The Heart of Learning

Two articles I read this morning, one from InsideHigherEd and the other from The New York Times, remind me how critical it is that we keep focused on the student and the basis of learning. The first article, “A Plea for ‘Close Learning’” by Scott Newstok, among other things reminds us that, for all of the “new” technologies involved, ‘distance learning’ is nothing new. The second, “Let’s Shake Up the Social Sciences” by Nicholas Christakis, posits universities as laboratories for problem solving. I applaud the former; the later, though I agree with almost all of the points made, leaves me a little uncomfortable. The “university” described ignores the student except as something to be “trained.” University function in society lies elsewhere:

For the past century, people have looked to the physical and biological sciences to solve important problems. The social sciences offer equal promise for improving human welfare; our lives can be greatly improved through a deeper understanding of individual and collective behavior.

Maybe this is how research institutions need to view themselves, but this needs to be integrated with student learning or it might as well be done in “think tanks” and not in universities.

Relating somewhat to Christakis’ concern that traditional academic discipline are too restrictive and looking back to traditional bodies of knowledge and their dissemination, Newstok asks is “an education something more than ‘content’ delivery?” It’s a rhetorical question, of course. He goes on:

The old-fashioned Socratic seminar is where we actually find interactive learning and open-ended inquiry.  In the close learning of the live seminar, spontaneity rules. Both students and teachers are always at a crossroads, collaboratively deciding where to go and where to stop, how to navigate and how to detour, and how to close the distance between a topic and the people discussing it. For the seminar to work, certain limits are required (most centrally, a limit in size).

That crossroads, I have found, isn’t even just a crossroads, but also an intersection of paths and even a place where one can see into unpaved and unmapped territory. The limits involved are of a different nature and they can’t be lifted by technology for two reasons: First, humans can’t focus one onto a large group. There’s a human limit to how many people we can include in a discussion at any one time. Second, technological tools cannot help us speculate. We have to guide them in uncharted territory. When we rely too heavily on our technological aids, we can’t do this. When we talk in small groups, when we excite our minds through personal interactions, we find we can.

Christakis, looking far beyond the seminar, writes:

New social science departments could also help to better train students by engaging in new types of pedagogy. For example, in the natural sciences, even college freshmen do laboratory experiments. Why is this rare in the social sciences? When students learn about social phenomena, why don’t they go to the lab to examine them — how markets reach equilibrium, how people cooperate, how social ties are formed? Newly invented tools make this feasible.

He is arguing that our old limits on disciplines need updating. With that I agree completely. But why conflate “training” with “learning”? These are two very different things—as are the means of learning these things. One does not learn about “social phenomena” by examining them in a lab, or even by using “newly invented tools.” One learns about “social phenomena” by learning first about people—and that is best done by Newstok’s ‘close learning’ where the object is as much to learn from interactions within the class as from the body of knowledge brought to the class by the professor or by any technology from books to GPS devices.

I’ve never been much of a fan of academic disciplines. When I teach, discussions bound far away from whatever the putative topic might be. My scholarship ranges far from my putative field of English.

Robert Frost writes of taking the road “less traveled by.” But roads weren’t his only choices. He could have cut off into the woods, following streams or animal trails or barreling through the brush. This is what both ‘close learning’ and even a small moving aside of disciplinary boundaries allow us to do. At least, they show us that the roads laid out before us aren’t our only options.

And that, of course, and not any learning aid, is the start of real education.

3 thoughts on “The Heart of Learning

  1. As a secondary teacher I am certified in Social Studies. When I taught history,be it American or World, it was not at all uncommon and perfectly justifiable to stray into many other areas – religion, culture, science, popular culture – because history is certainly more than the record of the acts of great men and government, and examination of official documents.

    My primary course for most of my career has been Government. And yet, even within this we often stray far outside what many would consider the bounds of government. Government after all is in charge of things like patents and copyrights. Why? What does that represent. There is the interplay of government and other institutions, be they educational, religious, cultural. Certain in seeking to obtain the control of government that comes from political activity, participants in the political process attempt to touch hot buttons that can be evoked from religious and cultural images, even if the evocation represents a distortion of what the original intent of that image was, such as Ronald Reagan invoking Bruce Springstten’s Born in the USA without apparently understanding the thrust of the lyrics.

    Human understanding does not exist in independent silos. It crosses the boundaries of academic domains. Clearly, domains have particular ways of organizing and thinking, and insofar as that is true there is still some justification for say even the division between biology and chemistry at a basic level, even though we may bring them (and physics) back together in more detail fields like organic chemistry and medicine.

    Here I think of my sophomore year at Haverford, where in 3 different courses – Western History, Political Science, and Philosophy – we were reading parts at least of the same work, Plato’s Republic. It was a very interesting experience to undergo, and taught me the importance of perspective in examining any written or artistic work, or – as is relevant to the study of government – human activity.

    • Nicely put. And, perhaps, this is why people in the Social Sciences and Humanities pretty much shrug when told they need to redefine their disciplines. Each course, if taught well, is interdisciplinary in the first place and is also part of an on-going process of redefinition anyway.

  2. I think you’re right on here about Christakis’s reification of disciplines (and, even more than that, their organizational/political manifestation: the department) and how quickly he brushes over pedagogy. Here’s a brief reply on aroundlearning that picks apart his logic a bit and suggests a widening of the scope:

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