Teaching Whole People

By Robinson, Douglas | National Forum, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Teaching Whole People


Robinson, Douglas, National Forum


What do we do in our educational system when we become uncomfortably aware that there is some issue, some problem, some socially significant subject area that is not being addressed by our established curriculum?

We create a new course in it. We recruit someone from our own ranks to teach it, or, if that proves impossible (or politically tricky), we hire someone from the outside to teach it.

And what happens when that course proves inadequate in meeting the institution's needs? When student or faculty protest, or public outcry, calls it a drop in the ocean or a thumb in the dike (depending on whether you like your metaphors wet or dry)?

Well, we create a second course. A numbered sequence, perhaps. If necessary we convince a department to take it over and offer it as part of the department's core curriculum requirements. With any luck, teaching assistants can teach it and save the university a great deal of money.

And what if even that is not enough? Then we shrug our shoulders: "Unfortunately, there's nothing more we can do."

I'm thinking primarily of "university-wide" courses in multiculturalism, but any number of similar courses could be plugged into this equation and work equally well. Writing courses, note-taking and study-habit courses, research methodology courses, critical-thinking courses are typically tacked onto a curriculum in much this same way: first they are for all students, then they are taken over by a single department, and finally, after much judicious truculence from all concerned, they are tacked onto the major requirements in every department, where they remain ghettoized (unintegrated) by a near-total lack of interest in them on the part of the regular faculty.

The writing-across-the-curriculum movement is still largely mired in the sludge of this resistance, despite a decade of hard-won battles. The languages-across-the-curriculum movement--which seeks to integrate foreign-language learning with specialized subjects so that students may study biology or political science in German or Chinese--is just getting off the ground and races almost insuperable obstacles. It would be much better, most faculty members seem to believe, to have all students take a composition course or two in the English department, a foreign-language course or two or three in the modern languages department, a critical-thinking course in the philosophy department--and, perhaps, a multicultural course offered by education, or black studies, or women's studies, or political science.

Societal Sicknesses

The trouble with these easy fixes, of course, is that they get nowhere near the core of the underlying problems. They address none of the social problems or social transformations that are driving the need for change. They are, to shift out of my wet-and-dry metaphors, a Band-Aid on a malignant melanoma, an aspirin for AIDS. There are deep-seated sicknesses in our society that everyone feels, everyone senses as a discomfort, a pain or an itch, or an inability to sleep, that we would rather not think about; it can't be anything serious, we tell ourselves, and remind ourselves to load up on Tylenol. (II) literacy

There is, for example, the sickness of (il)literacy--which I write like that because I'm not sure whether the sickness is the failure to teach literacy or the failure to explore significant social alternatives to literacy, such as videocy, the ability to read video images with understanding. The literacy hegemony of the past four hundred years is cracking, perhaps crumbling, and all we can think to do is push print and its concomitants (not only reading and writing, books and articles, but linear logical thinking as well) harder and attack television more strenuously. And what happens to those students who work in a video medium competently but feel utterly lost in print? Remedial reading, special education, truancy, high drop-out rates, menial jobs, and welfare. …

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