“Setting Students on Fire” at Universities: An Alternative

The first paragraph of an article by Anthony Grafton called “Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?” contains this:

At every level of the system, dedicated professors are setting students on fire with enthusiasm for everything from the structure of crystals to the structure of poems.

Grafton means this as praise, of course: Wow, these professors are doing a great job! I disagree. I think there are a million things in the world to be enthusiastic about — the structure of crystals and the structure of poems are two examples, no better or worse than the rest. I also think it is fundamentally foolish for a professor to try to make every student in his or her class as enthusiastic about X as the professor happens to be. It is foolish because it ignores human variability, which is great along these lines. (I think diversity of interest and enthusiasm is large because such diversity helps produce diverse economies.) It would be much better for the students if the professor were to help them develop their own unique enthusiasms.

I suspect Grafton has never considered this possibility. In discussions at Berkeley that I attended about how to be a good teacher, including special seminars, it never came up. Yet I taught a class at Berkeley (Psychology and the Real World) where I did just that: I allowed students to do volunteer work off-campus about almost anything they wanted. They chose the work, not me.


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