Less (Authority) Is More (Learning)
It is easy to denounce the lecture format. It is not so easy to
dismantle it or to give it up.
Lecturing to hundreds of very smart young people is a heady experience.
I talk, they duly note what I say. I stand in the spotlight, they sit in the
shadows. I dazzle, they defer to my brilliance. It is gratifying. I like adulation
as much as the next guy.
But the lecture does not do nearly as much for my students as
it does for me. It keeps them from an active, participatory engagement in
their own education. And by my lights it does not do anything desirable for
society, either. It confirms my students in their understanding of themselves
as consumers and of their society as founded upon the star system.
I have always been aware that I have more than enough control
of my classes. I have always experimented with ways of sharing that control
with my students. I am under no illusion that I can abdicate authority. If
nothing else, I still assign the grades at the end of the semester. But I
have become more and more convinced that I can give some of my control away
and still have enough left and that I can give my students a lot more voice
in their own education when I do.
About a dozen years ago, I instituted my first major change.
In all my alleged lecture courses at the University of Pennsylvania--courses
with enrollments of a dozen, or twenty-five, or forty students--I began dividing
the class into groups of three or four or five, making each of those groups
responsible for the conduct of an entire class session. I arrange the syllabus
so that we discuss a set of readings every week. The group conducts the discussion
on Tuesday, and I respond to the group's presentation on Thursday. I try to
tie things together or take things apart. I add to or subtract from what the
group said and what the class said.
I emphasize to the students that they are welcome to present
the texts as inventively and vivifyingly as they can. Still, they always astound
me. When I began, I thought they might stage debates or role-plays. Over the
years, they have concocted multimedia extravaganzas, composed and performed
original music, created their own videos, taken the class on location, staged
sound-and-light shows, conducted polls, performed costume dramas, had the
class fingerpainting, mounted parodies, prepared food, invited confessions,
and much else.
The exuberance and daring that my students display is just a
part of the pleasure and the power of the group presentations. There is more.
In my classes, students see their fellow students create interpretive
matrices richer and denser than their professor does. They come to respect
one another's intelligence in the formal setting of the classroom as they
already do in the informal settings of college life. And there is more.
Pretty consistently, students prepare more conscientiously for
class--and participate more thoughtfully in it--when the groups teach than
when I do. They know that the group counts upon them to be responsive, whereas
they assume that I will manage even if they are not. They know too that one
day they will be part of the group and depend on the others. And there is
Several times a semester, students complain wistfully that the
class they conducted was anticlimactic. Such students do not lament that the
class went badly. They lament that it went so swiftly and that there was so
much still to say. In an hour and a half, it was over. These are students
in groups that truly caught fire. They grew accustomed to long hours of intense
disputation with one another as they prepared their presentation. Only after
it was done did they realize how much more they had learned in preparing than
in performing, and from one another in the wee hours of the morning than from
me the following Thursday. And there is more.
The authority that a group holds for that hour and a half on
Tuesday lasts at least a semester, if not longer. I know because I read my
students' final papers. Routinely, those papers embrace, or play with, conceptions
that the student presentations set forth and that I thought I had refuted.
In a democracy, I think it may matter that several of them said it while only
I said nay. In a meritocracy, I think it may matter that they often said it
in a more dramatic and vibrant way than I said nay. And in the forum for free
thought that I fantasize I create, it may be that the mere fact of multivocality
fosters freer thought. Think of Solomon Asch's experiments on conformity.1
If all of the experimenter's accomplices say that a shorter line matches the
standard one, a large percentage of the true subjects of the experiment do
too. But if just one of the accomplices chooses the true match, virtually
every single true subject does too. It is possible that, sometimes, I truly
think the shorter line the true match. It is possible that my teaching groups
enable my students to say that, however ingeniously I argued otherwise, the
shorter line is shorter. When authority is pluralized, the range of permissible
truth on student papers is extended too.
But all of this is just a start. It gets students into the classroom
as teachers. It does not get the class out of the classroom itself. Community
service does that.
About a half-dozen years ago, I instituted my second major change.
I began sending the students in my course in American national character into
the schools of West Philadelphia. We still meet for an hour and a half every
Tuesday and Thursday. But now they spend an hour or two--or three or four--working
in the community each week as well.2
The specific arrangements change every year. The informing purpose
remains constant. I get the students out of the cocoon of the university and
out of my control.
On Tuesdays as well as Thursdays, I set the agenda. I choose
the readings; I decide the framework that the readings elaborate; I have a
heavy hand--on Thursdays--in the subjects we discuss and the turns our discussion
In the city schools, I determine none of this and influence almost
none. The students go according to their own schedule, not mine or our common
one. They generally work with different teachers, and they almost always work
with different students.
I do not even set my students their initial assignments for the
community work. I confess that I have tried to do it and that I still think
it would be grand if they were all engaged in a common endeavor. Every year,
my Penn-based collaborator, the schoolteachers, and I come up with something:
school-to-work, or the mayoral campaign, or the new journalism charter. And
every year, most of my students opt out. They find other assignments they
prefer to the ones we have devised, sometimes even at other schools than the
one in which we are working.
More than that, my students inevitably come at their diverse
community assignments with diverse attitudes. Some of them do as their teachers
tell them to. Others do as their ingenuity invites. They have organized an
elementary school co-ed soccer team so successful that it inspired the creation
of an entire league. They have instigated a school newspaper so successful
that it became a community newspaper. They have created a "girl talk"
program so successful that it spread to other high schools. They have formed
jazz clubs, taught neighborhood history classes, and started an after-school
gardening program that now sells its harvests to local restaurants.
Whether they innovate or just help out, they confront their own
problems and venture their own solutions. We do devote a part of class each
week to talking about the challenges they face, but I do not lead, and generally
do not even intervene in, those discussions.
Students from University City High School sell their produce
at the Powelton Farmers' Market at Drew Elementary School
in West Philadelphia. UCHS senior Charles Martin finds that
Bright Lights chard can sell for $3 a bag. Photograph by
A student "teaching assistant" presides over them. Each
year, I ask a student who took the class the year before to coordinate
community service. She and I speak often, both before and during
the course, but I assure her that she is to treat the community
service component as a course within the course and that that course
is hers, not mine. My assistants have initiated routines of journal
keeping, journal sharing, and weekly e-mail postings for the students.
It is, I think, a measure of their triumph that, in their e-mailings
as in our class discussions, students soon stop speaking to the
assistant and speak directly to one another.
The real point of the community service work, beyond the service itself,
is to authorize the students. For the final paper for the
course, I ask them to synthesize the reading that we do on contemporary
West Philadelphia and their own experience of the neighborhood.
I ask that they treat the two sources of information and ideas as
coordinate and that they recognize the primacy of their own expertise
in their fieldwork.
And they do. Again and again in their papers, they ponder the
implications of their experience for the books that they have read. Sometimes
they argue that, in the slice of life they have observed, things are not as
bad as some of our authors allege. Sometimes they argue that things are even
worse. And sometimes they get past that polarity and argue more ingeniously.
But always they are empowered to argue with what they have read. They do not
depend passively or reactively on Jonathan Kozol or Elijah Anderson, John
Wideman or Carl Nightingale.3 They have had an immersion of their
own in a life that had, before, been alien to their experience. They have
needs of their own to make sense of that experience.
Students from the University of Pennsylvania cultivate
eggplants with students in the Urban Nutrition Initiative
Summer Camp at Drew Elementary School in West Philadelphia.
Photograph by Danny Gerber.
Of course, I do eventually get to set some of my own views before
them. I do get those four Thursdays over the last third of the course.
But by the time I begin, they have been in their schools for a couple
of months. I try not to preach at them when we get to that concluding
segment on contemporary America. But even if I fail, they have had
the better part of the course to figure out where they stand before
I even begin speaking to their immediate experiences.
Some months ago, David Brooks caused a stir with a piece in the
Atlantic Monthly on "The Organization Child." Like William
Whyte half a century before, Brooks hung out with his subjects--in this case,
students at Princeton University--and observed them sharply. He found a lot
to like in those young people, or at least a lot to admire. But he also found
that, to them,
the world they live in seems fundamentally just. If you work hard, behave
pleasantly . . . you will be rewarded with a wonderful ascent in the social
hierarchy. . . . There is a fundamental order to the universe, and it works.
If you play by its rules and defer to its requirements, you will lead a pretty
My University of Pennsylvania students come from the same elite families
in the same elite suburbs that Brooks's Princetonians do. They went to the
same elite high schools, and they will go to the same elite law schools and
ultimately join the same elite firms.
But very few of my students come out of History 443 believing
that the world is "fundamentally just." Scarcely a one deludes himself
about his "wonderful ascent in the social hierarchy." More than
a few come out tormented by the disparity between their prospect of
"a pretty fantastic life" and the bleak outlook of the students
at West Philadelphia High School. Nearly all come soberingly to see that they
are where they are by an accident of birth. If they read Brooks, nearly all
would reach the disturbing realization that he is wrong on one crucial thing.
They are not ascending the social hierarchy. They will--if they are good enough
and lucky enough--do no more than maintain their parents' position. But for
the grace of their privileged birth, they would not be at Penn. Had they been
born black and poor, they too would have gone to West Philly and not much
I do not teach my students any of that. They learn it by themselves,
Michael Zuckerman is professor of history at the University of
Readers may contact Zuckerman at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
1 Solomon Asch, Studies of Independence and Conformity
2 Michael Zuckerman, "The Turnerian Frontier: A New Approach
to the Study of the American Character," in Connecting Past and Present:
Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in History, ed. Ira Harkavy and
Bill M. Donovan (Washington, 2000), 183-202.
3 Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America's
Schools (New York, 1991); Elijah Anderson, Code of the Street: Decency,
Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (New York, 1999); John
Wideman, Philadelphia Fire (New York, 1990); Carl Nightingale, On
the Edge: A History of Poor Black Children and Their American Dreams (New
York, 1993). For some specification of the sorts of things my students write,
see Zuckerman, "Turnerian Frontier."
4 David Brooks, "The Organization Child," Atlantic
Monthly, 287 (April 2001), 40-54, esp. 50. William H. Whyte, The Organization
Man (New York, 1956).