November 4th, 2010

That Content We Love


I had occasion this week to reread one of my favorite articles. In this piece Marshall Gregory explores teaching 18th Century British poetry, content he loves but that his students don’t find particularly compelling. The example he uses throughout the article is Thomas Gray’s poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and it’s one of Gregory’s favorite poems. Despite this very specific example, the article is really about teaching any well-loved, but seemingly esoteric content.

Gregory’s honesty is at times brutal—the article is such a great example of how critical reflection can lead a teacher to new insights and deeper understandings. After concluding that there is no value in teaching this poem per se, he writes, “One clear implication of my claim that there is no intrinsic educational virtue in knowing Gray’s ‘Elegy’… is that there is also no intrinsic educational virtue in much of the other content we teach in colleges and universities. There is much educational virtue in studying this content, but we who love this content often imply to our students that the content matters for its own sake in a way it seldom, in fact, does matter.” He goes on to point out that once outside the classroom students will not likely be asked whether they have read Gray’s “Elegy” just as they aren’t going to be asked if they know Boyle’s law, Toynbee’s theory of history, or Cicero’s treatise on friendship.

“Mostly students do not get educated because they study our beloved content. They get educated because they learn how to study our beloved content, and they carry the how of that learning with them in the world as cognitive and intellectual skills that stick long after the content is forgotten.” (p. 97)

This perspective on the role of content in learning leads him to this conclusion about covering content. “If maximum coverage is the end of education, then there are no educated persons, because even the most deeply educated among us merely scratch at the surface of all there is to know.” (p. 96)

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this article, but during every revisit I am once again awed by the erudite way he crafts his argument, but even more impressive is the compelling sensibility of his points.

Reference: Gregory, M. (2005). Turning water into wine: Giving remote texts full flavor for the audience of friends. College Teaching, 53 (3), 95-98.

  • Larry Spence

    Thanks Maryellen. Gregory’s essay delights and deserves a wide audience. It makes us attend to important issues in teaching.
    But the metaphor, “content” distorts the teaching/learning context. It implies activities like transfer and fill. It seems to treat instructors and students as nearly passive conveyers or vessels. Wouldn’t we better off to look around it at the complexities of communication?
    As Gregory notes, students choose to learn only if they grasp what is at stake for their development right now. As the linguistic philosophers Dan Sperber and Deidre Wilson would say, students learn what is relevant to them. Relevance is comparative, they write. Students like any audience must judge if information will add to, confirm or correct their representations of the world with acceptable levels of effort. Gregory calls such representations “capacities.” I see them as sets of both knowledge and skills. Only if students judge that information will maximize effects on their knowledge with reasonable effort will they consider it relevant – and make the effort to learn.
    Of course this formulation is too broad. But it is a way to build on Gregory’s insights and open a discussion free of the dead metaphors of “cover” and “content.”
    Sperber, Dan and Wilson, Deidre, (1986), Relevance, Harvard University Press.