Monday, October 24, 2011

More "Subversive Education!"

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October 16, 2011


 ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Sarah Benson last encountered college mathematics 20 years ago in an undergraduate algebra class. Her sole experience teaching math came in the second grade, when the first graders needed help with their minuses. 

 And yet Ms. Benson, with a Ph.D. in art history and a master’s degree in comparative literature, stood at the chalkboard drawing parallelograms, constructing angles and otherwise dismembering Euclid’s Proposition 32 the way a biology professor might treat a water frog. Her students cared little about her inexperience. As for her employers, they did not mind, either: they had asked her to teach formal geometry expressly because it was a subject about which she knew very little. 

 It was just another day here at St. John’s College, whose distinctiveness goes far beyond its curriculum of great works: Aeschylus and Aristotle, Bacon and Bach. As much of academia fractures into ever more specific disciplines, this tiny college still expects — in fact, requires — its professors to teach almost every subject, leveraging ignorance as much as expertise. 

 “There’s a little bit of impostor syndrome,” said Ms. Benson, who will teach Lavoisier’s “Elements of Chemistry” next semester. “But here, it’s O.K. that I don’t know something. I can figure it out, and my job is to help the students do the same thing. It’s very collaborative.” 

 Or as St. John’s president, Chris Nelson (class of 1970), put it with a smile only slightly sadistic: “Every member of the faculty who comes here gets thrown in the deep end. I think the faculty members, if they were cubbyholed into a specialization, they’d think that they know more than they do. That usually is an impediment to learning. Learning is born of ignorance.” 

 Students who attend St. John’s — it has a sister campus in Santa Fe, N.M., with the same curriculum and philosophies — know that their college experience will be like no other. There are no majors; every student takes the same 16 yearlong courses, which generally feature about 15 students discussing Sophocles or Homer, and the professor acting more as catalyst than connoisseur. 

 What they may not know is that their professor — or tutor in the St. John’s vernacular — might have no background in the subject. This is often the case for the courses that freshmen take. For example, Hannah Hintze, who has degrees in philosophy and woodwind performance, and whose dissertation concerned Plato’s “Republic,” is currently leading classes on observational biology and Greek. 

 “Some might not find that acceptable, but we explore things together,” said Ryan Fleming, a freshman in Ms. Benson’s Euclid class. “We don’t have someone saying, ‘I have all the answers.’ They’re open-minded and go along with us to see what answers there can be.” 

 Like all new tutors, Ms. Benson, 42, went through a one-week orientation in August to reacquaint herself with Euclid, and to learn the St. John’s way of teaching. She attends weekly conferences with more seasoned tutors. 

 Her plywood-floor classroom in McDowell Hall is as almost as dim and sparse as the ones Francis Scott Key (valedictorian of the class of 1796) studied in before the college’s original building burned down in 1909. Eight underpowered ceiling lights barely illuminated three walls of chalkboards. While even kindergarten classrooms now feature interactive white boards and Wi-Fi connected iPads, not one laptop or cellphone was visible; the only evidence of contemporary life was the occasional plastic foam coffee cup. 

 The discussion centered not on examples and exercises, but on the disciplined narrative of Euclid’s assertions, the aesthetic economy of mathematical argument. When talk turned to Proposition 34 of Book One, which states that a parallelogram’s diagonal divides it into equal areas, not one digit was used or even mentioned. Instead, the students debated whether Propositions 4 and 26 were necessary for Euclid’s proof. 

 When a student punctuated a blackboard analysis with, “The self-evident truth that these triangles will be equal,” the subliminal reference to the Declaration of Independence hinted at the eventual braiding of the disciplines by both students and tutors here. So, too, did a subsequent discussion of how “halves of equals are equals themselves,” evoking the United States Supreme Court’s logic in endorsing segregation 2,200 years after Euclid died. 

 Earlier in the day, in a junior-level class taught by a longtime tutor about a portion of Newton’s seminal physics text “Principia,” science and philosophy became as intertwined as a candy cane’s swirls. Students discussed Newton’s shrinking parabolic areas as if they were voting districts, and the limits of curves as social ideals. 

 One student remarked, “In Euclid before, he talked a lot about what is equal and what isn’t. It seems here that equality is more of a continuum — we can get as close as we want, but never actually get there.” A harmony of Tocqueville was being laid over Newton’s melody. 

 The tutor, Michael Dink, graduated from St. John’s in 1975 and earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. Like most professors here, he long ago traded the traditional three-course academic career — writing journal articles, attending conferences and teaching a specific subject — for the intellectual buffet at St. John’s. His first year included teaching Ptolemy’s “Almagest,” a treatise on planetary movements, and atomic theory. He since has taught 15 of the school’s 16 courses, the exception being sophomore music. 

 “You have to not try to control things,” Mr. Dink said, “and not think that what’s learned has to come from you.” 

 This ancient teaching method could be making a comeback well beyond St. John’s two campuses. Some education reformers assert that teachers as early as elementary school should lecture less at the blackboard while students silently take notes — the sage-on-the-stage model, as some call it — and foster more discussion and collaboration among smaller groups. It is a strategy that is particularly popular among schools that use technology to allow students to learn at their own pace. 

 Still, not even the most rabid reformer has suggested that biology be taught by social theorists, or Marx by mathematicians. That philosophy will continue to belong to a school whose president has joyfully declared, “We don’t have departmental politics — we don’t have departments!” 

 Anthony T. Grafton, a professor of history at Princeton and president of the American Historical Association, said he appreciated the approach. 

 “There’s no question that people are becoming more specialized — it’s natural for scholars to cover a narrow field in great depth rather than many at the same time,” he said. “I admire how St. John’s does it. It sounds both fun and scary.” 

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  2. Dear YGB, what im about to write has nothing to do with this current post, but it is of great importance so please excuse me if im being rude. I wrote to you over here

    I know I said that I will not respond because I did not see any point in arguing however recently I stumbled upon a dissertation, written by a frum lady, DR Jennie Rosenfeld as part of her doctorate her doctorate is on the very issue that I struggle with. I purchased the full thing online, and it is a source of great help and comfort to me, in my attempt to integrate a positive and health approach to these issues ,

    She uses Reb Zadok Hakohain as a starting foundation, including some of R Zadoks teachings that were censored, to my surprise I realized that you had used R Zadok in response to me , even more surprising is that R Zadok raises the very ideas I was trying to make to you, only he goes much further by actually searching for the spiritual benefits of masturbation, while I was only concerned about the psychological benefits!! If someone thinks that my attitude is heretical they are actually calling R Zadok a bigger heretic!!

  3. Let me briefly respond to your previous comments by quoting Dr Rosenfeld

    You wrote

    “Hence, I am not sure on what basis you assert it to be "normal." Perhaps by societal norms, but not by the norms expected of us by our Creator”

    “In addressing the question of why there is no explicit biblical prohibition for masturbation, though it is so frowned upon and considered the most severe infraction in kabbalistic sources, R. Zadok writes that G-d simply couldn’t prohibit something which can happen against a person’s will, because of the legitimate outcry of unfairness that would ensue. G-d couldn’t have “gotten away with” making something which can happen non-volitionally a biblical prohibition (TH 51; #121)—as there is an assumption that through freedom of choice and through human effort, the human being has the ability to perform all of the commandments, even ones which are very difficult. R.Zadok thus normalizes not just sexual desire but also the process of giving in to that desire through masturbation.”

    You wrote

    “If sexuality was given by God to his creatures as a means of bonding (not to mention procreation), I fail to see how how one can assert that solitary sexuality is a positive psychological activity.”

    “In another censored passage, R. Zadok is prayerful, positing that since nocturnal emissions can happen without a person’s volition and even against a person’s will, then there must be some Divine purpose and Divine good in them. In a tone of desperation, he writes that nothing that G-d created in this world was created for naught—there must be a purpose and a good even in that which initially seems so devoid of any good. Even nocturnal emissions and masturbation have a purpose, and must contain good since G-d allows them to be a part of nature….(TH 41; #103)…..
    But R. Zadok goes even further than simply the health issue, positing that beyond the physical good which can come from masturbation, there is also spiritual good, in the form of psychic energy and life-force, which can be channeled productively:
    Is not masturbation an actual spiritual energy/ power (ko’ah nafshi mamash); for [if the ejaculation had taken place in the context of sexual intercourse] a new soul would have been born which contains a life force, and if so, certainly it [the semen] has some of his life-force within it! (TH 157; #242)”

    “R. Zadok gives consolation to those who mourn over their sin of masturbation, through arguing based on a passage in the Talmud (Yevamot 62a) that the Messiah won’t come until all the souls that need to be born are born, and masturbation creates these souls thereby hastening the coming of the Messiah (TH 17; #45)”

    I am emailing you the entire work so that you can see it for yourself.

    Let me also add that she also writes about the turmoil that certain “frum” websites cause people to go through psychological turmoil, she gives as an example, personally I was effected by another website that I don’t think had started at the time of her writing, I found comfort in the fact that the points she raises against these sites is the points that I was trying to tell the admin of the website that effected me, but he kept on telling me that my opinions was my “addiction talking” to me.