After teaching about half a semester at a truly discussion-centric school, it’s already clear to me that most schools don’t know what they want out of discussion. For a lot of academics, it seems like they feel they must include some discussion element because discussion is supposed to be good — but they really have no idea why and don’t take discussion very seriously. The students themselves can be part of the problem, too, as they often feel that they are somehow being ripped off by being forced to listen to their ignorant peers when there’s a font of information standing right there. Finally, administrators are to blame by packing what should be discussion-heavy courses with huge numbers of students, making effective discussion extremely difficult.
So you wind up with instructors either lecturing, feeling guilty about it, and making some half-assed effort at periodic discussion; or else with instructors suffering through discussion when they wish they could just be lecturing. (In these cases, I think the students would probably be better served if the instructors could wholeheartedly go with the method they feel most comfortable with. If you don’t really believe in discussion, don’t waste people’s time trying to do it!)
What does it look like when an institution is really focused on active learning from the bottom up? First, the class sizes are small, without exception. At Shimer, the cap is twelve.
Second, the discussion is based on working through primary texts that basically everyone agrees to be very important. There might be ways to do heavily discussion-based education that’s not on the “Great Books” model, but I don’t see how you can do it (at least in the humanities and probably largely in the social sciences) other than by wrestling with primary texts.
To understand why, it’s important to note that both textbooks and lectures share a common flaw: they’re too predigested. Any “discussion” is likely to be just “asking questions” to help clarify around the edges. Students really do get the feeling of understanding from such things — as witnessed by the fact that they express greater satisfaction in their evaluations when professors lecture more — but it doesn’t stick with them because they didn’t have to work for it.
Working laboriously through a text has more durable results, based simply on the Nietzschean principle that suffering produces memory. Working through a text with your peers is also an important element, because you can immediately see that you’re not the only one who’s confused. Finally, working through a primary text that has generated a whole tradition of conflicting interpretations reassures everyone that the discussion is about something important — it’s not about what a bunch of teenagers think justice is, for example, but about what Plato thinks it is. (Nothing has discredited in-class discussion more thoroughly than pointless “what do you think?” crap.) This also helps to get past one of the most frequent pathologies of college students, namely, thinking that agreement or disagreement is the most important response to a text — probably no one is going to agree entirely with Plato, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not worthwhile to know what he thinks.
Having a professor who can steer you in the right direction, keep you from wasting time in blind alleys, and answer incidental factual questions then becomes a kind of backstop to the conversation, freeing you from anxiety about wasting time listening to your dumb peers — and as I’m increasingly learning, a big part of the professor’s role is to help smooth over personal conflicts between students to keep them from getting in the way of learning as well.
This isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for education, but I think it should be the ideal for a liberal arts college education. It’s a simple ideal: reading good books and talking about them with smart people. It doesn’t cost a lot of money — all you need is a table, some books (which will usually be available in cheap editions), and maybe a chalk board. Yet it still seems like an impossible fantasy for something like this to become the norm in liberal arts colleges, and that makes me sad.