Figuring Out Today’s Students

There’s a fairly interesting interview in Salon today with an anthropologist in Arizona who enrolled in her own school as a freshman, anonymously, in order to study her own school’s students as an anthropologist, and figure out what made them tick. (She tried to publish the book under a pseudonym, but got outed by a reporter who figured out who she must be by process of elimination.) The interview isn’t terribly substantive, and it’s difficult to tell whether the book is more so. But two things she says ring a bell with me.

The first is that the students themselves estimated that they learned only about 35 percent of what they learned in classrooms, and the other 65 percent outside the classroom. She’s surprised by this; I’m not. Thinking of my own education, I had always estimated about 20 percent in, 80 percent out. It’s true that I skipped more classes than I should have. But even so, I never found classroom teaching a very efficient communicator of knowledge. I always felt that the most important things professors told me came from one-to-one meetings, especially chance encounters in the hallway, or at the intermissions of concerts. I still believe that learning from a composition teacher has less to do with technical points, or criticism of individual scores, than with absorbing the attitudes of a “real” composer: observing how one’s teacher responds to criticism of his music, for example, or how they react to the public success of other composers. As a teacher, a composer is of limited value, but as a personal model, it’s fascinating to absorb his or her attitudes towards life, towards other composers, professional opportunities, disappointment, and so on. I know I learned a lot of things from Morton Feldman and Ben Johnston that had little to do with what they were explicitly trying to teach me. It was their attitudes that were helpful models.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that I would advocate abandoning the class structure of college. I can’t imagine what you’d replace it with as a pretext to bring students and professionals together, to allow the students to get to know the professionals well enough to ask the important questions outside of class. I’m a strong believer in peripheral learning: just as our peripheral vision takes in certain kinds of detail better than direct vision, and I learn things about my own music from peripheral listening that intent listening would miss, I think a lot of the most profound learning occurs in situations in which one doesn’t expect to be learning anything.

The other thing this anthropolgist said is:

Anyone who said they did have a philosophical conversation might qualify it, like, “Yeah, we were really drunk that night, so we got into all this deep philosophical stuff,” or “Yeah, sometimes I get into this dorky mood and then I talk about deep topics.” When you hear that as an anthropologist, you think the students are responding to a criticism that isn’t even being made, that is in their head.

The interviewer suggested that there might be a big difference between students at Northern Arizona University and Yale in this respect, based on differences in student intelligence and ambition – but the anthropolgist didn’t think so, and neither do I. Here at Bard I’ve noticed that students express some embarrassment about their serious conversations, and some purported connection between being drunk and talking philosophy is common. And that’s a shame. When I was a student, I spent a lot of time arguing with my friend Marcus McDaniel, who had been my best friend in high school and with whom I roomed for a year in college (and who remains one of my best friends today), about philosophy, epistemology, politics, the nature of the world, and the ultimate meaning of life. I and a lot of my friends spent a considerable amount of time (cold sober) in such enlightening conversations, learning which arguments held water and which ones didn’t. It was a kind of knowledge that we couldn’t entirely learn from professors, if much at all, and I owe a lot to it. But it does seem to me that today’s students are a little ashamed to argue about such abstract matters, and pass off such conversations as a little masturbatory and unimportant – as if it weren’t crucially important for each new generation to remake the world on its own terms.