy STEM fields leading the attack. Instead of a prof droning on and on at the front of a lecture hall while dozens or hundreds of students passively scribble down information doled out by the "sage on the stage," teachers are told to encourage "active," "student-centered" learning, which usually means some form of group work in which the professor plays little direct role.
As Worthen points out, the act of listening carefully to an hour-long lecture, following and digesting its often subtle argument, taking detailed notes on it by hand, and conveying its key points back to the professor in a paper or other form of examination — none of this can be described as inactive. On the contrary, it demands attentiveness as well as the ability to "synthesize, organize, and react." Above all, lectures teach "comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship."
All of this is true. And it's certainly great to see someone making these crucial points in a compelling way for a broad audience.
Why, then, have I withheld a cheer from Worthen's essay? Because I sense that she's holding back — that her defense of the lecture is too defensive, too filled with hesitation and caution, too complicit in the very "crisis of confidence in the humanities" that she rightly singles out as a significant factor in the decline of the lecture.
Note that Worthen, a history professor at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, says very little about the substance of her own lecturing. Instead, she focuses on the formal skills students acquire by attending to them. A lecture course, she writes, is "an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media."
I couldn't agree more. But I submit that if the main thing Worthen's students get from her lectures is a set of formal skills, then there's no obvious reason why they should choose to take a lecture course from her in American intellectual and religious history over a lecture course in any random difficult subject that will require them to exercise "mindfulness and attention building."
A more powerful and compelling defense of the humanities lecture course would have to proceed differently — into terrain that professors of history, philosophy, and literature often find exceedingly uncomfortable these days. Such a defense would require that they confidently assert that professors in the humanities possess knowledge, that this knowledge is valuable, and that the most effective way of conveying it to unknowledgeable students is to explain it to them in a lecture format.
There are many reasons why professors in the humanities are disinclined to mount this kind of self-defense. For one thing, the knowledge they offer seems so much less universally verifiable and socially useful than the knowledge produced in the STEM fields. Then there's postmodern skepticism, which convinces many humanities professors that all claims to knowledge are thinly veiled assertions of power and efforts at exclusion and marginalization. (Who would want to be found guilty of that?) Finally, there are the democratic sensibilities that Worthen herself highlights in talking about our discomfort with the way that lecturing implies a hierarchy elevating the professor over her students.
All of these trends combine to make us uncomfortable with a professor pronouncing authoritatively from a lecturn — and increasingly at ease with group work in which no one sets himself up as an authority, no one presumes to pronounce definitively on truth and falsehood, and no one lays down a metanarrative and forces the students to master it. Small groups of three or four young adults simply working it out for themselves seems so much more in keeping with our moral convictions.
The democratic approach to education might comport with our egalitarian sensibilities, but it's pedagogically foolish.
Why do students of history need teachers who will stand at the front of a classroom and lecture? Because history is hard. It presupposes the knowledge of thousands of facts (names, dates, events) and how they fit together into an enormously complicated, multi-dimensional causal sequence. Until the students absorb those facts and grasp that causal sequence, "group work" and other forms of interactive learning are premature.
That's why lecture-based courses that do the introductory work of explaining the past must come first — and why such courses are typically followed by smaller, more advanced seminars that foster conversation and debate and raise questions of historiography (competing and conflicting interpretive traditions about the past). By that point, students have learned enough — they know enough — to begin participating more actively in their own education.
But not before.
Skipping the introductory lectures is like permitting an art student to jump straight to splatter-painting without first learning how to master the basics of figurative drawing. The rules need to be learned before they can be productively broken — just as knowledge needs to be acquired before it can be fruitfully questioned and contested.
Professors know things. In the case of history, philosophy, literature, and the other humanities, they know things that can turn ignorant teenagers into thoughtful adults and informed citizens.
It isn't formal skills that make the difference. It's the subject itself. People who know history lead richer lives and think more deeply than those who do not.
Those who teach history know this. They shouldn't hesitate to lecture us about it.