This was written by Stephen Whittaker, a professor of rhetoric at The University of Scranton.
By Stephen E. Whittaker
For three decades, I have taught rhetoric in a university honors program, so I see the academic cream of the crop. Many of my former students today are doctors, lawyers, educators, managers, editors and non-profit leaders, and when I see them at reunions, they strike me as articulate, humane and conscientious.
Are these high achievers so different from the majority of college students? There have been reports that college students aren’t learning anything. If these claims are true, then we have a problem that is as dire as can be imagined, and this year’s commencements should cause alarm, not jubilation.
I am not in a position to judge the validity of the research about student learning. But I do know that these kinds of indictments are not new. In fact, they always remind me of a Paul Simon lyric from the early 70s that pretty well describes the ambivalence I feel, as a college teacher, 40 years later:
When something goes wrong
I’m the first to admit it;
I’m the first to admit it
And the last one to know.
I teach my students Plato’s Phaedrus, in which the Greek philosopher argues that the goal of education is to understand students’ souls, gifts, capacities and mastery of the material, and then lead them from that point. It is in this work that Socrates cites the latest technology — writing — as something that will rot the brains of the young, making them clueless, lazy and lacking in both information and critical thinking.
My students never fail to note that Socrates offers this critique on writing within a piece of writing by Plato. Upon further inquiry, we find that this new technology is corrupting only if it is allowed to reduce the student to the passive posture of a consumer.
Contemporary culture and technology rot our student’s minds and beguile their souls, no doubt about it. But they always have. The key for professors worth their salt is to meet students where they live and help them in the growth of their souls, help them learn to love better things.
That’s exactly what Socrates did with Phaedrus — he met him literally where he lives: a promising youth in love with the gaudy, corrupting, and stupefying technology of his age. Socrates leads the lad by careful stages to appreciate more profound and virtuous methods of communication, both with his own soul and with the souls of others.
Today’s faculty need to understand young people, how they learn, what they value. Only then can we convince them they should get up out of their seats and express themselves, argue their points and refine their intellects and consciences. It’s called academic rigor, and it’s more difficult that imparting information so they can pass a test.
The frailties and corruptions of today, though superficially different, seem comparable to any time in human history.
So while we bemoan the findings in last year’s book, “Academically Adrift,” let’s remember that is was only 25 years ago that Alan Bloom wrote “Closing of the American Mind,” that previous generation’s obituary on education and the youth of the day. Bloom was right. So are today’s critics. And so was Socrates.
When I go to reunions and speak to my former students who read Phaedrus, I can tell they got it. I listened to a seasoned MD and a pre-med student agree that less broadly educated colleagues, though always skilled technicians, sometimes lacked the ability to communicate with their patients and therefore were less effective in diagnosis and treatment.
Books and studies that predict the demise of the academy miss the point Plato is trying to make — the ills of the day are always trumped by education that develops both mind and soul.
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