Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Pedagogical Importance of Respect

Lawrence Levine
I really enjoyed reading Andrew Hartman's recent post at US Intellectual History blog about the late cultural historian Lawrence Levine and the discipline of respecting one's students.  He also references some good lessons from Levine about respecting our historical subjects before we write them off. I couldn't agree more with Levine's thoughts about teaching. Here is a taste of Hartman's post:

Respect defined Levine's teaching philosophy.  In modernity, he argued, when "parents have lost control of the education of their children," when the kids increasingly "come home with different ideas and different notions," it was more crucial than ever for teachers to be respectful of their students.  He claimed that some professors often exacerbated the culture wars over higher education--the "canon wars" and such--because they "are not always as respectful as they should be of the ideas the students are coming in with.  One has to be respectful."  This was not to say that teachers should avoid challenging students.  Levine explained this apparent contradiction the following way:

"What I am trying to say is I have had strong beliefs and I've acted on many of them.  But I decided a long time ago that that wasn't my function in the classroom, that my function in the classroom was not to promulgate beliefs.  You learn as a scholar and teacher that if you argue with the dead and you don't win the argument, you're a fool, so I decided that arguing with the living when the living have less power than you.  You can force your ideas on them--that wasn't my goal.  So, always admiring what my own ideas were, I tried to teach them with balance and to leave room for other ideas."

Levine taught his students how to think differently, not what to think.  The difference was to be found in tone, approach, and style.

"Doing it in such a way that you introduce students...to very complex issues, so that if they do take another point of view, they have to do so in a different context.  They can't just easily reiterate what they came to the classroom believing.  They have to assimilate other things, and that's the goal of education, to mix things up enough so people can see the context and then reform their ideas or restate their ideas in a different light."