In Defense of the Lecture

Outside of dunce caps or ferule-slapping, it would be hard to find a teaching technique that has been more roundly disparaged by generations of progressive educators than the lecture.

Stultifying and obsolete, ineffective and time-wasting, the “sage-on-the-stage” approach to education has long been Pedagogic Enemy Number One for progressives.

Not so fast, writes Collin Garbarino in the pages of First Thoughts.  In spite of snarky progressive claims to the contrary, Garbarino argues, the lecture “worked in the fourteenth century, and it still works today.”

Garbarino is responding to an interview in The Atlantic with technophile David Thornburg.

Thornburg used a 1350 painting to illustrate the continuing ridiculousness of lectures.  In the painting, students sleep, chat, and otherwise while away the time while a puffed-up Henry of Germany imparts some Teutonic knowledge on Bologna’s university students.

Image Source: First Thoughts

Image Source: First Thoughts

Hold the phone, Garbarino challenges: Take another look at that painting.  Sure, many students are not listening.  But many are.  The front rows are packed with students avidly drinking in Henry’s wisdom.

Don’t blame the lecture for shoddy education, Garbarino argues.  After all, as Garbarino points out, we don’t blame books for ignorance; we don’t attack all blog posts because most of them are stupid.  Garbarino suggests two proper targets for reform: disengaged students and weak lecturers.

As in Bologna in 1350, some students benefit from lectures, others do not.  The lecture as a format is an efficient and practical way to educate, Garbarino says.  The fact that some students choose not to participate does not mean that the format itself is no good.

Similarly, lots of lecturers are terrible.  They are more concerned with publishing than with preparing scintillating lectures.  Or they may lack that ineffable something that makes someone a compelling speaker.  But just because some lecturers do a bad job of it does not damn the lecture entirely, Garbarino argues, any more than terrible books imply that we should no longer read.






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