The American Way of Learning

Following up on yesterday, wherein I considered the place of an academic inaugural address (essentially a  commencement speech at the beginning, not the end, of college), I remembered a speech from Professor Jacob Neusner that was basically just that.

Included in Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (edited by William Safire), Professor Neusner in 1991 offered a convocation at Elizabethtown College. The speech addresses many of the themes I mentioned yesterday, for example, how students should treat their time in school. He said a few things worth recalling here:

Given all of the many things you can do with your time and money, why should you turn your back on everything else in the world and spend the next ten months here, in these classrooms and laboratories and library, and with these professors? Only if the answer is, because there is nothing more important, should you stay here. And why should that be so? Because you're going to learn things here that matter and that you cannot learn in any other place or circumstance. What that means has nothing to do with acquiring information; you can learn more from an encyclopedia than you can from me or any other professor. What it means is that you're going to learn in a way in which you can only learn here and nowhere else: that is the social contract of the college classroom; it is what we promise you, and what you must demand of us. . . .

It is the particularly American way of learning, which is, by discovering things for yourself. We American professors at our best aim at teaching by helping students learn on their own. Our theory of teaching is to tell students, "Don't ask, discover!" The more we tell you, the less you learn. The more you learn, the more we teach. 

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