No one mentions how much time the liberal arts takes, and that makes me wonder. I’m seeing a lot of people I know and trust as teachers try to cram 50 million bits of information into their students’ heads – thoughts on things like thumos and logos in Plato’s Republic – with absolutely no consideration that a few weeks are not going to suffice for learning the material well, if it is learned at all.
That doesn’t mean I think good classes in the liberal arts are dumbed down. I tend to throw as much as I possibly can at my audience in these blog entries. But the blog is not a class, and even with the blog, I work through texts piece-by-piece. I don’t just get up there and lecture and expect people to follow everything as if they have complete mastery of the text already. Yeah, I know what I’m saying. I’m really saying that to expect people to do their homework well when it comes to the liberal arts is unreasonable.
The reason why it’s unreasonable is because we want students that have serious questions. We don’t want mastery of the material immediately. The way I think about the task of teaching is this, at the moment. Get a few basic passages into the students’ hands, along with background information and definitely some idea of how the text works. Read with them. Show them how you reason about the text and how you bring more (or in some cases, less) to it. Throw 50 million things at them now, but aim low and aim high. Low: make sure they can tell you where the important discussions are and what they roughly say. High: get them to articulate a question or thought that matters. I’m pretty sure we didn’t make a breakthrough when talking about prudence in Aristotle’s Ethics, that prudence is implied in how one does well what one does well (hence, one man/one art of the Republic leading to the guardians and the philosopher-king. Not just that the ruling art becomes someone else being able to kill others easily, but that excellent practitioners of other arts can explain what is done well, what isn’t, and judge accordingly). I wanted them to relate prudence to how they approach what they do well; the people I spoke to were very accomplished in particular ways. I know the talk I gave was pretty much forgotten as soon as I said it, and not because they didn’t pay attention. At some point, I’m up against the very nature of 18-19 year olds.
I don’t expect every student to get a serious question. In fact, I expect this “method” to fail almost as much as what I’m seeing now. It’ll probably fail for many of the same reasons, even. The difference is less in the “high” and more in the “low.” They need to be able to answer very basic things, like “Who is the intended audience of the text?” and “What is the surface teaching? How does it tend to get a bit more complex?” They need to articulate a few highlights and know some of the phrases and concepts that made it into later thought.
In other words, they need to be put in a position to revisit the text, not attempt outright mastery in a few weeks. You can’t teach when you think you know it all, because even if you do know it all, you’ve forgotten how you got where you are. The distinction between knowledge and self-knowledge could not be clearer.