Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Ari Kohen on entertainment and education:

Wales asks, “why wouldn’t you have the most entertaining professor, the one with the proven track record of getting knowledge into people’s heads?” Is there evidence that the most entertaining lecture is the one that gets “knowledge into people’s heads”? Again, I’m not suggesting that a boring lecture is going to do the trick, but I’m arguing that entertaining students doesn’t necessarily equate with teaching them something. When I lecture on Kant, I don’t think I’m really entertaining my students. In my opinion, Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals doesn’t lend itself to entertainment; it’s a dense text that needs some serious explication. Now, I don’t speak in a monotone and I try to find relevant examples to help them make sense of the material, but I’m not standing in front of the class hoping that they’ll all have a great time; I’m standing there with the express purpose of teaching them about Kant.

I think part of the issue is this idea (quite common) that education is "getting knowledge into people's heads". This suggests that students are passive receivers of education, when in fact they are self-educators drawing on teachers as resources. As the Platonists were saying all along, it is students who 'get knowledge into their heads'; teachers are midwives, assistants. There's no evidence that entertaining professors are effective (students tend to think so, but all evidence so far suggests that students tend to overestimate how much they learn from entertaining professors and underestimate how much they learn from boring ones); and this is precisely because any attempt to make education a matter of putting knowledge into people's heads by entertaining them will fail on the very first step, because education is not putting knowledge into people's heads at all. Knowledge is not a substance inserted into the brain; it is an act of the person learning, one that's not easy to achieve.

This doesn't mean, of course, that there is no serious question at the entertainment/education juncture. Anyone who teaches extensively knows that one of the severe problems faced in modern education is that education is being outcompeted by entertainment. That is to say, education is a time- and effort-intensive endeavor, and students have only finite time and effort to expend. Now, it's not at all surprising that everyone prefers to have fun than to sit down and try to understand an obscure text or learn a tricky new technique for algebra. Nor is it at all reasonable to expect people to devote themselves wholly to the latter; arguably, intensive education in general requires plenty of downtime. But something that educators have to face is that the entertainment options these days are so extensive that it's harder and harder for students not to skimp on the actual work. This is clearly a major issue, and it seems to be trending worse. What the solution is, I don't know. But it's something we're going to have to face at some point.

1 comment:

  1. Reading Kant, or about Kant, can be a very
    engrossing, exciting, deeply satisfying experience; I take it that by fun,
    Kohen means light amusement, romp, divertissement. And the taste for these is
    general, but not universal. Otherwise, someone may find reading Kant a far more
    enthralling and refreshing experience, than the 2nd hand ‘entertainment’
    alluded to by Kohen.


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.