Quoting the Humanities: An Idea for Beginning Education Courses

By Osborne, Chad | Education, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

Quoting the Humanities: An Idea for Beginning Education Courses


Osborne, Chad, Education


Most education course tests coming out now stress the application of research on effective teachers and teaching, on reflective teaching, on the skills of teaching - all as if education were a science of known and agreed upon facts. While there is obvious merit in the search for a scientific base of knowledge for building and revising theories of instruction, education is as firmly in the humanities, which engage issues with human passions as in the tradition of science, which seems to distance itself from its subjects of study in order to gain objectivity. The following activity is particularly suitable in the start of a course; it provides an effective informal screening for speech problems, sets a tone for discussion and debate in the course, allows the professor to learn students' names more readily, and introduces the theme of the humanities and sciences as both contributors to formulating beliefs about teaching.

Students are given a 5 1/2 page handout containing sixty-seven quotations(1) organized under six headings:

1. What Should We Teach? 2. Good and Bad Teachers 3. Behaving and Misbehaving 4. Smart Kids and Dumb Kids 5. Rights and Responsibilities, and 6. The Establishment and the Alternatives. The assignment is to pick two quotations that give divergent views on the same or a similar topic, and prepare to speak informally for 2 - 3 minutes to classmates, giving reasons and examples why one is more often true than the other, or why both are true. Particular encouragement to justify both quotations encourages a complex kind of thinking that benefits teachers' developing problem solving skills.

Examples of paired quotations students have given their talks about include: "A teacher affects eternity. He never knows where his influence stops." - Henry Adams

"Everybody incapable of learning has taken to teaching." - Oscar Wilde

Or, a little more subtly: "It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it." - Joseph Joubert

"In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made school boards." - Mark Twain

A quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald helps motivate students to look for contradictory quotations: "The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." A discussion follows of instances where teachers need to hold opposed ideas in mind, such as the benefits of lecture vs. discussion, sensitivity vs. assertiveness, student concerns vs. administrative constraints, student needs vs. teacher needs, etc. Emerson's statement that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" reinforces the notion of embracing contrary notions.

Students rate the process of giving talks as the most nerve-wracking part of the course, due to inexperience in speaking in front of peers. This in itself seems to make other tasks, such as small group exercises, less anxiety producing. Persistence of the humanities vs. science theme - embracing both contraries - and of the entire notion of contrary thinking - need continual emphasis and reinforcement through discussion, assignments, and essay tests. Otherwise the pressure of students' other courses and the natural tendency to regress toward traditional practices result in simplistic questions and answers.

Winston Churchill once said that a book of quotations was a good education for a young person. Quotations can also stimulate personal ways of knowing in future educators. They can spark thinking that integrates both humanistic and scientific views of teaching, emphasize the complex nature of thinking about education, and break the ice in a course in a manner both interesting and open for future expansion.

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Quoting the Humanities: An Idea for Beginning Education Courses
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