Last Wednesday, students at Geneseo were treated to another addition in the Harding Lecture series: Francis Smith Foster's "Freedom's Journal and Its Work; Or Facts, Falsehoods and Common Sense."
During the course of her lecture, Foster touched on numerous topics, but the most striking lesson for me was her direction for us to be suspicious, to question what we are learning and to investigate things for ourselves.
This is an attitude that I've personally held for some time, but it is the first time I've encountered it at a seemingly institutional level here at Geneseo. I cannot be so bold as to assume that I speak for everyone, but on what I've heard from others and what I've experienced myself, I am led to believe that high school was much more geared towards test-taking skills and knowledge regurgitation than college seems to be.
In high school, my global history teachers would become annoyed when I constantly brought up biases in the curriculum or questioned force fed historical narratives as being subjective stories wrapped in the guise of objective truth. I can't tell you the number of times I drove myself crazy trying to understand a formula in math or physics and being told the easiest and best way to go about it was to just memorize the formula and plug the numbers in so that I could find the answers to problems. I didn't want to be a robot. My parents pay taxes to be spent on my education, not my programming.
Here at Geneseo I've found professors who would be thoroughly disappointed in me if I didn't question what I was learning or investigate the facts I was given to attempt to reach my own greater understanding of the knowledge I was gaining. I couldn't be happier.
When I walk into my English 237 class I cannot expect to be able to make it through the 50 minutes on my ability to robotically point out diction, imagery, syntax and all the other wonderful literary and rhetorical techniques.
It is not good enough for me to go to my Theatre 100 class and memorize that Japanese Noh theatre is performed with very small precise motions. It would be horrific for me to attempt to sit through my Honors 101 philosophy class and expect to get anything out of it by accepting everything the professor says as absolute truth.
No, these methods may have worked for me in high school, but not anymore - and thankfully so. Now I have to understand the function of those literary and rhetorical techniques; I have to understand the subtlety of Noh theatre and the culture and beliefs that produced it; I have to understand that the only way for me to truly grasp the concepts of Socrates is through engaging in my own Socratic dialogue. This is what I've been waiting for, and what I tried to practice in high school, despite the system being geared completely towards standardized testing.
As someone who wants to possibly become a high school teacher, this frustrates me to no end. I'd rather understand half of all that I've learned than know all of it. I'd rather have a small deep well of understanding than a wide shallow pool of knowledge. Does this mean that memorization and regurgitation do not have their places in education? No, for it is impossible to understand what one does not yet know. It is imperative, however, to acknowledge that these are means of education, not ends.
The problem here is that this would take a tremendous amount of time and effort on the part of teachers who need to teach us what will get us to the next level. This leaves much of the intellectual responsibility to the students. Perhaps that's the way it should be. I don't want someone else telling me what to think, but it is nice to be encouraged to think.
Welcome to college; here's the information. Now ask questions.
Just the way I like it.
Jesse Goldberg is a freshman English major who's got a fever, and the only prescription is more knowledge.