The Wheel and the Whip

I’ve been meaning to write a proper review of Norm Friesen’s The Textbook and the LectureThis post isn’t it, but I can direct you to Lavinia Marin’s informative review at the LSE Review of Books. What I want to do here is simply to riff off the book’s (for me) central insight, namely, that the traditional “media” of education, such as textbooks and lectures, go back a long, long way and are closely tied to the history of literacy in general. What we mean by reading and writing, and especially academic reading and writing, has been conditioned by millennia of shared classroom experiences in which information has been presented in a particular way. Scholarly writing doesn’t simply transcribe these experiences, it is informed by them. The classroom experience, likewise, is shaped by the role we grant to writing in education.

It’s the depth of this history, its “longue durée”, that Friesen is trying to get us to appreciate, which is why I’ve been encouraging anyone who is thinking seriously about the future of academia to read his book.  These days, there’s a strong tendency to jettison “traditional” elements of our pedagogy in favor of fancy new technologies. I was recently told of a student reading “app” that would essentially overlay a social media experience on the experience of reading an assigned text. While it wouldn’t add much more than a set of study questions and group discussion, it would completely destroy the solitary experience of reading. A few years ago the chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication “retired” the essay.

As Friesen reminds us, however, the denigration of traditional forms, like lecturing, isn’t actually a new thing. It can be found in John Dewey’s “progressive” ideal of education. We’ve grown used to dismissing lecturing as uselessly passive or even harmfully pacifying. Friesen is trying to tell us that making sense of a 45 minute lecture (without PowerPoint!) is an important, trainable skill and that going through this training leaves our minds (and in fact our brains) in better shape than we would be if we were constantly “activated” by classroom gadgetry.

The insight that brought it all together for me was realizing that lecturing is about as old as writing, and both are about as old the wheel. When people reject a medium of instruction that has been with us for 6000 years undergoing continuous small improvements, because some new technology (like the Internet) has made it “obsolete”, I always want to remind them that some inventions have yet to be transcended. It is true that the automobile made the buggy whip largely obsolete and it is now being produced for a very specialized niche market. But the same is not true of the wheel. It is has simply been improved, century after century, rolling, rolling, rolling ever more efficiently, and in ever more creative applications, but always leveraging the same mechanical force in the same way, round and round.

Likewise, written and spoken “prose”, the plain expression of what we believe to be true, has a long history of gradual development. I hope I never tire of celebrating the advance of the paragraph as a form of expression and I firmly believe that its force is leveraged both in our academic writing and our academic speaking. The focus and coherence of paragraphs are virtues that run through both our essays and our lectures, not to mention our treatises and our textbooks. We have learned, through ongoing experimentation, how to describe facts along with our reasons to believe in them. This form of communication is essentially “academic” and the foundation of critical thinking as we know it. The “modern fact” and the modern paragraph owe a great deal to each other, and we owe a great deal to both of them.

So that’s why I urge scholars to think seriously about the changes they are proposing to our media of instruction. Some of them have been around for a long time because they are part of the essence of what we do. They have served us well for thousands of years and, if we let them, they will continue to serve us well for thousands more. That’s because they were never just a gadget we invented; they emerged from the long moment of human history, the encounter between the world and our bodies, our history and the human brain. Not everything old-fashioned is out of date. Before removing a “traditional” element from your pedagogy because “it’s 2018”, therefore, ask yourself whether it’s more like the buggy whip or more like the wheel. I believe that lecturing and prose writing, for example, are the wheels of knowledge circulation. Their moment will not soon pass. Or will pass at our very definite peril.

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