A room, a table, and a dozen chairs

The Baltimore Sun is running an article on Page One this morning about the arrival of the iPad on college campuses and how it is expected that that will change higher education.

No doubt it will, though one of my colleagues at Loyola has learned to shut off access to the Internet in the computer lab where he teaches so that his students don’t spend the entire class period on Facebook.

And I do not mean to stand in Luddite scorn at the Big Things that electronics are bringing to campus. Electronic access opens up a multitude of additional resources and can improve communication. In an increasingly electronic and interconnected world, it’s important not to fall behind, and vital to explore new possibilities.

But still, I remember wistfully my first look at a classroom at St. John’s College in Annapolis when my son enrolled there: a plain room with a table in the middle, a dozen chairs around the table, and a blackboard on one wall. Internet and iPad aside, that room was fully equipped for education.

Put in it a knowledgeable teacher, a group of students eager to learn, and some books. Let them read those books analytically and dissect one another’s arguments and master the rigors and precision of mathematics. Let them learn how to think and how to express their thoughts effectively. To do that, they already have with them the equipment for thinking.

If you don’t have that knowledgeable teacher or those students wanting to learn how to think, no amount of gadgetry will simulate an education.

School is starting again, and I’ll leave you today with the most valuable piece of advice I got as an undergraduate. In my freshman year at Michigan State, I was talking with Jean Nicholas in the Romance languages department about courses.

She said: Don’t take subjects; take teachers. If you want to learn a subject, go to the library. For your classes, find out who the interesting teachers are. You’re here to explore a variety of personalities and worldviews and senses of humor, and for that you have to choose teachers, not subjects.

Whenever I took that advice, I did well. Whenever I went against it, I wasted my time.



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