Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The calling of teaching

Key to the future of liberty

I’m spending this week speaking at an Institute for Humane Studies seminar for college students interested in libertarian ideas. This follows my participation two weekends ago at another IHS seminar, one for graduate students and faculty members interested in becoming better teachers. One great thing about both experiences is the opportunity to be around, and inspired by, other great teachers. It’s also great to teach in a room where the students are all thrilled to be there and excited to hear you talk. As comedians would say, it’s an easy room.

The two seminars have also got me thinking about teaching and its role in the liberty movement. Having spent my career at an institution where I teach a lot and where teaching is highly valued, I’m long used to thinking about the power of the classroom for young people in general.

However, only recently has the libertarian movement begun to think seriously about how important really good teachers are to opening people’s minds to our ideas, especially at the high school and college levels, when students are most amenable to them. Part of this new focus has been driven by the realities of higher education, where we have done well at producing more Ph.D.s but face a climate where tenure-track jobs are dwindling and competition makes it hard for everyone to get one at a research-oriented school. More libertarian academics are going to wind up at places like mine, and to be successful both as a professor and at generating student interest in liberty, they will need to be excellent teachers.

Greatest Impact

Not everyone will be the next Hayek. Most of us will have our greatest impact in the classroom, where the number of students we teach over a career can add up very quickly. That’s going to be many more people than the number who read our relatively obscure scholarly articles (though not this column!).

So how does one become an excellent teacher? At the evening reception the other night, one of the students here asked me precisely that question, and I answered with three terms: passion, empathy, and love.

Expertise and excellent teaching have the same source: passion about the subject. If you aren’t passionate about what you do, I’m not sure how you can be a truly excellent teacher. That same passion should also lead you to become knowledgeable about your subject. I love economics, and it’s what drives me to know more, to write, and to master the discipline. I think my passion comes across in my classroom and in other public speaking. Every year Israel Kirzner gives an introductory lecture for graduate students at FEE’s Advanced Austrian Economics Seminar. Even in his early 80s he gives that talk with the passion of someone doing it for the first time and as though it was the most important thing in the world. That is a mark of an excellent teacher.

Seeing the World as Students See It

Empathy is the ability to see the world as your students see it so you can offer explanations they can grasp. I don’t mean just using examples that touch on their culture but something deeper. An excellent teacher has to be able to explain concepts and use words that are accessible to the student. This often means eschewing the technical language of the discipline, or at least not starting there. Really great teachers are really great “explainers” because their audience perceives them as clear communicators. Doing that requires knowing your audience, and that requires this sort of empathy, which is often the result of careful listening to the questions students ask. Great teachers aren’t just great speakers but great listeners too.

Love here is not about the subject matter; it’s about the students. Great teachers really like and respect their students. They treat them fairly, they treat them as adults, and they hold high expectations for them. They also listen sympathetically and try to give them the benefit of the doubt until they demonstrate they don’t deserve it. Students respond to teachers whose default mode is to love them in this sense. If you don’t like and respect your students, that will come across quickly in the classroom and you will lose many of them in the process.

The power of great teachers is never to be underestimated. If we are to move forward to freedom, a key part of that process will take place in the classroom, where young people’s views of the world are up for grabs. No matter how right we think the ideas of freedom are, they have to be communicated and taught in ways that are powerful and effective. That means great teaching. The more great teachers we have and the more we think about how to do the job well, the better the prospects for liberty.


'Million Teacher March' Falls About 992,000 People Short

Teachers unions and their supporters hoped to draw 1 million people to Washington D.C. last weekend for their "Save Our Schools" rally. They apparently fell about 992,000 people short.

The embarrassing attendance underlined one major truth – there is no mass movement to maintain the status quo in our nation’s public schools. The only people defending the current system are those who profit from it, like the leaders of the nation's teachers unions.

The "Save Our Schools" message was honest in one respect – the union goal is to save public schools as they currently exist. Notice that there was no call to improve the quality of education for students, because that's not what the unions are fighting for.

Their only concern is to maintain a system that has kept unions financially health for decades. The fact that American students are struggling in this system is not on their agenda.

The unions certainly did their best to draw a crowd, even going as far as inviting Matt Damon to be a keynote speaker.

The burning question in my mind was if Damon would draw more people to this rally than he did to his recently flopped film "Green Zone." The answer was a definite no. And he got a little temperamental when pressed by a reporter from ReasonTV:

Person behind the camera: Aren't 10 percent (of teachers) bad though? Ten percent of teachers are bad. Ten percent of people in any profession should think of something else.
Damon: Well, okay, but I mean, maybe you’re a shi**y cameraman. I don't know.

A popular theme of the rally was to attack student testing. See, if the establishment can get rid of any sort of objective measure of student performance, then they can dicker about subjective measurements for employees, such as how much they work, how much they care and how hard they’re trying. It has been a full-frontal attack on objective measurements, which they’ve deemed "high-stakes."

The unionists were also complaining about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, collective bargaining reform in Ohio and boogeymen such as the Koch brothers.

Once hoping for 1,000,000 teachers in front of the White House, they could only rustle up about 8,000 attendees, according to unofficial Parks Department estimates. Even grading with a curve, that’s a big fat "F."

But never fear, they have millions of people behind them, Damon said. They just happened to be at the beach or on vacation because, after all, it’s summer, you know. Perhaps the real reason for the poor turnout is that millions of union teachers throughout the nation disagree with their leaders' rejection of necessary reforms.

Either way, the poor turnout demonstrated that there isn't much enthusiasm nationwide for maintaining our public school system in its current form. Most people want change, and all the union bluster in the world will not alter that fact.


Top A-level students to be offered cut-price degrees and cash incentives at British universities

Students with top A-level grades are set to be offered cut-price courses and cash sums by universities desperate to attract them.

These deals are being aimed at pupils with grades of at least two A's and a B after the Government announced they can take-on as many students as they want as long as they meet those standards.

At Britain's top universities 85 per cent of people will achieve those grades, meaning many will benefit from the bidding war.

In the wake of tuition fees rising to a maximum of £9,000 from 2012, it has also been claimed today that some middle-ranking universities may perform a U-turn and reconsider charging the full fees. The decision sparked days of violent student protesters causing chaos and millions of pounds worth of damage in central London.

This change of heart has come a matter of weeks before the next cohort of A-level students apply for university places across the UK.

Sir Steve Smith, outgoing president of Universities UK and vice chancellor of Exeter University, says changes brought in by the Coalition will force many institutions to offer enticing deals to students. 'They are going to have to work out if they start buying AAB students,' he told the Sunday Times. 'One of the implications is that those students become like gold dust for their reputation. So you might have an incredibly strong series of incentives.'

Cash deals are already being offered in Essex and Kent to attract students for next year, where students getting three A's will get a £2,000 scholarship regardless of their financial circumstances.

Goldsmiths College in London is to waive the £9,000 fees for ten of the brightest students from the borough of Lewisham, where it is based.

De Montfort University in Leicester is also offering £1,000 to students with AAB grades or above at A-level.

Meanwhile it seems students going to less prestigious universities will also benefit from a fee cap of £7,500. Universities Minister David Willetts has taken 20,000 student places and put them in a central pool only for institutions up to that price bracket.


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