A Few More Thoughts on Classical Pedagogy: A Response to Ian Mosley and Joshua Gibbs

In response to Ian Mosely’s recent blog post, I agree that with older students, question-asking and roundtable discussion are indispensable methods for learning and important preparation for what lies ahead.  As a college writing instructor, I often lament the inability (or disinterest) of students to participate in discussion of the main ideas and key questions of a text.  They simply want me to disseminate the important points and my own commentary, with the view that if they just mimic me in their essays, they will do well.  They are waiting to hear “the answers” from me instead of wrestling with the text itself.  Instead of truth-full papers, students fail to engage the text at all, simply regurgitating phrases they’ve heard (but not understood) from me, and their essays are often repetitive and boring; they certainly haven’t offered any new ways of looking at things.

I have long thought that good question asking leads to good writing, and I endeavor to teach my students this through modeling the process.  Still, in a college composition class, it’s hard to fight the feeling that it’s too late to teach critical thinking and (informed) academic discourse.  From my perspective, it’s not only important, but imperative, that students learn these skills in high school so that they are prepared for the college classroom, academic writing and discourse, and the great big world of ideas that lies beyond the college gates.

Perhaps it’s also worth mentioning that the argument against the “harkness discussion” due to the faulty positioning of the teacher seems to feed the often assumed stereotype of classical education as patriarchal and authoritarian.  I personally don’t want to see the classical resurgence characterized this way.  Instead, I believe that classical education should strive to use the best methods and resources possible to train students to be critical thinkers who engage the world wisely and winsomely.  They must learn to ask questions and wrestle with ideas—on their own and in community—in order to discern the meaning, assumptions, significance, and implications of a text.  If we want students to be leaders and influencers, it’s hard for me to see how we could serve them well without teaching (and modeling) the important skills of question asking and academic discourse.

Additionally, the idea that a teacher’s modeling of Christ would suggest a departure from his or her participation in harkness discussions (in favor of being positioned as Lecturer on Truth) seems to miss a few important biblical concepts: humility (which Jesus frequently elevates as a key virtue) and measuring arguments against Scripture (being a “Berean”), to name two that come immediately to mind.  While part of a teacher’s role is certainly to lead and inspire, these responsibilities need not exist exclusively behind a lectern.  I disagree with Gibbs that “A good teacher is not trying to inspire a lifelong spirit of inquiry.”  His point, obviously, is that it’s important for us to present the Truth of the gospel to students, and not just a variety of worldviews.  But when applied to the issue of discussion-style learning, I think this view is problematic.  I, for one, would love to see my children blossom into God-fearing adults who know and love the Truth, but don’t ever get to a point where they are out of questions and curiosity about God’s world.  As a young adult forming my own view of God and his world, the exchange of questions and ideas was incredibly important.  In fact, I’m still asking them.  Have any of us stopped?  If we have, perhaps we need to begin anew.  As a Christian, I know there is Truth to be learned and known and treasured.  However, I think it a bit arrogant and foolish to think that we don’t need a lot of question-asking to form us more into the image of Christ.  To that end, I think it wise to teach this process to high school students in an effort to prepare them for the world of ideas that lies in front of them.  We should do our best to arm them well with weapons for the fight of faith; I think question-asking and informed dialogue are among those.

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