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William Deresiewicz, in The Nation, talks about the future of university education.

Nearly all [proposed university reforms] involve technology to drive efficiency. Online courses, distance learning, do-it-yourself instruction: this is the future we’re being offered. Why teach a required art history course to twenty students at a time when you can march them through a self-guided online textbook followed by a multiple-choice exam? Why have professors or even graduate students grade papers when you can outsource them to BAs around the country, even the world? Why waste time with office hours when students can interact with their professors via e-mail? … [But learning] isn’t about downloading a certain quantity of information into your brain, as the proponents of online instruction seem to think. It is about the kind of interchange and incitement — the leading forth of new ideas and powers — that can happen only in a seminar. …It is labor-intensive; it is face-to-face; it is one-at-a-time.


Update: From Robert Nozick’s obituary in the Harvard Gazette:

Nozick’s teaching followed the same lively, unorthodox, heterogeneous pattern as his writing. With one exception, he never taught the same course twice. The exception was “The Best Things in Life,” which he presented in 1982 and ’83, attempting to derive from the class discussion a general theory of values. The course description called it an exploration of “the nature and value of those things deemed best, such as friendship, love, intellectual understanding, sexual pleasure, achievement, adventure, play, luxury, fame, power, enlightenment, and ice cream.”

Speaking without notes, Nozick would pace restlessly back and forth, an ever-present can of Tab in his hand, drawing his students into a free-ranging discussion of the topic at hand.

He once defended his “thinking out loud” approach by comparing it with the more traditional method of giving students finished views of the great philosophical ideas.

“Presenting a completely polished and worked-out view doesn’t give students a feel for what it’s like to do original work in philosophy and to see it happen, to catch on to doing it.”

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4 Responses to “The Glorious Future”

  1. dmf Says:

    UD you’re like an angel flying backwards looking at the wreckage, as much as this is a trend to truly dread how many undergrads in the past 10-15 yrs have had this:
    “It is about the kind of interchange and incitement — the leading forth of new ideas and powers — that can happen only in a seminar. …It is labor-intensive; it is face-to-face; it is one-at-a-time”
    kind of experience?

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    dmf: Quite a lot of them. This country, as Deresiewicz points out, is wealthy, and has many good to excellent undergraduate colleges where tons of young Americans experience something like this. Not in every course, to be sure — but in some courses. As he also points out, schools can choose to spend most of their money on presidents and administrators, on sports programs, on coaches and assistant coaches, on classroom technology, on extremely pricey law and med school professors, on the litigation that corrupt sports programs constantly generate, on new sports arenas — or they can spend most of their money on first-rate undergraduate (and graduate seminar) instructors.

  3. Annals of Mathematics « Log24 Says:

    […] University Diaries praised today the late Robert Nozick's pedagogical showmanship. […]

  4. dave.s. Says:

    “Is this going to be on the exam?”

    We have a number of different things going on under the banner “College”: Nozick, and your teaching aspirations, and the very best of my undergrad and graduate teachers who caught hold of me. Evert Schlinger, David Wood, Michael O’Hare. Donald Dahlsten. This is what I want for my kids, when they hit college. I think enormous expenditures for sports are a distraction at the least, and probably at least some of that money would be available for life-of-the-mind if not spent on Jumbo-tron.

    We are also doing certification for aspiring nurses that they know enough chemistry and physiology to have some sense not to do harmful things with patients, same for pharmacists and in Fire Science programs for guys whose ambition is to make lieutenant at their jobs. “Is this going to be on the exam?” – for someone whose primary interest is getting certified, it’s hard to break through with the joy of knowledge for its own.

    Parents pony up for college, a lot, largely to get the kid certified, to protect the kid from the vicissitudes of the job world, raise the kids’ wages. Some ways college is a shell game, where people like you, and Nozick, and Evert Schlinger, get to do what you like to do and ignite young minds and the parents pay for it because they think it will get little Roscoe into the executive suite. And to some extent this has worked, so far: Roscoe gets the job, you get to teach, it’s all good.

    Going forward, I have some doubt. You can probably handle Fire Science and pre-nursing more efficiently with a mix of adjuncts and computer learning, proctored exams at local centers, than by putting actual PhDs who are committed to a faculty, research, have a decent pay structure, and who had their own life-changing experiences in college and grad school in front of them. The executive suite has less room for Roscoe, and that feeds back to questioning by parents whether the Dartmouth credential has an adequate cost-benefit.

    I like the way it’s been, for the kids going to the top third of colleges. The kid going to Chico State, or Kaplan, and coming out with big debt and not having had a Nozick available (nor having been ready to listen if somehow Nozick appears out of a mist cloud and tries to take on a Fire Science 110, Physics of Building Combustion class) – it was never as good a deal as parents hoped, and it is getting less good.

    So I worry about the future, and not just from the effects of the med school corruption and jock-sniffing you have taken on in this blog. I am grateful, for your m.s.c. and j.-s. remarks, but I’m not convinced that solving them brings the millenium.

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