What does it mean to teach liberally? The obvious answer, which might even be correct, is found in the dictionary, where we find that liberal means “broad-minded” (among other things).
I agree with the dictionary but I don’t think it goes nearly far enough. For me, liberal teaching means putting everything I know, and everything I am, at risk in the classroom. And not just in general, but specifically as well. That is, I put it all on the line during every meeting of every class. I’ve been wrong often enough to know it could happen again, and I’m willing to admit my errors in the pursuit of truth.
How courageous is this approach? Remember how it turned out for Socrates.
The essence of liberal teaching is taking risks every day. Rather than applying the conservative approach of deploying textbook knowledge — the “I’m the teacher, and therefore I’m correct” approach — a liberal
admits celebrates humility.
I used to be a classroom conservative. Here’s one minor example: I taught my dog to whistle. I taught, and I taught, and I taught. I used every trick I learned from graduate courses on college teaching. But my dog never learned to whistle. The problem with a conservative approach to teaching is the focus on the instructor and his wealth of knowledge, disseminated like so many pieces of valued wisdom to eager pupils (i.e., children, according to this word’s etymology).
A conservative approach to teaching ignores the reality and importance of diverse abilities and viewpoints, as well as our differential ability to perceive and understand various parts of the universe around us. By focusing on the authority figure, it ignores contributions from others. These others — the ones paying for the opportunity — have diverse life experiences that might, and often do, shed light on the topic under discussion. And perhaps even on life itself, and how it should be lived.
Not that we should broach such volatile subjects in our classrooms, of course. At least, that’s what university administrators told me for decades.
Over the years, I came to understand and treat each group of people with whom I was fortunate to work as a corps of discovery. Our quest: a life of excellence for each of us.
Naturally, the quest was not welcomed by most students, at least not initially. In fact, I met considerable resistance each semester as I explained how a life of excellence can and should be pursued along the path of Fire Management or Conservation Biology or Sustainable Living (to list a few titular examples of courses I led recently). But by the end of the second week of each semester, resistance imposed by culture was overcome by the joy, humor, and richness of a liberal approach that valued contributions from every participant during every meeting.
An example might help. In February 2006, during the ninth meeting of a class titled Wlldland Vegetation Management, the syllabus indicated the day’s topic was conspicuous consumption. Already we’re on tenuous ground from the perspective of the typical university administrator. During the first few minutes that day, somebody mentioned Siddartha Gautama (i.e., the Buddha) and his four noble truths. The link to conspicuous consumption should be apparent. Less apparent are the following topics, all of which we addressed within the first ten minutes of the class period, in this order:
No Child Left Behind (act)
Culverts under Speedway (a main surface street in Tucson)
The Princess Bride (film)
Charlton Heston (actor)
Sheryl Crow (singer)
John Dewey (pragmatist philosopher, educator)
Espresso Art (local coffee shop)
New Jersey Turnpike
The conversation flowed naturally from one topic to another, and all topics were linked directly to the idea of conspicuous consumption. As traditionally taught, Wlldland Vegetation Management is all about developing the means to continue our conspicuous consumption. As a group, we were questioning the validity of this historical approach within the context of popular culture and our own experiences.
As you might expect, I was not allowed to teach the course again (as is the department’s head prerogative). Indeed, within a few months, and shortly we hired this new department head, she banned me from teaching any classes in the department. She left the University of Arizona a few days ago to take her wrecking ball to her new job as a dean at another institution, but she departed too late to salvage anything worthwhile in my home department of two decades. From the vaunted heights of Dean-land at her new institution, she can quash a liberal approach at a much higher level than she was allowed at my own institution, at least for the short period during which the industrial economy limps along. Her neocon approach is exemplary as the ivory tower crumbles and becomes increasingly irrelevant to the lives of everybody involved in higher education. Indeed, I hardly fault her or contemporary institutions of higher education for pursuing the fool’s gold of bricks, mortar, and economic growth, as demanded by culture.
Pursuing a liberal approach to teaching is dangerous. It requires courage, a thick skin, and recognition that the personal costs of pursuing liberalism in the classroom are far exceeded by the opportunity costs of failing to do so. Indeed, I would argue that the pursuit of a liberal approach to any of life’s important activities is dangerous. That alone is sufficient justification to apply the approach at every turn, bearing in mind the words of Greek playwright Aeschylus: “Who refuses to listen, must be made to feel.”