When I visited the campus of Henan University in Kaifeng, China, it was final exam time. As I walked toward the library, I could see many students studying on the steps. But when I got closer, I could hear the increasing buzz of many voices. On the sidewalks, in the hallways, and even on the athletic fields, hundreds of Chinese students were talking to themselves. I had to ask what was going on.
They were preparing for their exams by reciting lessons from the books they were holding. Chinese education has traditionally emphasized memorization. Students listen to lectures and read texts in order to absorb information, which will be repeated at exam time. European universities have also relied primarily on lecturing and listening.
At small colleges across the US, like Illinois College, a different type of learning happens. From their first day on campus, students are encouraged to think for themselves, to ask questions, to wonder why. The ideal educational setting is not the lecture hall, but the seminar room, where students must take responsibility for their own education. The readings they have done and the lectures they have heard represent only the first step.
While knowing some facts is necessary in every field, learning how to evaluate evidence, solve new problems, and ask original questions are the crucial skills we try to impart. The goal of a liberal arts education is not mainly the accumulation of knowledge, but an understanding of how knowledge is created and the ability to create new knowledge by oneself. It emphasizes problem-solving over repetition of information. Only if students learn how to think will they be prepared to succeed in a world where knowledge is changing every day.
Different educational philosophies have different political implications. Professors lecturing to hundreds of students dutifully and quietly taking notes reinforce a hierarchical system of authority and obedience, where the right people have the right answers. Lively discussion around a seminar table encourages equality and the value of individual opinions. This form of pedagogy is messy and can seem less efficient than memorizing the right answers. The lack of one right answer to every question can be confusing to those who seek simplicity in a complex world.
The liberal arts pedagogical tradition developed alongside American democracy, and contributes to its continuing strength. It is now being copied in many European countries as a reaction against hierarchical educational systems, in which the professor is a mini-monarch in an authoritarian classroom.
The liberal arts emphasis on skills does not go unchallenged in its American home. There are also people in the US who believe that education is about memorizing facts. Some people accept science only if it affirms answers they already know, and censor history if it does not tell the stories they favor. The conservative critique of American higher education is actually a complaint about the openness of the liberal arts tradition.
Others emphasize facts because they insist on short-answer testing as the only way to maintain high standards in public schools. President Bush’s No Child Left Behind was based on continual testing and tended to transform curricula into teaching for particular tests. President Obama’s Race to the Top also relies heavily on tests to rate school systems. Because testing skills is much more difficult than testing knowledge, the more public schools are rated by tests, the more that teaching will focus on facts.
Surrounding Henan University is a high fence with a few gates guarded by uniformed security personnel. You need an ID card just to enter the library. The university is a closed world, protected from wider society.
The American liberal arts college is open. There are no fences to keep the public out. There are no obstacles to challenging professorial authority. There are no questions which may not be asked.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 17, 2012