The Compliant College Classroom

As the new academic year approaches, I have put the final touches on my syllabi for the fall courses. I also looked back at a syllabus of the first course I had taught as a professor in 2001—a freshman general education class in political theory. The syllabus consisted of two, typed single-spaced pages. The first page described the course, listed the readings, explained the assignments, and posted the mandatory student disability notice. The second page was a week-by-week account of what we aspired to study during the semester.

I compared this syllabus with the one I am teaching now—also a freshman general education course but in core texts. This 2022 syllabus was six, typed single-spaced pages, three times longer than the one from 21 years ago. Unfortunately, it was not triple the content material. (Actually, it was 20 percent less). Besides what was in the 2001 syllabus, it contained a detailed list of learning objectives and a set of policies required by the university concerning health and attendance, psychological and emotional counseling, technology requirements, Title IX issues, and disaster and emergency readiness procedures. Of the six pages, only two were written by me. It made me wonder what will become compulsory in my syllabus over the next 20 years.

Ken Bain, president of the Best Teachers Institute, offers a peek into that future. In the acknowledgments of his Super Courses: The Future of Teaching and Learning, he informs us that “This book began with an idea . . . about studying examples of invitational syllabi.” From this idea emerged the “super course”: teachers who adopt “evidence-based approaches to spark deeper levels of learning, critical thinking, and creativity—whether teaching online, in class, or in the field.” Weaving heart-warming, Hollywood anecdotes with breezy summaries of online essays about pedagogy, Bain’s book contends that these “super courses” will enable students “to reach their full potential, equip them to lead happy and productive lives, and meet the world’s complex challenges.”

Therapeutic Education

Unfortunately, Bain begins by attacking a pedagogical straw man to argue for the need for the “super course.” According to Bain, higher education still is beholden to the lecture—the “sage on the stage”—where the teacher “assumed that the best way to educate was to give students facts to digest.” This criticism of the lecture is an updated version of Donald Bligh’s 1972 classic, What’s the Use of the Lecture? However, the lecture today has changed and adapted to new circumstances, no longer resembling its older self—it is interactive, deploys multimedia, and resembles a dialogue between speaker and audience. Furthermore, teachers have adopted other pedagogical techniques like the Socratic Method and team-teaching in educating students. While Bain is sincere in his desire to improve college teaching, he seems to have missed this change in pedagogy that his “super course” was supposed to fix. 

What is a “super course”? For Bain, it consists of 18 “essential elements.” The best on this list—organize your course around fascinating and important questions; build in continual feedback loops for assessing your students—are useful reminders for effective teaching. But most of the items are a combination of therapeutic self-help and flashy pedagogy. Bain recommends active learning, the flipped classroom, and helping students “believe that their efforts will matter to themselves and others.” Simply put, the “super course” is meant to create “a natural critical learning environment” where “student groups tackle questions and challenges they find intrinsically interesting, important, and beautiful.” The result is that students become critical thinkers, leading them to ask probing and insightful questions that will improve their reasoning.

The origins of this student-centered approach, with its emphasis on collaboration, independence, and self-discovery, can be traced back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau who believed that the child’s mind should develop naturally rather than be molded by teachers and schools. As he wrote in Emile, “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.” According to Rousseau, children, were closest to human innate goodness because society hasn’t corrupted them yet. Consequently, education should be student-centered and experience-driven, with children given the freedom to learn to do for themselves.

Rousseau’s insight about students being at the center of learning is necessary for students to be independent and critical learners. Being able to draw one’s own conclusions because of one’s explorations brings a sense of joy and ownership to students. It can motivate them to learn more. However, if education is only driven by students and their experiences, then we are left with a world of subjective standards. There is no need for objective and external criteria of assessment, and learning becomes nothing more than a solipsism of one’s own desires.

The influence of Rousseau’s experiential education can later be found in the works of John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and contemporary pedagogists like Ken Bain. An example that Bain cites is Eric Mazur’s physics course where students read the material before class and then are given a problem in the classroom, only to “find someone who has a different answer than you do,” i.e., students compare their different answers to the problem with one another to see who is right. Other examples of experiential education include role-playing, simulation games, and service-learning projects. The string that holds these stories together is that students are at the center of the course, driving the content of what is to be learned. Or as Bain puts it:

Humans are born with insatiable curiosities. But here’s the rub. Our desire to do something will go down if we have the feeling that someone else controls us. Every effort to force students to pay attention and reexamine their existing paradigms will backfire. Extrinsic motivators (for example, grades) tend to suppress internal desire.

This perspective is at odds with the classical view of education where students are to be shaped and habituated by their teachers to be both critical thinkers and virtuous people. From his incessant questioning, Socrates asks students to reflect inwardly so their souls can be turned from focusing on the temporal and transient to the eternal and permanent. Aristotle calls for the conditioning of students into virtue so it becomes second nature to them. Augustine and Aquinas believe that students should conform their reason and will to God. In this tradition, education is not driven by a student’s interiority and subjectivity but by an external criterion against which students measure themselves.

The question that confronts teachers is whether they can recover a pedagogy rooted in prudence and return to a shorter and more meaningful syllabus, or whether they are doomed to more policies and procedures, extending the length of their syllabus and winding up in Weber’s iron cage.

As I have stated above there is nothing inherently misguided about experiential education. The concern that emerges from Bain’s success stories is that student curiosity and interest come at the expense of any standards outside of themselves. Professors spend the first day of class with their students deciding what the syllabus should be. This therapeutic approach may be comforting to educators but elides the prior and more important question of what students should actually learn.

The Blind Spot

While the cultivation of students’ subjective desires makes them suitable to be ideologues and political activists, it won’t land them a job in corporate America (unless it’s in HR). To be economically successful students need to learn how to assemble, analyze, and manipulate data. Because it is considered “real,” everything is measured and quantified, especially given the ubiquity of technology in our society which makes counting things easier.

This numerical assignment and valuing of reality give the illusion of being objective and transparent—a phenomenon particularly attractive to democratic societies. As Tocqueville observed, democratic citizens rely upon their own individual judgements to make decisions and thereby reduce everything to its utilitarian value. But because everyone is equal in a democratic society, no one is certain that his judgment is better than anyone else’s, ultimately yielding a consensus ruled by the majority. Data, the standardization of knowledge, is the crystallization of democratic judgment because nobody can object to it: it claims to be objective, transparent, and equally accessible. It is employed to evaluate everything from our emotional health to the success of online magazines. Any realities that can’t be standardized and measured are considered invalid forms of knowledge.

If half of today’s syllabus comprises policies to promote therapeutic education—health, counseling, Title IX, emergency readiness—then the other half includes a standardization of knowledge that de-legitimatizes a whole set of experiences and knowledges that cannot be quantified in a pre-given way. Learning objectives are not only mandatory in the syllabus but required to be written in such a way that a numerical value can be assigned. Students are expected to have access to certain types of technologies so their assessments can be standardized. General education courses demand external assessment, on top of the course’s assignments, that is always quantitative. And teacher evaluations are designed numerically so tenure and promotion committees can have an easier time evaluating their colleagues’ teaching rather than reading student comments.

This question of the standardization of knowledge, and how it affects teaching, is a blind spot in Bain’s book. To his credit, he is skeptical about the effectiveness of using machines in learning, i.e., sitting in front of a computer all day. He is also suspicious of standardized tests as an accurate method to assess student learning. However, this suspicion is not because they exclude certain forms of knowledge; rather, it leads to teachers to place students in broad categories of ability, “subconsciously deciding that some people have what it takes to shine in class, and others don’t.” For Bain, this becomes even more problematic when one factors in race, class, and gender. Teachers create stereotypes of students so that they “attack victims of racism and poor people who feel the sting of notions that poverty somehow stems from laziness and stupidity.”

But the problem with the standardization of knowledge is not that it is structurally racist; rather, its assumptions of scientism are false—a fact-value distinction where facts are derived only from scientific-technological methods and values are the products of only subjective prejudice. To be clear, there is nothing amiss when students learn how to assemble, analyze, and manipulate data in subjects that are amendable to it, like mathematics, the natural sciences, and aspects of the social sciences. The problem is when this quantitative approach is applied to every facet of student learning, whether in art, music, philosophy, theology, or literature. Reality, and our attempt to understand and teach it, is too messy and complex for any one approach to comprehend.

This particularly becomes an issue when people, like Bain, write about “evidence-based approaches” for “super courses.” Inevitably this means something that can be measured quantitatively. Those existential and luminous encounters between students and teachers—and between students themselves—cannot be captured and crystalized in data and yet they may be the most important lesson students learn. It is Socrates’ periagoge, a turning of the student’s soul, from the shadows of the cave to a heightened openness to all aspects of reality that emanates truth.

A Recovery of Prudence

A true “super course” then is not achieved through the adoption of a therapeutic ethos; nor is it the quantitation of pedagogy; instead, it is the practice of prudence between teacher and students. For Aristotle, prudence is a middle path between theoretical reason, which is too abstract to solve specific problems, and pragmatic calculation, which is focused only on what works without understanding why. It is a form of practical reason that is simultaneously connected with theoretical thinking to guide practical action. The best teachers embody this in their professions, teaching particular students in specific situations the enduring truths about reality. They are the bridges between the concrete and particular reality of students’ lives to the theoretical and abstract knowledge of their disciplines of knowledge. They are truly the “midwives” of truth.

The issue with pedagogical books like Bain’s is that they lack a midwife: the book is filled with specific examples and generalized statements that are not connected to a deeper teaching about the soul. The success stories Bain cites are useful if you share the exact same situation, e.g., students interested in social justice who want to help prisoners, ivy-league students who don’t have to work to pay for their education. And the generalized statements—the 18 “essential elements”—are meaningless because they are either known by common sense (“explicitly encourage people to believe that intelligence and abilities are expandable”) or are detached from any meaningful context to be useful (“give students a chance to do the discipline before they fully know it”). A “super course” is neither specificity nor generality: it is prudential.

Without something like Aristotle’s virtue of prudence to link the situational reality of students with the theoretical thinking of knowledge, the college syllabus just becomes longer with every passing year, cramming in ever more therapeutic policies and standardized practices. The continual bureaucratization of American higher education proceeds unabated, promoted by books like Bain’s, and reflected in the classroom with ever more pages added to the syllabus. The question that confronts teachers is whether they can recover a pedagogy rooted in prudence and return to a shorter and more meaningful syllabus, or whether they are doomed to more policies and procedures, extending the length of their syllabus and winding up in Weber’s iron cage.