Rage against the tedium machine

May 13, 2005

Courses in teaching can breed boredom, but we must fight ennui lest it affect our students' critical faculties, warns Bob Brecher

As we all know, the tradition of university education, at least in the West, has its origins in Plato's academy. In turn, Plato drew inspiration from Socrates' activities in the marketplace of ancient Athens. What that might suggest about the conception of the market peddled today by the neo-liberals is something worth thinking about. But as undergraduate finalists are coming to the end of their university education, it is perhaps a good time to consider more specifically what that education is for and our place in it as teachers.

There again, the Athenian marketplace is central: as Socrates wandered about in it, Plato tells us, he would talk with people - not only talk, but argue. That is where his troubles began, of course. Getting young people to engage in critical debate did not endear him to the authorities: he was corrupting the youth.

What better way to sum up our job as university teachers? Whether our discipline is theoretical physics, law, history or anything else, we are here to provoke students into critical thought. While of course we pass on the knowledge and techniques of our disciplines to future generations - anything less disempowers our students and serves to keep them out of our club - we must also encourage them to question and to disagree. Indeed, both the greatest pleasure and the ultimate justification of teaching is when a student takes things in a direction we never thought of ourselves - when they do something better than we have managed.

Our academic authority is profoundly anti-authoritarian. And that is something our political masters, like those of Socrates, have to take as corrupting of their own ill-founded authority, based as that is in obfuscation, cynicism and downright lies. Some might think that is peculiarly true of the UK, the West or indeed the world at the turn of the 21st century; others that it has characterised political power everywhere and always. Either way, we are not doing our job properly unless we are corrupting our students into thinking clearly and critically.

Obvious though that is, it is not what everyone thinks. Indeed, to judge by the horror stories of what new colleagues are forced to endure at the hands of those purporting to teach them how to teach ("Lecturers bored by lessons in teaching", The Times Higher , April 22), many of the people in charge of "learning facilitation" seem to think that their job is to discourage, and preferably prevent, any such thing.

The rhetoric of the Higher Education Academy and the universities being "committed to excellence in teaching" (ibid.) is one thing; the practice is another. In the academics whom they are teaching how to teach, they abhor the very qualities they trumpet. No wonder boredom is the general response.

But being bored is not enough. First, there is a danger that it can lead to our becoming cynical about the value of critical teaching, so that we end up treating our students in the same way the "staff developers" treat us. Second, accepting the dross is to miss an opportunity.

So make a nuisance of yourself: argue with the dead hand of pseudo-authority; take their mumbo jumbo at face value and throw it back at them; criticise what is going on. In short, expose the farce of the "initiation rite for those unable to worm their way out of it" (ibid.) for the nonsense that it is. Nothing could be a better preparation for corrupting your own students.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, Brighton University.

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