On The Uses Of A Liberal Education: As “Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students”

Mark Edmundson Harper's On the Uses of a Liberal Education, as Lite Entertainment for Bored College StudentsIt is teacher evaluation day. The professor’s final spiel for the semester has just concluded, and they leave the classroom so we can sum up a semester’s worth of learning and frustration in a five minute questionnaire. “Please rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how well this professor helped you to engage with course concepts.” Student translation: “Please rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how annoyed you at times got with this class, how funny and relaxed the professor was, whether you’re satisfied with the grade you think they’ll give you, and don’t forget to take into account whether you’re having a good day today”. The reductionism of the activity extends to the point of absurdity, but perhaps teacher evaluation is, after all, merely the catharsis at the end of a tragedy. That tragedy is the failure of a given class to live up to the promise of a liberal education—a tragedy replayed in thousands of classrooms at hundreds of universities.

It doesn’t always happen like that. I’ve had fantastic classes that have challenged me in precisely the ways I think a liberal education should. But the experience of just “making it through” a class is one that everyone has, all too often—both students and professors.

In September 1997, Harper’s Magazine published a section titled “On The Uses Of A Liberal Education.” The section contained two essays, each making a very different point largely because of the very different perspectives from which the two authors looked at education. First was Mark Edmundson’s, which acerbically described liberal education as “Lite entertainment for bored college students”.

Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and his essay is written in the tone of a disgruntled traditionalist. Those are two positions that I should, technically, find it hard to relate to. And yet parts of the essay resonated. They resonated in the way they captured the promise of liberal education and its on-the-ground failure in too many classrooms at too many universities. But most importantly, the essay resonated in how it captured the individual responsibility of both students and professors to recapture what they believe a liberal education should be about.

Edmundson begins his essay with a picture that should be familiar:

“A college student getting a liberal arts education ponders filling out a questionnaire that includes an opportunity for him to evaluate his instructor. At times it appears that the purpose of his education is just to entertain him.”

I do wonder whether it is a mistake to set up liberal education as depending so heavily on the image of the classroom. The classroom is but one component of a real education, yet frequently Edmundson seems to talk about them as if all education happened in the class. Regardless, he uses this image, and what it means for professors, to explain how education and consumer culture have moved closer and closer together. When a student praises Edmundson for “presenting this difficult, important & controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way”, he finds himself rejecting the complement.

“Thanks but no thanks. I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she “enjoyed” the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind… I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read.

Consumer culture leads students to seek “enjoyable experiences” in their education. Admissions departments have become marketing departments, Edmundson muses, and he thinks its no surprise that students expect the pleasant, fun view of the college they had from the brochures to continue while they’re there. Students necessarily search in their education for what the marketing departments told them they were buying.

“Is it a surprise, then, that this generation of students — steeped in consumer culture before going off to school, treated as potent customers by the university well before their date of arrival, then pandered to from day one until the morning of the final kiss-off from Kermit or one of his kin — are inclined to see the books they read as a string of entertainments to be placidly enjoyed or languidly cast down? Given the way universities are now administered (which is more and more to say, given the way that they are currently marketed), is it a shock that the kids don’t come to school hot to learn, unable to bear their own ignorance? For some measure of self-dislike, or self-discontent — which is much different than simple depression — seems to me to be a prerequisite for getting an education that matters. My students, alas, usually lack the confidence to acknowledge what would be their most precious asset for learning: their ignorance.”

And from this, we get a vision for what liberal education should be about.

“The aim of a good liberal-arts education was once, to adapt an observation by the scholar Walter Jackson Bate, to see that “we need not be the passive victims of what we deterministically call “circumstances” (social, cultural, or reductively psychological-personal), but that by linking ourselves through what Keats calls an ‘immortal free-masonry’ with the great we can become freer — freer to be ourselves, to be what we most want and value.”

And then, a vision for what the world will look like if we don’t live up to liberal education’s ideal.

“What happens if we keep trudging along this bleak course? What happens if our most intelligent students never learn to strive to overcome what they are? What if genius, and the imitation of genius, become silly, outmoded ideas? What you’re likely to get are more and more one-dimensional men and women. These will be people who live for easy pleasures, for comfort and prosperity, who think of money first, then second, and third, who hug the status quo; people who believe in God as a sort of insurance policy (cover your bets); people who are never surprised. They will be people so pleased with themselves (when they’re not in despair at the general pointlessness of their lives) that they cannot imagine humanity could do better. They’ll think it their highest duty to clone themselves as frequently as possible. They’ll claim to be happy, and they’ll live a long time.”

It was the very end of Edmundson’s essay that struck me as most important. Where it was sometimes strange to relate to Edmundson’s disgruntled style and his position as a professor, I think his summing up places the burden squarely on every individual student and every professor for making their education what it should truly be about. And rightly so.

“Ultimately, though, it is up to individuals — and individual students in particular — to make their own way against the current sludgy tide. There’s still the library, still the museum, there’s still the occasional teacher who lives to find things greater than herself to admire. There are still fellow students who have not been cowed. Universities are inefficient, cluttered, archaic places, with many unguarded comers where one can open a book or gaze out onto the larger world and construe it freely. Those who do as much, trusting themselves against the weight of current opinion, will have contributed something to bringing this sad dispensation to an end.”

Edmundson’s essay presents that powerful statement of individual responsibility in education. This was what I disagreed most with Bill Deresiewicz on, when in his book Excellent Sheep he seems to place the burden of responsibility for liberal education on university administrators. I said then that I think the right tools for a proper education—a “self-inflicted wound” as Deresiewicz calls it—do exist at universities, but it is entirely for students to want them, to look for them and to use them.

Commodified Learning in the Flipped Classroom

Formal education has always seemed a paradox for me. On the one hand I am passionate about learning and passionate about what schools and universities can do for individuals and societies. This perhaps stems from my having attended over ten different educational institutions in six different countries. But on the other hand, my own experience in formal schooling, most especially my high school years, was an exemplary case of education getting in the way of someone’s learning. At times this has led to some hard-to-reconcile positions, like when, as an International Baccalaureate scholar at my high school, I complained in an interview to a local newspaper about not learning enough in school.

But the paradox makes sense, I think, when one separates what education is at its core from its present manifestation. One could love architecture but nevertheless live in a less-than-stellar house; one could be an artist yet hang prints on their walls. So long as there is an attempt to improve what one believes in, I don’t see the paradox as being real; the frustrations, the desire to fix and improve, merely emphasise the depth of one’s passion.

At some point during my second to last year in high school I discovered the term “flipped classroom”. The idea was to return education to its roots in learning: have students consume information at home through books and online videos, and then in class turn that information into knowledge through questioning and discussing with the teacher. As each day I went to school and sat through hours of teachers merely repeating back the reading I’d done at home (not all of them, to be sure, but certainly the majority), the idea seemed to recapture the belief in what education was meant to be about.

It was very exciting, then, to attend a talk last night by Professor Eric Mazur of Harvard, the man who is generally recognised to have come up with the flipped classroom model (or what he calls peer instruction). Eric spoke at Yale-NUS of his “confessions of a converted lecturer”, how he realised as a teacher that he was wasting his own and his students’ time by merely repeating what books already said, focussing on transfer of information rather than the understanding of knowledge. The audience was actually made up of Yale-NUS professors, rather than students, which made for a different perspective than the one I’ve so far been used to thinking from.

Through examples, data, and an interactive session, Eric had seemingly all the professors convinced of the flipped classroom model. This was true at least for those whose subjects require transfer of information at some point; there is a great difference between philosophy, which I think focusses on knowledge from the start, and the sciences, which begin with information and must move to knowledge.

But to my surprise, by the end of the talk I wasn’t convinced. I had gone into the lecture already convinced of the flipped classroom model, merely wanting to hear the idea from its inventor’s mouth; I left with serious doubts, at least about the extent to which it is being taken. And what struck me was how the one class I’ve taken that was the most faithful reproduction of a flipped classroom model was the one class I and my peers came to despise most. Eric’s talk inadvertently ended up explaining why.

Eric’s goal with the flipped classroom is to have every student prepared for every class. To achieve this, he encouraged teachers to focus on ensuring that everyone has the information needed before the start of class. His new company produces an online reading tool that has students annotate their readings and ask questions of each other on a web platform. Through an algorithm, the software analyses the highlights and comments and determines how “thoughtful” students were, then assigning a grade. The advantage of this is that teachers then know exactly what students understand, what they don’t, and what questions they have. Teachers can also test students’ dedication to their readings through short quizzes at the start of class. All of these annotations, questions and quizzes will contribute to a student’s grade.

What I hated most about that class (well, really two classes, each which focussed on slightly different aspects) that most faithfully lived up to the flipped classroom model was that everything I read was done with a grade hanging over my head. The passages I chose to highlight and question on the course website would be graded! If something struck me as interesting, I first had to think about whether I should highlight it or not; what if it wasn’t a “good” annotation? The annotations were, after all, public for my classmates and professor to see. I found an interesting passage, highlighted it, and also wanted to write a comment to myself on something to remember. But what would my professor think of that? Would my comment be good enough to receive an “A” grade? All the while I had to focus on memorising the information on every page, since the first ten minutes of every class would be a test on my recall and ability to apply what I had read.

The extent to which Professor Mazur has taken the flipped classroom model has essentially commodified learning entirely.

Students are now incentivised to learn, to turn information into knowledge, it is true. And data shows that this works! Students will remember information better, and in class they will come to grasp its implications more clearly. But what data can never show is how that knowledge comes to affect students’ lives. And as a student in an entirely flipped classroom, I came to see how nothing done for class was done for an intrinsic reason. A flipped classroom requires extrinsic motivators, and though these work in improving both recall and understanding, they necessarily work against the last step of education—how knowledge affects life. Reading, annotations and comments in the margin are done for classes’ sake, and what the flipped classroom forgets is that the classroom is only the starting point of education. It is what happens when a student leaves a classroom with knowledge that determines the success of education. It seemed as though Professor Mazur and his model of a flipped classroom has thought so much about the classroom that he has seemingly forgotten that the classroom is merely instrumental, not in itself the end of education.

Imagine a philosophy class practising the flipped classroom. The contradiction would become absurd. Philosophy, which takes knowledge as useful for its own sake, which hopes to ask and instruct how we should live, would then be reduced for students merely to “intelligent” and “thoughtful” annotations, and pop quizzes at the start of class. The point of a philosophy class is for students to discover for themselves how to live; to have tools with which to think about material, but ultimately leaving the application of that material up to students. It can only have intrinsic motivators, where a flipped classroom can only have the extrinsic.

So we’re back to a kind of paradox like the one I began with. I haven’t given up on the flipped classroom, but I am now far more aware of its limits and its dangers. The task is to find or encourage intrinsic motivators (if that is not too great a contradiction), so that the flipped classroom can remain merely an educational tool. The danger with any great educational innovation is that it forgets education is really only what happens afterwards.

Eric Mazur flipped classroom Yale-NUS

Note: Emphasis was added to make clear that two different classes I’ve taken tried to replicate the flipped classroom model, and each focussed on slightly different aspects of it.