In August, the distinguished author, essayist, and professor William Deresiewicz will release his new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. I had an opportunity to read an advance copy of the book, and it makes a strong (and troubling) case that our university system—and the Ivy League schools, in particular—is failing to prepare our best and brightest to be the imaginative, resourceful leaders we’ll need in the years ahead. And one of the problems Deresiewicz identifies is that colleges aren’t encouraging students to ask deeper, more meaningful questions.
I interviewed Deresiewicz on this topic last year, while I was researching my book. Some great quotes from him ended up in the book. But as is so often the case, many of the wonderful ideas he shared with me did not make it into the final text. So here again—as I did with actor Stephen Tobolowsky and education innovator Tony Wagner in earlier posts—I want to share with readers a fuller version of my interview with Deresiewicz.
Can you describe what’s missing from the current education that university students are receiving?
The education students are getting now, particularly at elite institutions, tends to be technocratic. They’re trained to develop expertise in a particular area—and to solve the problems that are particular to that area. It’s about jumping through hoops, mastering certain kinds of material, and being taught to the test. There’s no time where students are asked to step back and think about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it—or to think about anything else, except that day’s material. So ultimately we end up with a leadership class that’s technocratic.
What I’m seeing there is a failure to ask big questions. Which might involve, when looking at a social problem, thinking as broadly as possible about what’s creating the problem. I’m also talking about not asking big questions of value and meaning and purpose—the questions that a traditional liberal arts education is supposed to address.
What we really want, is to teach kids to have their own questions. To learn how to ask questions—and not just technocratic ones.
We have a certain frame around the way education is conducted, and ways we think about society—and what we need to do is step back and see the frame itself. See the assumptions that we’re bringing to everything, that we don’t notice. And question those. Because this is how fundamental change happens.
How do you teach students to be able to step back and see the bigger picture, or to be able to see past their own assumptions?
It’s a good question and there is no easy answer. For me, it started with some of my teachers and professors who were good at asking questions that seemed idiotically simple. They would ask questions that seemed to have obvious answers—until they got you to realize the answers only seemed to be obvious. They were willing to suggest to us that there might be more than one answer. When a teacher says that, it can actually make people angry.
It’s not about getting students to replace one set of values with a better one; they need to be taught to develop their own set of values. I had one college professor, in particular, who had an ability to reframe things in a way that showed fearlessness, audacity, a refusal to respect authority. He had an ability to ask questions that got at fundamental things. There’s the idea of the holy fool who has a kind of wise simplicity, and that was part of what he was doing. But another part was just about being willing to ask questions you don’t know the answer to. As teachers and professors, we tend to think our authority rests on having answers. And it really doesn’t—but if you think it does, you are going to be afraid of a situation in which you’re showing students you don’t know the answer.
But students want to feel that the teacher is knowledgeable and competent, don’t they?
Yes, but at the same time, it’s actually really liberating to have a teacher say ‘I don’t know the answer—and I want us to figure this out together.’ Students don’t like being led by the nose or smothered by a teacher. Although you also need to put pressure on what they’re saying, and teach them how to think rigorously.
Part of it, initially, is just getting them to articulate the assumptions they have and take responsibility for them. And often they’ll start to see they don’t really know why they believe something—which is a classic Socratic teaching method. But my professor went beyond that: He said that a teacher has the responsibility to make students think not only about their deeply ingrained suppositions, but also their most exhilarating new insights—most of which turn out to be fallacious.
So you have to ask not just good open-ended questions, but also be a sort of prosecuting attorney. The art of asking questions is the art of teaching. It’s hard. And one reason teachers don’t do it is there’s no incentive to spend time on this kind of teaching. The focus is more on this whole idea that teaching is about transferring a certain body of information —as if teaching is filling a bucket.
In your own thinking, have you found ways to get better at questioning things, and seeing beyond your own assumptions?
One approach I’ve stumbled on is: Let’s say you’ve got some sort of political or social debate—I try to identify what the two sides have in common: what they both assume to be the case. That’s the frame that needs to be questioned. Maybe they’re both assuming there’s a legislative solution—maybe that’s the problem—or maybe they’re both making assumptions about human nature that are not necessarily true. So when we talk about the frame we want to step back and look at, it may not be the thing they disagree about, but rather what they agree about. At that point you’ve identified the assumption everybody is making without even thinking about it, and that is the frame in which this argument is being played out.
Another thing I try to do is to not have allegiances—to a group, a party, a community—because when we have these emotional investments in being part of a group and in what the group believes, we’re more likely to reach conclusions or find solutions that are in the interest of the group.
You’ve taught at Yale for years. What do you think of the current movement toward online education, particularly in the form of massive online courses? And how do you think it plays into this conversation about encouraging more questioning?
When I talked about people thinking of teaching as transferring a certain body of information, that’s what massive online courses are about. It’s about learning the material—which is important, but it’s not the essence of what you’re doing when teaching. Training people’s minds is a labor-intensive process. It’s about learning the mental habits of individual students so you can tailor your instruction—whether it’s dialectical exchanges in class, or a conversation you have during office hours.
In an online course that has thousands of students, the students may ask questions, and certain of those will float to the top and get answered by a TA or professor. But it’s more about factual explanation. You can’t draw questions out of someone, or have a conversation where you’re shaping their intelligence progressively, or getting them to think more clearly. And as the professor of an online course, you can’t go into a classroom and ask an open-ended question—and then have the class, together, including the professor, reach insights that no one individually could have reached. This happens many times in class. Intelligence is really organization—the more organized the system, the more intelligent, whether it’s an anthill, a computer program, or a human brain. And sometimes, in classrooms, when we link our brains together we’re able to come up with something that no single brain could come up with. How are you going to do that in a MOOC?