Anyone who has taken a liberal arts class at GW has been there.
Everything seems fine as the professor is plodding along with the lecture. Most students have a healthy glaze over their eyes as they dutifully transcribe notes in a semi-comatose state. But a couple of diligent students in the class develop an inspired glow on their faces, and several arms begin to convulse like a snake going in for the kill.
And then, the avalanche of words begins.
Before you know it, the narrowly focused curriculum chosen by the professor turns into a verbal free-for-all, with students trying to prove how much they know on issues ranging from drilling for oil in Alaska to government subsidies for beekeepers.
For anyone who hasn’t been there, I am talking about what happens in numerous classes on campus when students try to relate seemingly unconnected experiences and opinions to the topic at hand. Whether this action is to garner attention or prove superior knowledge, it is almost always accomplished through garrulous comments that never get to the point.
This sort of uncontrolled “discussion” that has broken out in a handful of my classes over the years has been one of the downsides of my GW education. And sometimes it seems that the professors, who should be the ones providing the bulk of knowledge to the class, are unwilling to take a stand.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I dislike hearing people talk. I also don’t have a problem with a lively classroom discourse to break the monotony of endless PowerPoint slides. But debate is only useful if it helps the class come to conclusions that will facilitate the learning process. Rather than listening to someone’s lengthy anecdote about their Hill internship, I would much rather hear someone weigh in on the subject matter being discussed and pose thoughtful and insightful questions.
Unfortunately, on a number of occasions, I have been guilty of throwing out my opinion in class just for the sake of speaking. Nearly all the times this has occurred was when my section of (insert political science class here) resembled an episode of “American Idol,” with everyone struggling to get their minute of air time and fame. I joined this struggle as well, and the goal changed from using one’s brain to using one’s mouth. When a couple of students begin to preach without purpose, the academic setting can easily break down into a mindless free for-all-and suck others into the intellectual void.
College is a great place to explore one’s own opinions and views while receiving specialized instruction in areas that were out of reach in high school or elementary school. But at times, a liberal arts education is equated with an opportunity for everyone to have their opinions accepted as meaningful and worthwhile. A class member with an opinion that may not be based in total fact is often allowed to speak up without protest from professors or students who are reluctant to stifle open discourse and seem restrictive in an enlightened setting.
While there is a place for an open conversation in the academic setting, this activity should not be the goal of the classroom environment. For centuries, education has relied on passing down knowledge from one generation to the next. Since the Enlightenment, the notion of attaining knowledge through careful questioning and open discussion has gained favor, but it seems that nowadays any opinion is allowed to slide. Telling someone that they are wrong has become a dirty word, and free expression has made room for a forum in which everyone throws their two cents into the pot and ignores whether anything worthwhile is being said.
I for one, would like to see professors take a more authoritative stance on the quest for knowledge in the classroom. All too often, a professor will respond to a misguided comment that was clearly made to draw attention or sound prophetic by saying, “You may have a point,” or, “That sounds interesting.” While such comments do not endorse what is being said, they also do not point out that such statements do nothing to enhance the class. I have had professors who are not afraid to tell someone they are wrong or that their train of thought is not on the right track. My only wish is that more classroom instructors would do this.
The burden also falls on all of us students. Next time you’re about to say something in class, make sure that it sticks to the point and helps make the class more beneficial in some way. Please don’t preface questions with “isn’t it true” and “don’t you think” unless you are genuinely interested in what the teacher has to say and are not just trying to toot your own horn. And for anyone who is in a class that has descended into verbal mayhem, do not be afraid to speak up against it, or not speak up in protest. Though a pointless discussion may eat up time, letting it end may be the best thing to do for everyone’s intellectual well-being.
-The writer, a junior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.