We must always teach our children universal ideas.  The temptation to “corridor” teach them — instead of bending young minds open to other doorways for learning — is a national failing of a teaching philosophy.


It is certainly easier and cheaper to teach children what they already “sort of know” within the city limits of their own cultural experiences — but in that easy exchange we sacrifice imagination, and we give up on the idea that young minds can ever become more than their origins.

Several years ago, I was offered a job teaching a required, core, writing class at a major, public, East Coast, university.

The philosophy of the department Chairman was to leave the minds of the students as we found them.  We were instructed not to lead them beyond the corridor of their present state.  We were not to lift them up to our level.  We were to condescend to their level.

The Chairman explained these students were “regional” and their parents worked industry jobs and few of them would ever venture beyond the county when they graduated. It was our job, he claimed, to teach them how to get along in the life they were expected to have.

The students were to only read and write about chemical interactions, agriculture, and leisure activities like golf, football, and basketball.

I sat there, listening to his condemnation of the students he was vested to serve — and I thought we were supposed to be enlightening — and I began to realize it was that sort of narrow, corridor, thinking that created regionalism, bigotry and nationalism-by-county in the United States that stamped, and condemned, the international identity of so many people in the state.

I was always taught as a student that the idea of higher education was to expand your thinking beyond yourself and into the minds of others that came before you and to then join in the foreign-to-you imaginings of current minds living outside yours.

If my instructors had followed the thinking of that Chairman, I never would’ve read “Moby Dick” — why bother? You live in landlocked Nebraska! — or watched “Citizen Kane” — why bother? You’ll never be that rich or influential in publishing and politics! — or dared to dream about the implications of King Lear’s daughters — why bother?  You don’t have royal blood!

The final stake in my decision to not teach in that Chairman’s department came at the end of his pitch when related the story of a local genius boy who — upon his history-making graduation from the university as its youngest alumnus — claimed the hardest class he had taken was the one we were expected to teach.

The child prodigy, we were told, was “confused and frustrated by the process of rewriting and rewriting the same paper over and over again during the semester.”  The Chairman glowed with accomplishment, “He couldn’t figure out what we wanted.”

As the other instructors joined the chair in a pealing laughter, I remained motionless — slumping, astonished, and wondering — how a university Chairman, with 50,000 students enrolled for learning, could ever find joy and satiety in purposefully frustrating the concentrated and eager wants of a single, genius, student — let alone the rest of the open ocean of unattached, average, minds looking for a safe harbor for expansion — and refuse any of them the necessary freedom and the early promise of escaping their county mindset via expanded learning and an untamed, but tended, active imagination.

29 Comments

  1. David!
    what a great and timely article! i too have had similar experiences and have come to recognize that small minds and cold, hopeless hearts are found everywhere. from the young to the old. and to learn to expand one’s mind beyond the boundaries that others have drawn is the greatest gift we can give to ourselves. and only if we possess it ourselves can we then give it to others or at least ask them to seek it out for themselves.

  2. That’s a fine point, Dananjay! That particular university required that class as part of the teaching core and the Chairman wanted that method of teaching for every single student. It was horrible. The best writing programs hire the best instructors and “let them teach” what they know to the students.
    I always cringe at regimented teaching programs where you’re given a pre-existing syllabus and a textbook and told to “teach it.” That’s always a dry and barren experience for the student. The better schools say, “Pick a book and give us your syllabus when you’re ready.” Then you know you’ve landed at a place that respects what an instructor can bring to a student.
    It’s harder to teach learning with imagination but creative thought has more value than memorization-by-rote and it is by far better if you care about the future welfare of the student’s mind by challenging them to think in ways they may not yet understand.

  3. That’s where the important teaching imagination comes into play, arin — we find creative ways to reach students that are forgotten, ignored or just flunked.

  4. I think there are more subtle examples of this phenomenon in our institutions of higher learning. This one is so blatant.
    Did you feel like you were in some episode of the twilight zone or what? The Chair sounds utterly ridiculous!

  5. It was a twilight moment, Donna. The thing that bothered me most is that the other instructors there — hoping to be hired — were so quick to agree and laugh along with the Chair. You don’t have to argue or make a scene, but you shouldn’t play along if the entire idea offends your sense of duty and honor.

  6. Waking the kids up is half of it the other is getting them interested in knowing something. It’s hard. Most just want to get out with a degree and be let alone.

  7. The term “sheeple” has rarely had such significance as it does here – that’s exactly what the corridor teaching method seems to be encouraging. Why branch out and go beyond the ordinary when you can just factory produce “educated” children who will do exactly what they are told 16 years from now in their no doubt factory produced jobs? The entire thing is frightening.

  8. Karvain —
    That is the key. I think teaching kids new things, rather than what they already know is the way to make learning important, though. I agree many of them just want to “do their time” and get a decent grade and leave as fast as they can.

  9. I guess there is a certain sort of purposeful malignancy in that sort of teaching, Gordon: Keep everyone in line by teaching them what they already know and not challenging independent thought.
    If you want to control 50,000 kids and shy them away from leaving the state or challenging the authority of their parents, church and local city government — teaching them that way is a pretty cunning way of keeping them down and in line.

  10. David–
    I graduated from a Catholic College in the mid-eighties and the quality of the teaching varied from superb to quite frankly below average.
    The highlight of that experience was the Philosophy classes. There was one teacher in particular who was studying for his doctorate and he was not going to spoon feed us in any way.
    I would sit in awe in the class and suddenly realized I knew nothing!
    I was thrilled to get a B in his classes. If he knew how much work I did to prepare for his classes and tests, he would have likely felt very sorry for me.
    To make a long story short, I suspect he was looking for a permanent rather than adjunct position. But I think alot of students complained about how difficult he was and his rather liberal bohemian tendencies didn’t fit well at this conservative Catholic college. He was also a big environmentalist during a time when Wall Street was all the rage.
    I was sad to learn that he did not return to teach classes in my senior year. I had heard that he was not invited back but never learned all the details. He may have very well decided not to return. Who knows?
    He was a fine teacher and a huge influence on my intellectual development.
    A few years ago I learned that he was teaching at a well known university in New York City and was doing really great things. I sent him an email and told him what an impact he had had on me and thanked him. I received a lovely email response from him.

  11. That’s a wonderful and important story, Donna, and I thank you for sharing it with us. It’s simply great you got back in touch with your former instructor. I know that meant a lot to him. I often look back on some of the former students I taught and wonder what they’re doing now and if they found the success in life they found in class.
    Teaching at Catholic college and universities — I have done both — can be a touchy thing if you are not vigilant because they have strict rules of engagement on what you can and cannot teach. It’s’ their right. It’s their doctrine. It’s their school. You don’t have to teach there if you can’t abide their rules. They don’t force you to spew their line, but they do expect you not to cross it. I always found those upfront ground rules more than fair enough.

  12. David–
    I’ve seen both sides of the coin. In the eighties I graduated from this Catholic college. In the nineties, I attended a liberal UNC public university.
    I see the value of both experiences now and their role in my journey. But clearly the diversity of students, teachers, classes and views at UNC offered a superior learning opportunity and aided me in becoming more of who I am.
    I shutter to think of who I might have become had I not been challenged to think outside my box by this particular professor.

  13. It’s interesting Donna that some of the best students I ever had were at a Catholic university while the absolute worst were at a Catholic college — one would think there would be some sort of similar high-water mark that any and all Catholic educations would achieve — but I found that not to be true and the differences were striking. If I hadn’t taught at the university first, I never would’ve sought out the priests again.

  14. This one was small and run by nuns.
    I don’t know if you saw the play Doubt.
    But the mother superior in that play was dead-on.
    When you’re dealing with a nun (at least the old school ones), they operate with such certainty. There’s no room for discussion. And as this playwright pointed out, certainty can be a very dangerous thing.
    As a side note, I once got a job because the HR guy said, Well if you graduated from there with those tough nuns, then you can certainly handle this place! It was so true and it was nice that someone recognized that.
    A small Catholic college can be a stifling place! I’m not surprised by your experience with those students, but at the same time I hate to paint a broad stroke here. I did encounter a few really exceptional teachers there. And then I was quite fortunate to be able to return to school.
    At the time it was where I could afford to go and I made the best of the opportunity given me.
    Take care, David–

  15. What a horrible method of *teaching* and far too much of it goes on in the UK as well – talk about condemning a generation of children to mediocrity.
    Just goes to show that education these days is about turning out factory fodder and office fodder rather than inspiring our children to explore the world and their minds and imagination instead.

  16. Heya Nicola!
    You’re right these young minds are being thrown away as fodder. It takes a large effort to teach each mind on its own terms and the temptation to “farm” teach is tempting because then you have a “core understanding” that everyone can sort of do the same thing — but that method of “mind farming” lops off the low AND the high end minds.
    So you’re left — not with the cream or the residue — but rather the non-frothy middle that is a fodder that fills a niche instead of creating one.

  17. I know what you are talking about David – very well.
    Less than 1% educational institution in India encourages anything beyond “corridor teaching”, – it’s even worse – it’s all about “mugging up”.