Teaching a Fish to Swim

In a recent post on High-Tech "Cheaters", I argued that the essential problem with cheating, high-tech or otherwise, is a problem that faces all educators, namely, how to reach students' needs effectively and then evaluate their response to our efforts. In the May 2006 issue of the Proceedings and Addresses of the APA, I ran accross John M. Dolan's "Statement for the Academy of Distinguished Teachers" appended to his obituary. John Dolan was a Professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, and passed away on 15 September 2005. He says:

"My philosophy of education can be expressed in a single sentence: 'You are teaching a fish how to swim.' I am suspicious of instructors who, thinking they understand what is going on when real intellectual growth takes place, wax eloquent about their pedagogical 'methodologies.' Examined closely, episodes described as 'inspired teaching' are occasions in which abilities and powers already present in the 'student' are somehow stimulated and stirred into more vivid realization and growth. Neither the 'teacher' nor the 'student' is wholly in charge of the direction or character of that new life and growth."

He goes on to compare a student to a plant, which develops out of its own inner force, and he warns teachers to take heed of the old doctor's credo: "Primum non nocere" (first of all, do no harm). How much does a teacher's effort to control the dynamic of the classroom, to resist the intrusion of new technologies, to submit students to artificial and narrow methods of evaluation constrict the growth of students?

In a real sense, what we do as teachers is not much: we simply try to let our students be what they already are. Yet there is also no doubt that letting things be what they are requires a determined will and a sharp mind.


2 thoughts on “Teaching a Fish to Swim

  1. I totally agree with John Dolan’s philosophy of education. He was a sensitive and fairly remarkable man with a deep concern for his craft and his students.

    That said, he was an arrogant son of a bitch. And he held some really stupid beliefs. I had him for just one course, my very first term in college (actually taken during high school), after which he recruited me to run a workshop for the same course (Intro to Logic) the following term. I liked him at first, but as the term rolled on, I found him more and more difficult to fathom and a real pain to talk to. Arrogant was an understatement, really. He was as specious as his logic. He liked making fun of people for their transgressions, and was always playing holier-than-thou.

    At the end of the workshop term, in which I got only three students over the course of all nine sessions due to the inconvenient 8AM Friday timeslot, I had the most painful, traumatic telephone conversation of my life with the professor. He hammered me over a miscommunication, grilled me about my further college plans, criticized me for not having a concrete plan at the age of 16, obliquely accused me of calling his daughter a liar (which I totally hadn’t), and, worst of all, laid into me for the idea that reading a lengthy, brilliant and critically acclaimed secondary source (Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid) could possibly satisfy my desire for logic education, because–unlike his textbook, which he wrote himself–it was written by a ‘journalist’. Well, I was practically afraid of the telephone for a year after that, not to mention the lack of any desire to speak with any of my professors for even longer. I eventually did take another course in logic–almost six years later. I in no way regret not following his advice and taking one sooner. It would have bored me just as much as I believed it would at the time.

    John Dolan had the right philosophy when it came to letting students flourish. In my case, however, he totally fucked it up, and I can’t be the only one. I have to admit that I’m a little relieved to learn he’s dead.

    Sorry to spam your blog with this, since you never knew the man. I just really wanted a place to vent about it.

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