We lack a convincing account of what it is to teach or learn anything. If we narrow the question to specific skills or factual recall, of course, it’s easy: consider teaching/learning how to ride a bike, or reciting the names of the U.S. presidents. We know what it is to teach these things, and how to tell if someone has learned them. But if we broaden our scope and ask generally about teaching and learning, we fail abysmally.
This is no doubt because we have general words like “teaching” and “learning” that we attach to very different things. We “teach” and “learn” both oboe-playing and Civil War history, though it’s hard to see anything the two should have in common. The only general formula we can provide is this: the student couldn’t do this before, but she can do this after. Call this the “pre- and post-test” formula, for obvious reasons.
There is nothing really wrong with the pre- and post-test formula, so far as it goes. It doesn’t go far: it only suggests that an episode of successful teaching and learning produces some change in the student. Well, one should hope so! But the harmless formula naturally encourages a more robust model of teaching/learning that is pernicious and stupid. The more robust model is the “bucket” theory, and it goes like this: Student enters the classroom with an empty bucket; Teacher does something causing the bucket to fill; Student leaves with filled bucket. I call this model “stupid” because it denies obvious facts in everyone’s experience. Do students ever forget what they have learned? Do students ever learn later on what the teacher was trying to say? Does it ever happen that both teachers and students are learning the same stuff at the same time? A “yes” to any of these questions should tell us that the bucket model is bad. Teaching and learning is not just a matter of getting a bucket filled.
Okay, so what is a better theory? I don’t know, and I bet no one does, because (again) the things we teach and learn are so very varied. So let me cheat a little and narrow the topic to teaching and learning in the humanities. I was at a conference recently where this question came up – “What do students learn in the Humanities?” – and the best answer I could devise was this: students gain an informed and articulate awareness of their own limitations. That’s just Socrates, of course, with his claim that he improves humans by rubbing their noses in their collective ignorance. But it seems to me that’s what the Humanities do: in matters of culture, history, philosophy, morality, religion, and the broad span of human experience, the Humanities remind us constantly that we usually do not know what we are talking about; that there are other perspectives we have not considered. A properly-educated Humanist can speak and write with clarity, precision, and intelligence about various forms of human idiocy.