Content Discontent

Because I teach (among other things) early British literature, I find I have to spend more time on background than on the literature itself. It isn’t just the detail stuff you might expect either — there’s a profound deficit of Hirsch’s cultural literacy, coupled with a disinterest in remedying that deficit that extends to ignoring the glosses and footnotes. This means that much of the time, not only are the kids unexposed to the literature in question, but they literally can’t see its purpose. Not only do they not get the jokes, they don’t even recognize when a joke is taking place, because all they’re hearing are conjunctions connecting words without referents. The texts — poems, plays, ideas given shape and weight — become the worst possible Dennis Miller routines.

But because there’s no situation that academia can’t make even more absurd, we’ve seen a rise in calls for what have been dubbed “21st Century Skills“, in which content is essentially fungible and what is emphasized is a mishmash of alleged “critical thinking” and life skills. I see this as a weird bastardization of Newman’s ideas of the liberal arts, claiming their flexibility without really anchoring the work in anything. The theory seems to be that because technology offers fast retrieval of content, what we really need is some sort of meta-educational process and let the content take care of itself (or let wiki and Google do it for you.)

The good news is that over at Chicago Boyz, David Foster demonstrates that the application of this theory is bunk. He uses a pretty unremarkable couplet from Jakob Dylan and spells out the “content knowledge” that is required to understand even those two lines. Again, this isn’t Finnegan’s Wake we’re discussing here.

Critical thinking requires some foundation of information. Unfortunately, those who would claim to teach that critical thinking seem only too willing to abdicate the responsibility for making sure the foundation is in place. What remains is an edifice like Spenser’s House of Pride, which itself is described in literary and Biblical allusion. And like the House of Pride, a world filled with content-free “educated people” is not a place you’ll want to stay.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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4 Responses to Content Discontent

  1. Bennett Cerf says:

    The problem I have with so much educational theory these days is that it tries to turn the educational process into a bunch of systems with rubrics and pretty charts and graphs, and everybody gets all worked up about numbers and “outcomes” and all the statistics and everything else (I call it “the McNamara stuff”). Meanwhile, as we’re agonizing over the checklist and the data, we lose sight of the bigger picture: the long-term effects of what they’ve learned, and how they use it in their lives.

    Every teacher who *really* inspired me managed to do it without these kinds of models and such (they put as much emphasis on building my curiosity about the world around me as much as they did on teaching the material), and I think that has to do with why I chafe every time I must comply with a new directive that’s formed from one of these newfangled systems. It’s because, to borrow from Plutarch, I’m not interested in filling the vessel so much as I’m wanting to light the fire. Unfortunately, none of that fits into a chart or a spreadsheet….

  2. nightfly says:

    A chain of reasoning is like any other chain – useless when looped around on itself. It has to anchor you to something solid to be of any purpose.

  3. Bufo periglenes says:

    (from the Dunciad, a relevant couplet)

    Index-learning turns no student pale,
    Yet holds the eel of Science by the tail.

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