William Chace’s 100 Semesters describes his 50 years in higher education. On page 126, he quotes Aldous Huxley on lecturing.

Lecturing as a method of instruction dates from classical and mediaeval times, before the invention of printing. When books were worth their weight in gold, professors had to lecture. Cheap printing has radically changed the situation which produced the lecturer of antiquity. And yes — preposterous anomaly! — the lecturer survives and even flourishes. In all the universities of Europe his voice still drones and brays just as it droned and brayed in the days of Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas. Lecturers are as much an anachronism as bad drains or tallow candles; it is high time that they were got rid of.

Indeed. If I were better educated, I would have quoted that last sentence in my Record op-ed “No More Lectures” (related discussion here). Within my lifetime, lectures at Williams will have gone the way of tallow candles.

Fortunately, the tutorial program puts Williams on the correct path and gives us a head start over the competition. The next step is for Morty to forbid large lectures: no more than 19 students in any class at Williams. No doubt a lot of lecturing would still go on, but this is still the next logical step. Meaningful teaching occurs when an individual student interacts with a professor. Huge classes prevent that. 150 students might still sign up for PSYC 101, but the Psychology Department which just have to offer 8 sections.

On a related note, the always readable Andy Kessler.

Without much fanfare, college lectures are being put online, for free. MIT lectures can be downloaded from iTunes University, and you can watch Cal professors pontificate on your computer via YouTube. Is this some new trend? Do colleges feel threatened by Wikipedia? Something funny is going on.

Read the whole piece and see the future before it arrives. Very, very soon, there will be free lectures available on every topic taught at Williams, lectures that are better than those given by the Williams professors themselves. (That is not an insult to our professors! Since the best lecturers will be the ones most interested in being on-line and since no Williams professor is the World’s Best Lecturer on all the topics covered in her class, it is inevitable that the lecture in Griffin will be of lower quality than the lecture you see on the web.)

But all the free lectures in the world can’t replace the conversation on the log. When a professor talks with a student, answers his questions and asks a few of her own, that’s when the magic happens. Fewer lectures mean more magic.

Print  •  Email