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Furniture of the Mind

I teach at a university that requires its students to take Bible courses. We’re a Christian university, and the tradition of our religious heritage has placed a very high value on biblical literacy. I am a fully-vested and dues-paying member of that club with all the rights and privileges pertaining there unto; I have always appreciated our longstanding emphasis on biblical literacy, and would expect that it continue for generations to come.

But there’s a problem.

Definitions of what is “rigorous” are starting to shift. This evolution is driven in part by a difference in the degree of biblical literacy our students bring to the campus – and to their Bible classes – in comparison to our previous student-bodies. In the past, our university drew most of its student body from one religious tradition; students came to the university with an often exhaustive knowledge – sometimes even to the point of trivial absurdity – of biblical texts. Our Bible courses were designed to challenge those students to “excel still more,” and think critically and deeply about the implications of narratives and textual units with which students already had a long-standing familiarity.

As our student body has evolved into new directions, they have come our classrooms with a less homogeneous set of literacies and familiarities. We keep discovering ways that a growing number of our students really need a basic understanding of the two universes of old and new testaments. It is not proper to assume that students know the jargon of navigating “verses” and “chapters” and “books.” They are less likely to realize that Jesus and Moses are separated by at least as many years as we are from the Viking raids in England – and maybe as many years as we are from Christ himself.

It is difficult to imagine, then, that the curriculum needs to become “less rigorous.” Instead, we think about how to bring students into alignment with where our previous generations of students had been.

Rudolph (1990) described the significant shift in the kinds of literacies students brought to the American college in the late 19th century. As a greater number of students came to the colleges with non-classical educations, “before long the universities and colleges were accepting for admission credit subjects that went beyond the traditional lethal doses of Latin, Greek, and arithmetic” (p. 285). This shift had major impacts upon the ways that in many ways operationalized some of the criticisms of Francis Wayland’s Report to the Corporation of Brown University on Changes in the System of Collegiate Education in 1850; the university had to change because the needs – whether of society or of the students themselves – changed. Perhaps the faculty of the Yale Report* would be disgusted by the fact that I have a Ph.D. having only learned Greek by accident of a major and remaining entirely illiterate in Latin; but I’m in pretty consistent company.

“Rigor” is not effectively defined positivistically. It is defined through social agreements. I am taking a hard look at the assumptions I make of students entering my courses, and asking whether and how those definitions of rigor need to be adjusted. I don’t have direct responsibility for our Bible curriculum; but what would happen if we asked the same questions about students’ quantitative literacies, or awareness of narrowly defined canons, or the ability to recite specific groups of facts? 

I am – in short – growing very unsettled about the ways in which we throw the word “rigor” around; it is far too easy to measure this against the traditions of our curricula instead of the experiences and literacies of our students.

Rudolph, F. (1990). The American college and university: A history. University of Georgia Press.

*The title for this post is one of the funniest quotes of allll of higher education history; “The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge.” The Yale Report of 1828. (n.d.). Keithbuhler.Com. Retrieved February 4, 2021, from https://www.keithbuhler.com/yalereport

6 thoughts on “Furniture of the Mind”

  1. Are you saying that the emphasis between “tradition” and “students’ positions” is unbalanced, or that we should jettison ANY emphasis on the former in favor of the latter? I can’t imagine a university divesting itself of its role–needed, I would argue–of helping maintain the importance of canonical knowledge, together with canonical levels of importance toward that knowledge, in the name of its students’ relative …what? disinterest? unpreparedness? other-focused-ness?

    I want to understand your point, but I can’t help worry about its implications. Our incoming first-year students are coming from ever-failing public school systems more concerned with a hundred things other than rigorous learning. That is, of course, my opinion as a classical liberal exhausted of teachers’ unions and the federal Dept. of Ed. who rally against school choice.

    So, I am eager for our universities to be slow to change in order to provide an example of heightened rigor for school kids coming through the system.

    If your only point was about recalibrating our Bible courses to match students’ changing Bible knowledge, I am far more inclined to your point.

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  2. No, I think you miss my point because it is tangentially related to that other discussion. Bible is one example, but your last sentence is really getting at my point. I’m not suggesting that students need less rigor in the K-12 context; rather, higher education needs to recalibrate to match students’ changing knowledge.

    I would even argue (and may do so here at some point) that higher education becomes a part of the problem when we “dumb” our overall curricula down. That is not college access, but rather the tyrrany of low expectations (Mabus). I mean that “rigor” is defined by the context of the learner, not the curricula. What my students know the day they arrive is a more important characteristic “rigor” than the traditions of canon. And I know this is true because you and I both had access to a quality education without having met the traditional and “rigorous” prerequisites described in the Yale Report (or, quite frankly, without having achieved the learning outcomes defined in that position by the end of our college experiences).

    I don’t mean we should jettison any emphasis on tradition; but at a bare minimum, we must carefully assess where students are as they approach tradition.

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    1. Hmmmm…I still think I am not quiiiiiiiiite getting your point. Maybe we should come to the conclusion (or at least have the possibility of concluding) that “where students are as they approach tradition” is woefully inadequate; that “what they bring with them” is, in a word, twaddle and falderal. Brilliant ability to make 30-second videos and shoot onscreen goblins, but no ability to read or write long-form arguments that can greatly affect their lives. Maybe they need to learn how to be bored (McGregor), learn how to mentally ponder poetry and music, learn how to carry sustained thoughts to their logical conclusions.

      I am emotionally invested: I see my students not just unwilling, but patently unABLE to see the negative consequences of funding universal healthcare, higher education, childcare for all, and an unlimited minimum wage. Their discourse is often limited to “but we need it.” Full stop.

      This is not a shot at Socialism qua Socialism–I’ve done that plenty elsewhere–but a shot at “meeting students where they are and being happy with a few steps forward” vs. “welcoming students to a time of rigor and pointing to a faraway light, saying, ‘that’s our goal, and nothing shorter.'”

      If I am still misunderstanding, please help me.

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      1. So, in service to my point, how comfortable would you be with an educator teleported from 1811 saying, “I am emotionally invested: I see my students not just unwilling, but patently unABLE to conjugate even simple present verbs in Latin, let alone read their Homer in Greek. Their discourse is often limited to ‘but it’s no longer relevant.’ Full stop.” I hear that you believe that students should arrive with a different set of skills than they bring to higher education. I am also dedicated to “welcoming students to a time of rigor and pointing to a faraway light, saying, ‘that’s our goal, and nothing shorter.’” I love that. But the path to “the goal and nothing shorter” may well mean that we start with what they bring, rather than what-they-shoulda-brought-because-this-is our-curriculum-and-we’re-not-gonna-dumb-it-down. I think your question assumes that I am moving the goal-post; I rather think I am asking whether we might need to keep the goal-post where it is and move entrance.

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  3. OK. I think I agree with your analogy–moving the entrance but keeping the goal posts set is an idea I can get behind. I just want to push against anything smacking of “the customer is always right” when that includes customers who say, “This is boring; I don’t want to learn X.” While I am a fan of the market, I think part of the university’s job in the market is busting chops rather than trying to teach via TikTok.

    Back to diagraming /The Odyssey/.

    PS. I wonder if this would be a interesting podcast episode; does your opinion hold equally for both faith-based and public universities?

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    1. Ok, but – at the risk of beating a dead horse (or as one of my students once wrote, “not to be a dead horse”) – you and I don’t lecture in Greek and Latin. The goalposts have changed and are changing.

      This would be a good episode. As you would probably guess, I think the stakes are higher in Christian higher ed.

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