Deplorable… If Only It Were True

Slate has a series on college education running lately, and in it is this statement about the “liberal” approach to education, as formulated by one Astrida Orle Tantillo, associate dean and associate professor of history and Germanic studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago:

The assault on liberal education from the left presumes that pedagogy must be “student-centered,” with professors no longer “teaching” but “facilitating” or serving as “architects of interaction” who “enable” students to teach one another. The assumptions underlying this methodology are democratic and, as such, inimical to a type of education that prizes the difficult or esoteric. For example, the “communicative approach” is the most popular one in foreign-language classes across the country. Beginning students interact with one another more than with the instructor. Instructors are further discouraged from correcting mistakes for fear of inhibiting self-expression. This model emphasizes oral communication (and students do speak with greater ease), but at the cost of precision, knowledge of grammar, and ability to read serious texts…. One could draw similar parallels to other courses, including English composition, where many instructors do not teach or correct grammar. As the National Council of Teachers of English would have it, students have the “right” to their own language. Paradoxically, this approach is more insidiously hierarchical than the old teacher-centered one: Teachers consciously withhold their knowledge and high-culture experiences, thereby limiting the students’ educational opportunities.

Give me a break. This is the kind of crap that conservatives make up and attribute to liberals so that Rush Limbaugh can come along and discredit us for allegedly believing it. I consider myself pretty far left, and certainly people are under the impression that the college I teach in is one of the most liberal liberal arts schools in the country. And there is no way in hell my college administration would put up for a minute with this anti-intellectual claptrap, nor would anyone on the faculty ever ask them to.


  1. says

    I agree that this woman’s claim is pretty much bogus — a combination of willful misinterpretation of pedogogical theory and pure fantasy. Not to mention offensive.
    In fairness, however, I very nearly accepted my offer of admission to Bard College in 1997, and the final nail in the coffin of my increasing concerns about the robustness of the academics came at the event held for accepted students who were deciding if they should accept the offer. It was a panel discussion with a group of current students, and the first question was “I don’t like to read. . . I hear you have to do a lot of reading at Bard. . . so should I not come here?” The first panelist answered without a moment’s hesitation “Oh, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do at Bard.” On the other hand, the engish class I sat in on was excellent, and these were those dark days before Kyle Gann arrived. . .

  2. says

    Galen, I’m sure that the college president winced and that whatever faculty were present covered their faces. And Bard’s gotten a lot more rigorous since then. 1997 was the year I arrived, actually.

  3. Scott Klein says

    While the tone of the original claim is hyperbolic, it’s nonetheless true that the prevailing pedagogical model on most smaller campuses nowadays is “student centered.” When we search for faculty in my department (of English, at a small but “highly selective” and generally conservative university) the teaching statements from potential candidates are invariably about “facilitating discussion” and creating “a nonhierarchical learning environment.” That’s all well and good, when done well. But the idea has gradually forced out of the humanties academy the idea that lecturing, or the “faculty centered classroom” might, at times, be both a good thing, and even a superior pedagogical model. As an undergraduate I wanted to hear my professors talk more than my peers: my fellow students were interesting, and capable of fine insights, but I knew that my professors knew a lot more than I did, and that’s why I was in college. I should note that I am in no way a curmudgeon or member of any derriere-garde (does that mean “cover your behind?”) either aesthetically or politically (after all, here I am reading about Elodie Lauten and Charlemagne Palestine). I’m still slightly on the near side of 50 (and thus haven’t yet seen the same things that Satie didn’t get). But there have indeed been ideological shifts in education that are worth evaluating in good faith.