The Job of Student – A continuation

A week ago, I attended the second lecture in the Liberales Artes series here at the University of Mary Washington.  The speaker was Christopher Nelson, the President of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, the so-called “Great Books school.”  I found Mr. Nelson’s talk refreshing, especially in light of my comments about the previous speaker, Dr. Mary Taylor Huber. 

Mr. Nelson’s speech focused in general on the relevance of a liberal arts education in the 21st century and onward.  He suggested that a liberal arts education is one that, literally, liberates one from the low-browed monotone discourse of the masses, providing a person with the means – and the desire – to question the status quo and provide alternatives to it.  If this strikes a reader as a little arrogant, or even as a little classist, I would have to agree with you.  Neither does my one-sentence summary, for all its artistic melodrama, misrepresent Mr. Nelson, who was happy to invoke Plato and T.S. Elliot whereever he could.  My far-left tendencies gave me pause during his speech to consider that some people are perfectly happy fixing cars and running computer networks all their lives, and far be it from me to tell them they’re missing out.  Well-funded technical schools are at least as important to society as liberal arts college. 

Having said that, I still agree with Mr. Nelson that a society will benefit when a large number of its citizens have been exposed to multiple perspectives by way of a liberal arts education.  I was also happy to hear him say that students need to be accountable for their learning, as I believe this statement and his expansion on it were sorely missing from Dr. Huber’s talk.  Learning is a two-way street, to use a cliche, and while teachers can make certain resources and class time available to students to help them learn, it is the student’s responsibility to desire to learn.  Bingo! Students might be going to college just to get a job or to just get away from mom and dad, but I agree strongly with Mr. Nelson’s assessment that a necessary condition for admission to a liberal arts college should be “a demonstrated desire to learn.” Academic success surely follows when the latter is combined with a thoughtfully structured classroom environment.

I think any future syllabus for a class of my design might read something like this:  “Your grade will reflect not only the knowledge you acquire in this course, but also the knowledge you create and instill in your classmates through class discussion, presentations, etc.  In sum, to even think about receiving so much as a C in this course, you must show me that you are actively engaged in the learning process.” 

I think I would give students a variety of means to satisfy this requirement.  Having ample office hours, reserving class time for discussion, and requiring regular and thoughtful blogging or wiki development are all methods I have seen my professors use.  I would, however, raise the stakes for the student a bit more. 

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3 Responses to “The Job of Student – A continuation”

  1. Jeff Says:

    “Your grade will reflect not only the knowledge you acquire in this course, but also the knowledge you create and instill in your classmates through class discussion, presentations, etc. In sum, to even think about receiving so much as a C in this course, you must show me that you are actively engaged in the learning process.” — I’m thinking of adding this to the syllabus for my seminars (with proper credit, of course).

  2. philosonomics Says:

    OF course. 🙂 I’d be interested in hearing your students’ reactions to such a clause. It certainly could be attacked as too subjective a grading scheme. On the other hand, especially in a seminar, subjectivity in grading is unavoidable, and I would think that would give students a greater incentive to contribute in order to counteract those concerns.

  3. Rahul Says:

    A society will benefit when a large number of its citizens have been exposed to multiple perspectives by way of a liberal arts education

    Thats absolutely correct
    I agree with Mr. Nelson too

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