Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Learning Objectives

Justin EH Smith has written a timely piece on the closing of foreign language departments and the end of education as the transformation of mind and body. I have very little mental energy at present, so I'll let him do the talking.
The internal wiring of my body --the neurons and the nerves and the muscles-- simply has not been configured so as to enable me to even pretend for a second that I can play a violin. But look at Anne-Sophie Mutter's body. Is it so different? It is a woman's body, but it is not in respect of that difference that she is a violinist and I am not. Where is the difference, then? The difference, obviously, is in the way we were shaped and tenderized over the years. Her violinist-body and my slouching, contemplative, wholly non-musical body were shaped throughout the course of many years of handling, of dressage.

Now we're getting close to what I actually wanted to talk about: not music, but the humanities, and the state of higher education in general. There is, at this point, nothing we in the humanities can ask students to do that is analogous to what must be asked of anyone who hopes to follow in the footsteps of Anne-Sophie Mutter. We cannot say to students: "Welcome. We are here to rewire your neurons. We are here to completely transform you from the inside so that everything you do with your body (and mind, but that's an afterthought), every sensation and minute experience you have of your own capacities, will be entirely foreign from what you now know." Increasingly, in fact, universities are clamoring to assure students that no such transformation will take place.
And later:
To expect students to master a foreign language would be precisely to have a design upon the wiring of their brains, but such a design would entirely go against the trend, now fully dominant across the humanities, of creating, for every course, a parallel universe of so-called 'learning objectives', where the singular and obvious objective of a course cannot be mentioned, and instead one must speak vaguely of enhancing critical thinking skills, nurturing confidence in public speaking, learning to collaborate with others through small-group work, etc. But obviously the only legitimate learning objective of, say, a Greek course is to learn Greek. Once that basic commitment is abandoned, real education in letters is doomed.
As I said, it's a timely piece, particularly as I sit here copying learning objectives from curriculum documents to paste at the top of each lesson plan.

In teacher's college, much ado is made regarding the potentially transformative nature of education. We are educating for big goals, like active citizenship and an equitable economy, and these will be achieved through community partnerships and character education initiatives! Because who isn't transformed by parent-teacher events and "Respect" month at school?

In a bit of spokesperson weirdness, I have found nothing more promising than the curriculum developed by the Hawn Foundation (as in Goldie Hawn), which actually seeks to incorporate practices of mindfulness (meditation in public schools!) in order to develop gratitude and actual peace of mind. Neuroscience, it seems, has finally figured out what every wisdom tradition has known: that compassion requires spiritual disciplines in order to grow. Now if only we could think of all our learning as a transformative discipline, the results of which are not in our control.

Then maybe I wouldn't have to agonize over these damned lesson plans.


  1. I think this nicely encompasses what you're talking about. The new wealth is "you wealth!"



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