Don’t Trust Your Professors

In every course, I always make the opportunity to remind students, “Don’t trust your professors.” Students always respond as if it’s a joke, so I usually have to explain.

  • A major goal of higher education is the development of critical thinking skills. If a student passively listens to a professor’s lecture, absorbs bits of it, and spits them back out — whether on tests or in practice — there is no evidence of critical thinking. Unfortunately, much of our educational infrastructure and culture enforces the fallacy that teachers are fonts of knowledge and students are empty vessels. Great for obedience, poor for meaningful learning experiences.
  • Professors are biased. We are specialists, and so we see the world through our specializations. The self-governance model of higher education enforces an organizational fallacy: that folks with deep specialization are good at anything besides that thing. University governance models are by and large developed so that professors rule themselves, but what know we of business, of marketing— or for that matter, of education? Professors, by virtue of advanced degrees, are neither inherently good nor inherently bad at any of these. We are as subject to second-order ignorance as anyone else is. However, I believe that the situation is exacerbated by the fact that we have built up an ivory tower for ourselves in which we pat ourselves on the back and reward each other for things we know very little about. An example close to my heart is the science of teaching and learning: there’s no reason to believe that because I am a specialist at interactive visualization of Java program execution that I am also good at teaching it. For more discussion, see the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition and the distinction some make between Experts and Masters (also called Proficient Experts on Wikipedia).
  • Finally, the knowledge we have is gathered from a wide variety of sources. In internalizing this knowledge, we have judged it (according to our biases, as mentioned above). What we share in class is not definition but interpretation. One of my favorite examples from Computer Science is the Model-View-Controller architecture. There is a sense in which “MVC” means something, but delve beyond a very naive “separation of concerns” interpretation, and you find a wealth of disagreement and different interpretations of this pattern. There is not a single right answer to the question, “How do I implement MVC?” The truth of MVC’s meaning is much richer than any definition or example I can give in class. I believe, therefore, that my job is to help students understand that there is a path to enlightenment, not to try to give them my lamp.
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