Thorns, Ice, Danger

The article by Harvey Mansfield we linked to in today’s News section examines a number of ways students are coddled or spoiled or pampered at Mansfield’s Harvard, coddled rather than being challenged and stretched as he thinks they ought to be and as, surely, is the whole point of education. If we are all perfectly all right just as we are, what do we need education for at all? Decoration? A status symbol, a positional good, bragging rights? A pretext for playing football or getting drunk? An expensive way to postpone getting a job?

The article is accompanied by a colloquy which offers some hair-raising personal testimony on the subject.

A questionnaire I gave students in every class to test their general knowledge led to one minority student claiming that it made him “feel stupid.” I suggested that perhaps the student was reacting in an overly sensitive manner and was informed by the department chairman that there is no such thing as hypersensitivity. (I’m sure this will come as news to paranoid schizophrenics.)

A repeated theme is the idea of education as a consumer item. This is also the subject of an article in Harper’s from 1997 which points out the way student evaluations tend to make teachers want to please and entertain their students more than provoke or push them. The classroom becomes just one more stand-up routine, and students have a good time but are left as they are.

Most of all I dislike the attitude of calm consumer expertise that pervades the responses. I’m disturbed by the serene belief that my function — and, more important, Freud’s, or Shakespeare’s, or Blake’s — is to divert, entertain, and interest…I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says that she “enjoyed” the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind.

Just so. Enjoyment, pleasure, amusement, and especially ease, comfort, and self-satisfaction are all very well in their way, but they are not enough, and they are not what people need at age eighteen. Discomfort, agitation, fear, excitement, hunger, are what’s needed. Not soft pillows and fluffy blankets and a spot before the fire and a basin of Mr. Woodhouse’s nice thin gruel.

2 Responses to “Thorns, Ice, Danger”