What Students Remember

Dennis is appalled that his students know so little. Yup. Incoming students don’t know much. And many don’t seem to learn much as the course goes on. It’s a secret that senior professors hide from new “hires.” Lectures aren’t an efficient way to convey information. Most students are going to remember from your classes what “passes the barrier of their teeth,” and not much more. They’ll remember the questions they asked. Not the ones you asked; the ones they asked. They may not remember your answers. They will remember that you had answers.

They’ll remember some of what they wrote for the course. What they said and what they wrote. Not much else. The general tone of the class. The fact you as lecturer indicated respect for this or that principle of Canadian constitutionalism. They may not remember exactly what you indicated respect for. They’ll remember that there is a way to talk knowledgeably and appreciatively about Canadian law and politics.

And it is enough. Maybe.

You will have succeeded this year if your students finish the course thinking that civil discussion about ideas and arguments is a pretty good thing.

In the Post this morning Yoni Goldberg says that most students simply don’t belong at the university (In Praise of Elitism, April 10, A19). “Four years of university might be less than optimally valuable for many of us.” Most young people of university age should be out and doing, not taking a four-year break from real life at the taxpayers’ expense. So much for the life of the mind and civilized discourse.

Well, Alexander Hamilton didn’t finish university. He had too much else to do. Lead troops into battle. write newspaper pieces and treatises for the university students of the future, facilitate a Revolution, found a country. All before he was twenty two. And with no droning lecturers to hold him up he was able to teach himself law and economics in the evenings.

I’m thinking too that with our aging population we need more people in the workforce. So maybe Goldberg’s right. The students will be just as happy or happier if we let them our of school earlier. And the country will prosper.

Should we follow Goldberg’s prescription? I don’t know. I can think of ways and means. Reinstate provincial examinations (the old senior matriculation). That will dissuade some from applying. Or persuade universities to set their own entrance exams. Raise tuition. Allow private universities. Introduce more two- and three-year degree programs. Especially for those going on to graduate school in law, medicine and the sciences. And then since fewer students would require fewer classrooms, university presidents would be free to put the arm on donors for scholarships rather than – as at present, at my university at any rate – for bricks and concrete.

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4 Responses to “What Students Remember”


  1. 1 Andrew Banfield April 11, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    Janet,

    While I share Dennis’ lament for the nation, I’m not sure that any of what you suggest will solve the problem. Indeed, your logical conclusion (I think) is that US students are far better than Canadian ones at remembering “passes the barrier of the teeth”. I’m not sure this is the case. Not at Harvard, Texas, or for that matter East Carolina State.

    The real problem lies much earlier at the middle and secondary schools where Canadian history, geography, and social studies are not taught (well). If I can recall my high school days, the last required Canadian anything was in grade 10! It’s no wonder why students have no idea about Rene Levesque. Maybe we should examine this before we dive headlong in to the US-style system.

    Do I have a concrete solution to any of this? Alas, I do not. I think you are right, however, when you suggest that a successful year is when you reach a student or three (forget the class as a whole), and convince them that this is important. Oh and talk one out of going to law school!

  2. 2 Anonymous April 14, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    OK, this is the third time I’ve written this response. I’ve tried to paste a web link in this comment section and for some reason, it does not like me doing it.

    So here’s a shorter version:
    Andrew may be on to something with “lament for a nation.” George Grant wrote, in later works of course, about technology and modernity destroying humanity because we lose our understanding of the moral foundations of society. Perhaps in the internet age where students have unparalleled access to information, they simply lose attention. We (we as in society, not likely those reading this blog) tend to focus on more entertaining news and information rather than learning about our country. Grant’s contemporary, William Christian, wrote an interesting article shortly before his retirement at Guelph (read it here: http://news.therecord.com/Opinions/article/329200) about the modern predicament of academics. In libraries, books are being replaced by computers and desks for groups of students to socialize. People now go to the library to access technology, meet friends, and take a nap rather than read something of use. This is troubling, all the more so because students are doing the same thing in classrooms.

    Secondly, Canadian politics and history are boring. They shouldn’t be, but they are. That’s because there are so many uncontested “facts.” At least on Canada’s founding, we have some revisionist thinking with Ajzenstat and company. But on contemporary political problems, we’re just talking about the same things over and over gain as if we had nothing new to learn. Why does our country have low voter turnout? Well, that’s because of the electoral system. Really? We had the same electoral system for centuries, so if this is constant, then it cannot explain low voter turnout today relative to 30 years ago. It has to be on something else that has changed. My latest blog post suggests that the constitution, judges, watchdogs and bureaucracy are the reason for the decline of democracy and a loss of hope for voters to change things. Yet, we are exposed to the same ideas, the same reasons, with nothing new to learn. Another reform is fixed election dates. The impression is that we have more cynicism today and this is because governments can call an election whenever it best suits them. Really? Governments have had this “problem” of calling elections when they were needed for years. It ought to be some other reason. So instead of exploring new ideas, we are stuck with the old. I am not suggesting that we abandon the old ideas, but we need to breathe some life back into the discipline and make it interesting again.

    I had another point about new research, but I have a busy day ahead of me, as do you. Perhaps I’ll revisit the issue at a later time.

  3. 3 Rob Leone April 14, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    OK, this is the third time I’ve written this response. I’ve tried to paste a web link in this comment section and for some reason, it does not like me doing it.

    So here’s a shorter version:
    Andrew may be on to something with “lament for a nation.” George Grant wrote, in later works of course, about technology and modernity destroying humanity because we lose our understanding of the moral foundations of society. Perhaps in the internet age where students have unparalleled access to information, they simply lose attention. We (we as in society, not likely those reading this blog) tend to focus on more entertaining news and information rather than learning about our country. Grant’s contemporary, William Christian, wrote an interesting article shortly before his retirement at Guelph (read it here: http://news.therecord.com/Opinions/article/329200) about the modern predicament of academics. In libraries, books are being replaced by computers and desks for groups of students to socialize. People now go to the library to access technology, meet friends, and take a nap rather than read something of use. This is troubling, all the more so because students are doing the same thing in classrooms.

    Secondly, Canadian politics and history are boring. They shouldn’t be, but they are. That’s because there are so many uncontested “facts.” At least on Canada’s founding, we have some revisionist thinking with Ajzenstat and company. But on contemporary political problems, we’re just talking about the same things over and over gain as if we had nothing new to learn. Why does our country have low voter turnout? Well, that’s because of the electoral system. Really? We had the same electoral system for centuries, so if this is constant, then it cannot explain low voter turnout today relative to 30 years ago. It has to be on something else that has changed. My latest blog post suggests that the constitution, judges, watchdogs and bureaucracy are the reason for the decline of democracy and a loss of hope for voters to change things. Yet, we are exposed to the same ideas, the same reasons, with nothing new to learn. Another reform is fixed election dates. The impression is that we have more cynicism today and this is because governments can call an election whenever it best suits them. Really? Governments have had this “problem” of calling elections when they were needed for years. It ought to be some other reason. So instead of exploring new ideas, we are stuck with the old. I am not suggesting that we abandon the old ideas, but we need to breathe some life back into the discipline and make it interesting again.

    I had another point about new research, but I have a busy day ahead of me, as do you. Perhaps I’ll revisit the issue at a later time.

  4. 4 oonae April 24, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    My reading of the tone of this post suggests that you *really* think higher education is valuable to almost everybody, and that no restrictions should be imposed on enrolment, but that for some reason you feel like you have to entertain the opposite opinion. I think you should go with your gut here. I do not see any way in which open enrolment is incompatible with your wider principles, or with the kind of rational elitism you cherish.


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