Monday, October 24, 2011

More "Subversive Education!"

 This copy is for your personal, noncommercial use only. You can order presentation-ready copies for distribution to your colleagues, clients or customers here or use the "Reprints" tool that appears next to any article. Visit for samples and additional information. Order a reprint of this article now.

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.” 

More in Education (31 of 45 articles)
Room for Debate: Single-Sex Schools: Separate but Equal?

Read More »

Friday, October 07, 2011

Visiting the Mishpacha - Where What When Archives

Visiting the Mishpacha - Where What When Archives

Great historical post by Rabbi Oberstein I came across by accident - including some nice nostalgia for PAI!

בחדרי חרדים | פורום: עצור כאן חושבים - מי ה'בעלים' של הישיבה?

בחדרי חרדים | פורום: עצור כאן חושבים - מי ה'בעלים' של הישיבה?

בעת לומדי בישיבת פוניבז' בזמנו של הרב מפוניבז' - הגרי"ש כהנמן זצ"ל,

שמענו לעיתים קרובות על מחלוקת הלכתית בין החזון אי"ש לבין הרב.

לדעת החזו"א התלמידים הם בעלי הישיבה, ולכן יש צורך עקרוני בעירוב חצרות לשבת,

ולדעת הרב הוא בעל הבית ולכן יש לישיבה דין רשות היחיד ללא שום צורך לערב.

לענ"ד, גם הרב לא סבר שהוא בעלים לעשות בכספי התורמים כרצונו.
אלא שמאחר שבידו בלבד הסמכות המלאה לשימוש בכספים ובנכסים לצרכים שעבורם נתרמו, הריהו כבעלים על הנכס לענייני הלכה שונים כדוגמת עירוב חצרות.

אבל פשוט שאין שום היתר להשתמש בכספי התורמים ובנכסים שנצברו מהתרומות אלא למטרות שעבורם נתרמו, וכדין משנת שקלים שהביאו רמבמז"ל ומיכי תוקן על ידי - דר_הלפרין - 31/01/2006 13:16:05

I don't understand why an eruvei chatzeiros would be necessary even according to the Chazon Ish, as the hekdesh that is the yeshiva owns all the furniture, so it should be tefisas yad.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

My MTA shiur of 7 Tishrei: Gezel Karka

I'm only putting up part 2, because part 1 was mostly discussion of when and where to hold a Shabbaton...

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

I like to think this is how I give shiur (and how shiur should be given)

Consider this excerpt from the second chapter:

Educational discourse, 
especially among the educated, is a laden with preconceptions that it is 
practically impossible b introduce an idea that does not fit into traditional 

Consider as a primary case in point the notion that a classroom lesson is 
largely made up of two components: content and method. The content may 
be trivial or important, but if is always thought to be the 'substance' of the 
lesson; it is what the student are there to 'get'; it is what they are supposed to 
learn; it is what is 'covered'. Content, as any syllabus proves, exists 
independent of and prior to the student, and is indifferent to the media by 
which it is 'transmitted'. Method, on the other hand, is merely the manner in 
which the content is presented. The method may be imaginative or dull, but 
it is never more than a means of conveying the content. It has no content of 
its own. While it may induce excitement or boredom, it carries no message - 
at least none that would be asked about on the College Boards, which is to 
say, worthy of comment.    

To our knowledge, all schools of education and teacher training 
institutions in the United States are organized around the idea that content 
and method are separate in the manner we have described. Perhaps the most 
important message thus communicated to teachers in training is that this 
separation is real useful and urgent, and that it ought to be maintained in the 
schools. A secondary message is that, while the 'content' and 'method' are 
separate, they are not equal. Everyone knows that the 'real' courses are the 
content courses, the kind of which James Bryant Conant is so fond: The 
Heritage of Greece and Rome, Calculus, Elizabethan Drama, The Civil War. 
The 'fake' courses are the methods courses, those conspiracies of emptiness 
which are universally ridiculed because their finest ambition is to instruct in 
how to write lesson plans, when to use an overhead projector, and why it is 
desirable to keep the room at a comfortable temperature (The educationists 
have got what they deserve on this one Since they have saddled themselves 
with a trivial definition of 'method', what they have been able to do in their 
courses has wavered from embarrassing to shocking. The professors of the 
liberal arts have, so far, escaped the censure and ridicule they deserve for not 
having noticed that a 'discipline' or a 'subject' is a way of knowing something 
- in other words a method - and that, therefore, their courses are methods 

'The medium is the message' implies that the invention of a dichotomy 
between content and method is both naive and dangerous. It implies that the 
critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through 
which the learning occurs. Almost any sensible parent knows this, as does 
any effective top sergeant. It is not what you say to people that counts; it is 
what you have them do. If most teachers have not yet grasped this idea, it is 
not for lack of evidence. It may, however, be due to their failure to look in 
the direction where the evidence can be seen. In order to understand what 
kinds of behaviors classrooms promote, one must become accustomed to 
observing what, in fact, students actually do in them. What students do in the 
classroom is what they learn (as Dewey would say), and what they learn to 
do is the classroom's message (as McLuhan would say). Now, what is it that 
students do in the classroom? Well, mostly, they sit and listen to the teacher. 
Mostly, they are required to believe in authorities, or at last pretend to such 
belief when they take tests. Mostly, they are required to remember. They are 
almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or 
perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone 
else says is true. They are rarely encouraged to ask substantive questions, 
although they are permitted to ask about administrative and technical details 
(How long should the paper be? Does spelling count? When is the 
assignment due?) It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in 
determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of 
inquiry ought to be used. Examine the types of questions teachers ask in 
classrooms, and you will find that most of than are what might technically 
be called 'convergent questions', but which might more simply be called 
'Guess what I'm thinking' questions Here are a few that will sound familiar:    

What is a noun?    
What were the three causes of the Civil War?    
What is the principal river of Uruguay?    
What is the definition of a nonrestrictive clause?    
What is the real meaning of this poem?    
How many sets of chromosomes do human beings have?    
Why did Brutus betray Caesar?    

   So, what students mostly do in class is guess what the teacher wants them 
to say. Constantly, they must try to supply the Right Answer. It does not 
seem to matter if the subject is English or history or science; mostly, 
students do the same thing. And since it is indisputably (if not publicity) recognized that the ostensible 'content' of such courses is rarely remembered 
beyond the last suit (in which you are required to remember only 65 per cent 
of what you were told), it is safe to say that just about the only learning that 
occurs in classrooms is that which is communicated by the structure of the 
classroom itself. What are these learning’s? What are these messages? Here 
are a few among many, none of which you will ever find officially listed 
among the aims of teachers:    

   Passive acceptance is a more desirable response to ideas than active 

   Discovering knowledge is beyond the power of students and is, in any 
case, none of their business.    

   Recall is the highest form of intellectual achievement, and the collection of 
unrelated 'facts' is the goal of education.
   The voice of authority is to be trusted and valued more than independent 

   One's own ideas and those of one's classmates are inconsequential.   

   Feelings art irrelevant in education.    

   There is always a single, unambiguous Right Answer to a question.    

   English is not history and history is not science and science is not art and 
art is not music, and art and music are minor subjects and English, history 
and science major subjects, and a subject is something you 'take' and, when 
you have taken it, you have 'had' it, and if you have 'had' it, you are immune 
and need not take it again. The Vaccination Theory of education?