Thoughts on Teaching

Article excerpt

In my 40 years on the Cornell faculty, I have given at least as much priority to teaching as I have to research and public service. I have done so, because I believe that is what should happen at a great university. And when I was an undergraduate at Cornell in the mid-1930s, that is what did happen. There was a tradition in that the most distinguished professors taught introductory courses. It still happens today, but not as often.

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As a teacher, I have seen as my main goal enabling students to experience the adventure, and hard-won harvest, of disciplined, creative thought that goes beyond any one discipline. To be sure, transmitting knowledge is also important, but today's knowledge is sure to be surpassed by tomorrow's. Thus, the greatest gift one can give to the young is to enable them to deal critically and creatively with the new answers, and the new questions, that the future brings.

Alas, that is a far more difficult task than conveying what is already known, for it requires the student to be an active participant in the process. This means that the classroom experience must, at one and the same time, be both structured and free--a kind of disciplined spontaneity on the part of both teacher and students. That's something a teacher can't play by ear. It requires a lesson plan that is far more detailed than a prepared lecture. It's like writing a play in which only your own lines appear in the script, all the other actors are free to improvise, and your part must have alternative versions that anticipate the possible roles the others may play, so that you can choose the best response to make the plot move toward resolution. …