A Transformative Education through the Art of the Lecture

On Tuesday, February 26th, the Assumption College D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence hosted a Symposium on the Lecture. The event included dinner, discussion, and flash lectures by five faculty members. But the centerpiece of the evening was a presentation by Paul Gallagher, Associate Professor of Philosophy, on the power of the lecture to transform the hearts and minds of students. Paul was kind enough to give us permission to post his talk below.

I’m here tonight to give a short talk on the virtues of the lecture, or what is sometimes derisively called the “sage on stage” model of education, and to argue for its place in a quality liberal arts education.  And then to have my little talk be a springboard for further discussion.

But let me preface this with a few caveats.  I fully acknowledge that there is both a legitimate diversity in ways that a professor can run a good class, and also a variety of learning styles in our students.   Some professors teach best by running a discussion heavy class, and feel out of their element giving a lecture, especially in today’s educational climate.  And, as I’ll further argue, it’s not a black and white issue, lecture or discussion.  A good lecture will typically incorporate discussion.

Furthermore, some material lends itself better to one format as opposed to another.  Similarly, there are different learning styles among our students.  Some are bored silly by lectures and respond better to a more interactive classroom experience.

But I think it is important not to lose sight of the fact that some don’t.  For some students, and I was one of them, nothing was better than, and nothing moved me as much as, a great lecture by a learned professor.  I loved the sage on stage, and I suspect that a certain percentage of our students do as well.

I will make a stronger, and perhaps more controversial claim, that among those students that prefer and benefit from a good lecture, are a high percentage of our better students.  We look around the room.  We’re all professors.  We were all the better students in our classes.   And I bet a high percentage of us were inspired, both as undergraduate and as graduate students, by the superlative lecturer, the one who captivated us with his or her erudition, and had the presence or personality to successfully convey that.

I had one professor who was especially gifted, who greatly moved me and others, and I will be talking about him shortly.  My concern is this:  I worry that if the college, and the academy at large, over emphasizes other approaches to conducting a class, that if the lecture is seen as outmoded and on its way out, then I worry that those students for whom the lecture resonates are not being provided the education that most benefits and most effectively transforms them, as we claim a liberal arts education can and should do.

We often at the college speak of the transformative power of a liberal arts education.  We less frequently ask the question, what precisely is this transformation, and how is it best achieved?

One of my principle teachers, Stanley Rosen, had this to say of one of his principle teachers, Leo Strauss.

“Even more important, we (the students of Strauss) felt as a direct force, the erotic strength of Strauss’s spirit, and we were ourselves “turned around” (to use Socrates’ metaphor from the allegory of the cave) by that strength in a way that goes beyond inspiration, to a re-attunement of the soul and an opening of the eye of the intellect.  This is something that does not come from reading books, but only from direct contact with a great teacher.”

Rosen is first identifying, and I agree with him, that the transformative power of a liberal education consists in a “turning around” whereby a student’s soul is “re-attuned” and the “eye of the intellect” is opened.  Rosen further claims as his second point that this only comes about through “direct contact with a great teacher.”

These are vague expressions that we need to try to flesh out.

Let me try to explain what I think Rosen is talking about by recounting my experiences with a particularly great teacher, David Lachterman.  Lachterman was hands down the most brilliant, erudite, and perhaps most importantly, eloquent person I have ever encountered in life.  I remember being dazzled by his lectures, sitting in class mesmerized with a smile of delight on my face, as he wove together six or seven seemingly disparate strands of thought into a coherent, profound, and indeed beautiful whole.  Wonder, Socrates also tells us, is the feeling of the philosopher.  David was a master of creating that feeling of wonder in his students.

What I and others encountered face to face with Lachterman was a rarified instance of intellectual excellence, an extraordinary mind on display in an extraordinary fashion.  And it was not only an intellectual experience, but was what I can only describe as an intellectual aesthetic experience.   For above all, David was a master storyteller, and what he told were utterly fascinating philosophical dramas, where the protagonists, rather than being Hamlet and Ophelia, were ideas, whose origin was Aristotle, Hegel, and others.  An intellectual work of art was being created and displayed before my very eyes and ears.  And it was beautiful.

These experiences did something to me and to virtually every student David had:  our encounters with David led, as Rosen said, to a “re-attunement of the soul and an opening of the eye of the intellect.”

For what was opened?  The “eye of my intellect” was opened to, awakened to, the beauty and richness of thought.  What was re-attuned?  My soul, if you will, reoriented to the world of the intellect.  And this opening of the eye of my intellect was much more important than any particulars that I remembered, or any “cultural literacy” that I picked up, or even any “critical thinking” that I developed.  Frankly, the specifics I remember most from my professors’ lectures were the jokes they told.  But as if by osmosis, something much more important happened than retaining information.  I learned how to read philosophical texts.  I learned, if you will, how to think and be thoughtful.  And in some difficult to articulate way, my internal life became richer.

I bet most of us, we future professors in the top tier of our undergraduate classes, had a David Lachterman who touched us in a similar manner.  And I think that many of our better students crave such an intellectual experience, and could indeed be transformed by it, and if they don’t crave it, I worry it’s in part because they have not been sufficiently exposed to such intellectual encounters.  But let me return to the transformative element of such experiences.

In Plato’s the Ion, Socrates describes well what I believe happens in these face to face “performances” that a superlative speaker gives to an audience.  Here Socrates tells us that the effect of the rhapsode on his or her audience is akin to the effect of a magnet on adjacent pieces of iron.  The power of and quality of the magnet is transferred to the pieces of iron; they too become magnetized, and inherit the qualities of the magnet, simply by virtue of being in the presence of the magnet.

This was precisely the effect David had on his students.  We too became magnetized if you will, transformed through his philosophical rhapsodies, through experiencing first hand and internalizing his intellectual excellence.  And with that, intellectual excellence began to germinate in us as well.  I wanted to be like that, and more importantly, by virtue of this exposure, I began to be like that. For the exposure to his intellectual excellence led to the internalization of his intellectual excellence. I experienced what it was to be thoughtful and began to become thoughtful through that experience.  In more prosaic terms, David modeled for his students “what it meant to think.”  And most of us to one degree or another “caught on.”

A short story about my youngest son, Jack.  Jack graduated from Holy Cross two years ago.  His favorite class was a class on Islam.  He has no interest in Islam, not before the class and very little after the class.  But the course was apparently taught by a great teacher who exclusively lectured.  And Jack says he was absolutely enthralled by the lectures.  He described them as utterly fascinating, and said it was better than watching the best movie.  I have no doubt but that my son’s soul was enriched through this experience, and that through this exposure to and participation in intellectual excellence, he became a fuller, rounder person.  For like me, Jack too was introduced to the beauty and richness of thought. The repeated exposure to such thoughtfulness, to me, is what it means to be educated, not how many facts about Islam you may have retained from the lecture.

But setting this example aside, is a good lecture typically “one sided”, where you effectively have a one man show, the active “sage on stage” addressing a passive student audience?  No.  A good lecturer, like Lachterman, will always pause, and take, and most importantly, pose questions.  A good lecturer will always prompt a dialogue between him or herself and the classroom.  And the responses to these questions can and will prompt further questions raised by both the professor and students to the class.  In short, a good lecture will always, to some degree, morph into a dialogue.  But the dialogue will have some meat and potatoes on it, insofar as the topic under discussion will have some depth to it by virtue of the lecture.  And the more the audience has been exposed to this type of experience and “magnetized” by it, presumably the more forthcoming the dialogue will be.

The second strand of thought in Rosen’s quote is that this re-attunement of the soul cannot take place through the reading of a book, and only takes place, as he puts it, “through direct contact with a great teacher,”  with what I’m calling the face to face encounter with a great teacher.

I would say that there is something profoundly humanizing in the face to face encounter with the living presence or the living reality of a person.  While this direct contact can occur by a professor circulating among students in discussion groups, I have tried, by example, to argue that the conveyance of intellectual excellence is, at least in many cases, better achieved through a lecture.

At least part of the reason why that is the case has to do with the content matter that we teach.  In philosophy, we for the most part teach “the great books.” These books are hard, and they are great, precisely because there are layers of depth to them.  I think that without a fairly in-depth presentation by a professor, that you only scratch the surface of that depth and don’t do justice to the richness of the text at hand.  It just doesn’t work to do a five minute summary of the Kant’s categorical imperative, and then to break up into groups to discuss it.  The discussion invariably is going to be superficial because the manner in which you’ve presented the concept was superficial.

But what would be an indirect contact with a great teacher?   Rosen names the reading of books that presumably the teacher has written.   In the 21st century, we have to add to that other ways that technology mediates, rather than makes immediate, our contact with the human race.  This would include contact with our teachers through YouTube, videos, audio recordings, and other modes of technological reproduction.  I think these can be “good,” but they are simply not the same.  Yes, I would love to have videos of Lachterman lecturing, not only to “sort of” re-experience the event, but hey, I could rewind it and catch what I missed the first go around.  I could also stop and make myself a sandwich.

But it wouldn’t be the same.  What is missing in the indirect contact is what Rosen calls the strength of the teacher’s spirit, or what we could simply call the force and presence of their personality, and the impact that has.  Or more simply yet, by the presence of their humanity.  I don’t think it is by accident that neither Socrates nor Jesus wrote anything.  To be fully effective as transformative teachers, those they encountered needed to feel and be transformed by the full force of their personalities.

By analogy, it’s the difference between being present to a great musical performance and listening to it on your stereo.  While the recording can be wonderful, it’s simply not the same.  As Plato long ago told us, the image is always a deficient copy of an original.

The medium does matter.  And I think it is clear that the power of human spirit is largely sucked out when it is only transmitted through indirect, electronic means.  One is alive; one is not.  And that is the crucial difference.

Can this model fail?  Certainly.  It can fail when we fail to reach a critical mass of our students and they tune us out.  This can be a result of a group of students, for myriad reasons, not having the disposition to listen to a lecture and be moved by this sort of display of intellectual excellence.

But context is everything.  I think it is very arguable that introductory classes, while having a lecture component, should be more group discussion oriented than intermediate and advanced level courses.  The disposition to listen and respond to a good lecture is less developed in freshmen than it is in seniors.  And I think for a lecture to be “good” for introductory classes, above all it needs to be clear.

Failures can also come about by virtue of shortcomings on the part of the lecturer.  Not everyone has the talents to do this effectively.  If you don’t have the gift, or are just developing the gift, it becomes hard to make it work

Let me make a confession.  I don’t lecture, or more accurately, I have scaled back quite a bit on the amount of time I spend lecturing in my class.  More often, I use a combination of Power Points and lecture, supplemented by occasional discussion groups.  Why?  I don’t have the magic.  I learned throughout my career that I just don’t have the eloquence, the force of personality, and the erudition to pull this off in the way that I know that it can be pulled off.  In short, I’m no David Lachterman.

If you don’t have the gift, the risk you are going to run is either flatness of delivery and the resulting feeling that you are making your living by boring 18 year olds to tears.  Or worse, that intellectual excellence is replaced by intellectual arrogance, and what is transmitted to students is not excellence, but the fool’s gold of pretentiousness.

But some of you, many of you, do have that gift and talent, and I believe you should be encouraged to be the genuine “sage on stage.”  In the past, we had many sages on stage at the college, and several who had enough “strength of spirit” and erudition that they could pull this off very successfully.  Two names that come to mind are Mike O’Shea and Patrick Powers.

I’m confident that we have many other such professors at the college now.  I think we should encourage them to display their intellectual excellence to their students, so their students too can become “magnetized” in their presence.

Absolutely, let a thousand pedagogical flowers bloom at the college.  But we should not lose sight of the fact that a lecture by an intelligent, learned individual is an especially beautiful flower.  If we want the education that we offer to be  genuinely transformative, we should not let it die at the college.