Felipe Fernández-Armesto

April 14, 2006

‘Strictly speaking, education and instruction are mutually exclusive. You instruct soldiers. You teach students’

There are worse things in America: shopping malls, car fetishism, capital punishment, the Government, the abuse of immigrants, torture, the bias towards wealth, the petty everyday tyrannies of a culture of conformism, the pseudo-pieties people mistake for religion. But if one thing distresses me disproportionately, it is Americans’ habit of speaking of "instruction" when they mean "teaching". Junior teaching staff are called "instructors". The forms students fill in when they comment on courses ask about "quality of instruction". In fairness to academics, it has to be said that "instruction" is a bureaucrats’ word for teaching, but scholars slip into the habit of using it with no apparent sense of incongruity. It betokens, I think, deep and widespread mental confusion about the nature of what universities ought to do.

Strictly speaking, education and instruction are mutually exclusive. You instruct soldiers. You teach students. An equipment manual contains instructions, but they are not instructions for instructing. An instructor lays down rules to be obeyed; a teacher strews ideas to be subverted. Instructions prescribe; education provokes. Instruction is regimentation; education is liberation.

The name you give something does not necessarily affect its nature. Black girls can be called Bianca without incurring crises of identity. "Nigel" literally means "small and black" but can be suitable for a tall, blond boy. My Christian name means "lover of horses", but I have no emotional commitment to those beasts and, on the whole, they seem to hate me. If, however, you take the meaning of a name seriously, it can affect your behaviour. The name "instructor" is potentially fatal to a teacher’s teaching: it encourages data feeding into dull automata, rather than the stimulation of independent minds. Fundamental to the notion of "instruction" is the doctrine that students must believe what teachers say. Fundamental to education is that they should question and quarry and challenge and harry it.

Misrepresentation of teaching as instruction can poison social attitudes towards the teacher’s job. It makes it seem routine, mechanical and unimaginative. I have been astonished since my arrival in the US by the amount of time spent in debate on the content of courses, especially in secondary schools but also to a degree in universities. I suspect the content of a course makes little difference to its effectiveness: what matters is the way it is taught. Yet because of the notion that "instruction" is what happens in the classroom, committees scour syllabuses for comprehensive coverage, political correctness, utility, importance and, variously, godliness or irreligion — apparently unaware that well-educated students will be critically minded and that critically minded students will reject instruction. School boards are unbelievably prescriptive, demanding their own shibboleths be compulsory parts of the syllabus, apparently unaware that compulsion is almost always hostile to education.

The US today is convulsed by curriculum wars that arise from fundamental misunderstandings about what teachers do. There are two battlefields. First, there is conflict over state funding for politically committed teaching. Most teachers who take a political line in class are liberal or leftist. When agitators or legislators demand politically neutral or socially responsible courses, they usually want students instructed in the merits of conservative values: the "basics" of family values and patriotism, mom and apple pie. Teachers who teach different values should be sacked or starved of funding. People who misconceive education as instruction are unaware of how the classroom works as an arena of criticism, a nursery of the unpredictable.

Evolution is the second battlefield. It baffles people outside the US that there can be serious divisions in this country over the place of evolution in the curriculum. Friends who teach in universities in largely liberal states such as California and Pennsylvania tell me students excuse themselves from class on conscientious grounds when evolution is on the syllabus. The students have failed to understand that they are at liberty to make up their own minds. They get that message from their parents and legislators, and pastors and press — not from teachers.

A well-taught course is always self-undermining, because it imparts the gift of a rational, critical response. The best teachers produce unruly and heterodox disciples. Plato taught Aristotle. Russell taught Wittgenstein. The best measure of a teacher’s excellence is the number of his pupils who depart from his ideas. That is how intellectual progress happens. The best way to produce conservative students is to give them radical teachers. But those who think of teaching as instruction will never see that, nor perceive the potential education has for enhancing lives and changing the world.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

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