My Educational 9-ll

(This article was published in Teaching Perspectives, Spring, 2005, pp. 11-12) as the Editorial.)

On the 11th of September, 1958, my world was shaken. My high school’s new geography master walked into class and said. “Dictation time – are you ready? ‘The earth [pause] is geoidal [pause] i.e. [pause] earth-shaped.’”

When I went to university, 5 years later, I was surprised to find that across England, on that fateful date, many (if not all) geography pupils received, by the dictation method, the same information in an identical box.

But many students like their knowledge, even if it is not this simplistic, packaged for them in boxes. They want to be presented with the box, to get inside the box, to dominate the box, to be graded by and for the box. In later life, they want to move the box to government, or the civil service, something with security and a pension, something where the box is useful both as an observation post and as a bulwark of self-defence. You may change the perimeter, alter the parameters, substitute a grid and tick or fill in the adjoining spaces and squares, but you must never, never touch the concept of the box. Why not? Because questions are dangerous; they break down the walls of the cliché; they cause problems.

“What does earth-shaped mean?”
“What does geoidal mean?”
“Why is the earth earth-shaped?”
“Because it’s the earth.”
“Is the moon earth-shaped?”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s the moon.”
“Is it moon-shaped then?”
“Don’t be so silly.”

The questions are soon silenced. Authority takes over. And the number one rule of this style of teaching is to never let authority be undermined or questioned. Authority is authority. Ask Galileo: he retracted his confirmation of the heliocentric universe, under Inquisitional authority, in 1633 and he himself was not rehabilitated by the church until 1992, 26 years after I came to graduate school in Canada. And when I went to Toronto, in 1966, I was delighted to be studying at the second university in the Commonwealth to possess a LINAC (linear nuclear accelerator). The Banting and Best Institute was renowned, world-wide. Toronto was a research institution on a par with any in the world and I loved the research climate.

But what do we mean, when we say research? How can we define it? Well, what about “Careful, systematic study and investigation in some field of knowledge” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). That is most certainly what I did at the University of Toronto. But is that any different from what I am doing at St. Thomas University? Not really. I still carry out careful, systematic study and investigation. In fact, I probably do more systematic study and investigation now, than ever before; however, I publish a great deal less. More, I am willing to bet that most of us, especially the younger faculty, conduct research, here in Fredericton. If I did no research, if I carried out no systematic study, no thorough investigation, I – like many other conscientious researchers and teachers -- would not consider myself a university professor, even though I teach and research and study systematically, at an institution which often calls itself a teaching university.

What is a teaching university? I do not know. It is a concept that does not appear in Webster’s.

I know what a teaching high school is: I went to one. Here is the box; do not question the box; oh worship the box. Is a teaching university one in which basic skills are taught? One in which the box is established, in all its glory, and then taught? I don’t know. The term, as I say, does not appear in any of my dictionaries.

What I do know is that, as a university professor, I advance knowledge in my field. I have done so for the 33 years I have taught here, at St. Thomas University. More: I have received university, regional, and national recognition for the quality of the work I have accomplished.

How does one advance knowledge? This was defined very neatly by Dr. Dev Gupta in the LTD Session on Teaching and Research. Dev suggested that there are three ways in which we advance knowledge:

(1) by developing a new methodological approach;

(2) by developing and advancing the empirical knowledge of the problem; and

(3) by developing a new theoretical approach.

Of these, Dev considers the third to be the most worthy and, at the same time, the most difficult.

To paraphrase the words of an old professor of mine, from Bristol University, “Knowledge is that which passes from my notes to your [the students’] notes without passing through anybody’s head.”

A teaching university, then, might be said to pass on knowledge. It does not question, does not contribute, does not research, neither carefully, nor systematically. The geography professor can therefore dictate that “The earth is geoidal, i.e. earth-shaped.” And I, from the authority of my position as a teaching professor at a teaching university can dictate the following from the Spanish text book, American, of course: “Our good neighbours [pause] to the South [pause] the Mexicans [pause] ….”

So, it seems to me that we have a clear and important choice – careful and systematic investigation in a field of knowledge, an investigation, moreover, which leads to an intellectual advancement, a factual development, or a new theoretical approach within that field, or more of the same, the box, the whole box, and nothing but the box, as pre-packaged in our eternal text-books.

“The earth [pause] …”

“Our good neighbours [pause] …”

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