In Defense of Teaching "Outdated" Material

By Lunceford, Brett | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, July 2009 | Go to article overview

In Defense of Teaching "Outdated" Material


Lunceford, Brett, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


We all know that Euclidean geometry does not adequately explain the space in which we live. Our world is not that of the plane, as found in Edward Abbott's Flatland. Why, then, is Euclidean geometry still taught in schools? I suggest that without an understanding of Euclidean geometry, one would have difficulty understanding advanced concepts, such as trigonometry or calculus. As my college calculus teacher noted, calculus is just addition done with lines. Advanced concepts build on previous knowledge.

During my rhetorical criticism course, students sometimes wonder why we cover so much history. A similar issue is also raised in my rhetorical theory course, a survey course that begins with the pre-Socratics and ends with postmodern rhetorical theory. I openly state that some of the material that we cover is no longer useful from a methodological standpoint, but that there are reasons for teaching the material. I explain to the students that it is important to recognize not only current rhetorical theory and methods of criticism, but also the controversies, dead ends, and landmarks that brought us to the place we are today. Innovation is often the result of recognition of suboptimal processes or ideas. If we help students see where these shifts in method or theory occurred and what spawned these insights, and, more importantly, why previous generations held inaccurate understandings, we are more likely to have students who will likewise improve the discipline because they, too, can see potential ways to improve their craft.

In this essay, I will draw on the idea of time-binding in order to make a case for teaching supposedly "outdated" material. My focus is primarily toward educators, but the idea can also be applied by anyone who wishes to more fully understand his or her craft. Knowledge does not spring forth ex nihilo; current knowledge is built on previous knowledge. But it is not enough to simply teach history; we must teach students how to use history. If we can teach students how to bind together previous knowledge with current knowledge, there will be little in any discipline that can truly be considered outdated.

Time-Binding and Education

  Every subject has a history, including biology, physics, mathematics,
  literature, music and art. ... To teach, for example, what we know
  about biology today without also teaching what we once knew, or
  thought we knew, is to reduce knowledge to a mere consumer product.
  It is to deprive students of a sense of the meaning of what we know,
  and of how we know.
  --Neil Postman (1)

Too often we seek the most up-to-date material at the expense of the monumental works that defined a discipline. This is also structural; publishers stop publishing groundbreaking books because there is no longer sufficient demand for them. For example, when I ordered Postman's Teaching as a Conserving Activity as part of the readings for my graduate pedagogy course, I was informed by the university bookstore that the book was "out of stock indefinitely with the publisher and no longer available" (despite the many potential sellers on Amazon and other such sites). Groundbreaking works in my field of rhetorical criticism, such as Edwin Black's Rhetorical Criticism: A Study in Method, are only recently available through print-on-demand. With a seemingly constant flood of new books and knowledge, it is difficult enough to simply keep up, let alone delve into the archives.

We must, of course, stay up-to-date on current trends in our field. However, we must also remember that the insights of tomorrow are dependent on the knowledge of the past. Alfred Korzybski observed:

  The simple steel structure of a bridge, familiar to us in every day
  life, is a clear reminder to us all of the arts of Hephaestus and the
  bound-up knowledge of countless generations of smiths and mechanics,
  metallurgists and chemists, mathematicians and builders, teachers and
  engineers who toiled for many thousands of years to make possible the
  riveted steel beams which are the elements of modern structure. … 

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