Experience vs. Memory

Now, I’m certainly not a Luddite but, I have some humanistic concerns about the increasing tendency for people to rely on external memory.  If the unexamined life is not worth living, what about the unremembered one?  One may argue that external memory still counts, that I can look at pictures on Facebook and remember the event in which it was taken; relive the experience that way.  But can you really be said to know something or remember it if you must constantly check with some outside reference?  It seems like technology is a tool for reminding more than remembering.  My fear is that too much focus on memory will cost us in our experiences.  The past is gone; it isn’t real.  There is only the eternal present – the here and now.  It always confuses me to see a concert goer holding an Ipad to record the show rather than enjoying the music.  Daniel Kahneman talks about the conflicts between the experiencing self and the remembering one in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  There is also a TED talk that deals with it. 

I did enjoy the excerpt from Smarter Than You Think.  It presented a pretty balanced argument and I intend to read the whole book.

Lessons from Castalia (Part III)

Part I & Part II

Part III re-imagines current educational institutes to serve more comprehensive goals.

Part III

                It is instructive here to consider the Castalia of Greek mythology.  Castalia was a nymph whose ultimate fate was to be turned into a water fountain.  But fountains must flow – that’s how they maintain their shape.  Knecht resigns his office because he recognizes that the pedantic arrogance of the Province and the growing divide between it and the outside world threaten its sustainability.   His observations and concerns allow for a critical reflection on current reasons for schooling and serve as an invitation for all to reexamine the purposes of education and reevaluate its priorities.

Before addressing what the particular values scholarly institutes are to society or which values they should primarily pursue, it is important to discuss ways in which such institutions can be practically sustained.  The answer is obvious.  To maintain and grow societies’ educational institutes and their capacity to school a population of assertive, critical thinkers, it must promote teaching excellence in its students – the ability to teach each other and future generations.  Societal education into the distant future can only continue if students become teachers in cyclical fashion.

Knecht fears that Castalia is becoming the aristocratic class of its time, doomed to corrupt itself if it forgets its privileged position and will share the fate of many similar societies that preceded it.  Knecht criticizes the average Castalian for being self-absorbed in study:

The purpose of his life seems to him to be cultivation of the scholarly disciplines for their own sake,… Castalian culture… is for most of those associated with it not an instrument they play on like a great organ, not active and directed toward goals, not consciously serving something greater or profounder than itself.  Rather, it tends somewhat toward smugness and self-praise, toward the cultivation and elaboration of intellectual specialism (349).

The Castalians who leave as teachers to serve in the surrounding country Knecht recognizes as “men of integrity and worth, who really desire only to serve.”  Their work is described as “incalculably important” to “the pleasant climate and the intellectual luxuries of [the] Province.”  Knecht explains to the Board of Educators, “These fine teachers out there are, strictly speaking, the only ones among us who are really carrying out the purpose of Castalia.  Through their work alone we are repaying the nation for the many benefits we receive from it” (351).

Teaching is clearly important in Hesse’s view.  But it’s critical to realize its limits. Knecht’s biographers make an interesting distinction between teaching and educating.  Teaching relies on pedagogical skill and involves the transference of information; it’s the joy of seeing students rearrange materials into original configurations (238).  Teaching is about skills, knowledge, talent, and experience.  Education relies on the teacher’s personality; it relies on the ability to win students over and lead them by ones’ inspirational example (238).  Educating is about transmitting values, wisdom, character and meaning.

As Kohn warns, we should be wary regarding education and skeptical of our ability to pass on transcendent truth.  It is the same counsel that the Music Master gives Knecht during a correspondence about the meaning of the Glass Bead Game.  Knecht claims to be on the path to

The real mystery of the Game and its ultimate meaning…, down into the One and All, into those depths where the eternal Atman eternally breathes in and out, sufficient unto itself.  One who had experienced the ultimate meaning of the Game within himself would by that fact no longer a player; he would no longer dwell in the world of multiplicity and would no longer be able to delight in invention, construction, and combination, since he would know altogether different joys and raptures” (121-122).

The benevolent Music Master responds,

A Game Master or teacher who was primarily concerned with being close enough to the ‘innermost meaning’ would be a very bad teacher.  To be candid, I myself, for example, have never in my life said a word to my pupils about the ‘meaning’ of music; if there is one, it does not need my explanation.  On the other I have always made a great point of having my pupils count their eighths and sixteenths nicely.  Whatever you become, teacher, scholar, or musician, have respect for the ‘meaning,’ but do not imagine that it can be taught.  Once upon a time the philosophers of history ruined half of world history with their efforts to teach such ‘meaning,’… The task of the teacher and scholar is to study means, cultivate tradition, and preserve the purity of methods, not to deal in incommunicable experiences which are reserved to the [students]. (122)

Hesse teaches the same message about the limits to which the lessons from ones’ experiences may be clearly taught to others in such a way as to impart wisdom as well as knowledge through the title hero of Siddhartha.  Siddhartha explains his reasons to not study the Buddha’s teachings,

You have [reached the highest goal] by your own seeking, in your own way, through thought, through meditation, through knowledge, through enlightenment.  You have learned nothing through teachings, and so I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teachings… That is why I am going on my way – not to seek another and better doctrine, for I know there is none, but to leave all doctrines and all teachers and to reach my goal alone. (27-28)

This echoes the lessons Knecht gave to the elite Glass Bead Game players about the dangers of disciplines and specialties.  Hesses’ novels make a coherent argument for the ‘highest goal’ of an education.  As Knecht explains to Designori, it is to become like the Music Master – one of Hesses’ “Immortals”:

Whose serenity is not playful shallowness, but earnest depth… this man possessed the virtue of serenity to such a degree that it radiated from him like the light from a star; so much that it was transmitted to all in the form of benevolence, enjoyment of life, good humor, trust, and confidence…To achieve this cheerful serenity is to me, and to many others, the finest and highest of goals… Such cheerfulness is neither frivolity nor complacency; it is supreme insight and love, affirmation of all reality. (315)

Teaching and educating find a unity in Joseph Knecht.  While professors and instructors should strive to achieve both, only the most exceptional among teachers will have the ability to educate.  Students mostly have to educate themselves – they’re the only ones who can attached personal value to their skills, derive meaning from their experiences, express their character through the force of their talents, and learn to apply knowledge wisely.  It is a challenging course, but “only the weak are sent out on paths without perils” (81).  Joseph experiences a kind of schizophrenic tension in his personality as a youth when he first begins to grasp that no way of thinking or being can be correct or perfect.  In desperation, he exclaims,

Oh, if only it were possible to find understanding… If only there were a dogma to believe in.  Everything is contradictory, everything tangential; there are no certainties anywhere.  Everything can be interpreted one way and then again interpreted in the opposite sense.  The whole of world history can be explained as development and progress and can also be seen as nothing but decadence and meaninglessness.  Isn’t there any truth? Is there no real and valid doctrine? (83)

His devotedly cheerful tutor, the Music Master, consoles young Knecht,

There is truth, my boy.  But the doctrine you desire, absolute perfect dogma that alone provides wisdom, does not exist.  Nor should you long for a perfect doctrine, my friend.  Rather, you should long for the perfection of yourself.  The deity is within you, not in ideas and books.  Truth is lived, not taught.  Be prepared for conflicts, Joseph Knecht – I can see they have already begun. (83)

With these considerations in mind, it is interesting to compare Knecht’s evaluation of Castalia to Chris Hedges’ critique of American higher education in his Empire of Illusions: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.  Hedges argues that American culture has degraded to the point of consumerism, fetishized competition, celebrity worship, and banal conversation while the American people – who mostly rely on corrupt or at least pitifully substantive media for their news – ignorantly or uncaringly allow corporations to externalize the costs of their actions regarding environmental restoration and maintenance of social justice to the public.  The fountain of ideas to update our economic and social structure has stopped flowing.  Hedges lays many of these problems at the feet of institutes of higher education, especially Ivy Leagues, for producing a citizenry that perpetuates the status quo without questioning or critically assessing the power dynamics in their culture or society.

Culture, to use the words from Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, is a people enacting a story.  It is the collective narratives we tell ourselves and each other about our origins, purpose, history, future, and priorities.  As much as we feel like rational, self-interested, and intelligent beings, overwhelming evidence suggests we are creatures of little understanding prone to acting automatically; who fool ourselves by subtlety replacing difficult questions with easier ones and comprehend the world largely by constructing narratives of questionable accuracy or legitimacy to provide coherency to our experiences – these narratives more or less allow us to assign significance to our actions and meaning to our lives (Kahneman).

Institutional attempts at education have to settle for teaching, even if individual instructors are exemplary, because students are more likely to – naturally, one might add – discover and accept the dominate wisdom presented throughout the rest of their culture’s narratives.  We have to be aware of that and make it clear to our students: a teacher’s job – like a parent’s – is to put themselves out of business.  If at no point is the student able to teach themselves i.e. learn independently through synthesizing skeptical questions and critically evaluating the reliability of information as well as their most basic assumptions, then there is something wrong with the course structure or pedagogical approach.

Idolatrous scholarship is exactly the kind Knecht would gaily admonish.  The idea of service is emphasized throughout The Glass Bead Game.  In addition to creating teachers to sustain their institutes and spread knowledge, universities have a paramount responsibility to serve by illuminating the intellectual path that most serves society’s needs.  Schools are the primary lens through which young people will learn to critically evaluate their culture and environment; they must be instructed to question skeptically and taught to identify significant information if they are to operate self-sufficiently.

The roles schools serve then should be to identify and evaluate the narratives presented by the surrounding culture while teaching students the tools to refine their perception and analysis of themselves and the world.  Schools should also do what they can to promote reasons for continued learning and criticize narratives which threaten civilization.  Neil Postman identifies several narratives present in public schools in his The End of Education that he feels fail to provide students with transcendent reasons for learning.  For instance, Postman and Hedges both criticize the emphasis placed on economic utility of future workers as the primary purpose of school.  Postman further proposes alternative narratives that do serve to make learning a meaningful experience to students.

It is unfair to hold schools totally accountable for cultural decline however.  They do not exist in a vacuum; cultural degradation neither originates totally in schools nor affects educational institutions exclusively.  There are signs of degradation in American politics, its economy, and its environment which mutually influence each other.  Likewise, a solution to cultural degradation will require restructuring other realms of society as well as schools.

Richard Wolff argues in Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, that public schools should primarily be conceptualized as tools to maintain democratic society and as sources of fresh ideas that expand and reinvigorate democratic ideals.  He primarily frames his arguments politically as they relate to a need for restructuring the economy to achieve social justice.  Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, provides complementary economic arguments that are framed ecologically and primarily address environmental concerns.  Both ideas are centered on increased participation and autonomy of people, either in government or commerce, and an enhanced sense of community.  Each makes the argument that the new economy would ask different demands of schools.  Hawken also offers a more tempered and optimistic view about ethical governance and the potential for corporations to lead the way in solving ecological and social problems created by industry than either Wolff’s or Hedges’ skeptical cynicism.

Two of the narratives Postman promotes in his book involve conceptualizing Earth as a spaceship to encourage globally communal thinking in students, and emphasizing America as a nation founded on seeking truth through continuous argument about which questions are important and experimentation in developing more refined answers.  Postman suggests the study of archaeology and anthropology to help students grasp the narrative of Earth as a spaceship on which all humans and life are ecologically interdependent.  ‘Spaceship Earth’ can serve as the narrative that reinforces Hawken’s vision.  Postman’s narrative of the American Argument could conceivably serve the needs identified by Hedges and Wolff for creating a more engaged public.

Both types of these commitments – to each other as in Wolff’s democratic Worker Self-Directed Enterprises and to their environment as in Hawken’s ecologically conscientious economy – will require practice.  The modern world is demanding new types of thinking that are more nuanced and dynamic than narratives of the past.  Schools are a natural place to plant new seeds of thought and habit.  Future citizens will be best prepared to solve their problems if classrooms are restructured to give students more authority and independence in collectively directing their education.

Empowering students to teach each other is very compatible with the sort of economic and societal systems proposed in Democracy at Work & The Ecology of Commerce.  Classroom structures that rely on students to develop content and educate each other through peer-reviews while under an instructor’s supervision would build the necessary habits of participation, engagement, and social commitment that future communities will require.  It would also be a sustainable way to maintain increasing levels of education in the population by training everyone to be a teacher.


To be educated means to have an awareness of the biases that color one’s perception of the world, the limits’ to one’s knowledge, and to one’s capacity for understanding – in short, to be educated means to know ones’ self; however, an education should make students aware of their ability to grow, and of the potential to experience learning as a transcendent act of consciousness with the power to shape their lives.

Joseph Knecht and the Music Master represent the pinnacle of education: the state of perpetual understanding and awe and child-like peace characterized and evidenced by their radiating, infectious optimism in all situations.  But Hesse warns that people cannot be taught to be this way; they must find their own path to such a place.  While their example should be pursued by individual teachers and students, educational institutions have to set different goals for schooling the pubic.

Schools and teachers should emphasize the art of questions and tools of inquiry; their efforts ought to direct societies’ intellectual endeavors towards being critically self-aware and reflective.  Communities of the future will necessarily be more socially and ecologically integrated than they are today.  Students can be prepared to create such economies by gaining experience in democratically run classrooms engaged in community service.  This is old wisdom.  Henry Thoreau presents a similar argument in Walden:

[Students] should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.  How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?

            In addition to restructuring for more collaboration between students and teachers, schools can reevaluate the subjects emphasized in school and the ultimate purpose of education.  As in the Glass Bead Game, all subjects are valid, intimately connected, and capable of leading to genuine enlightenment as well as false, empty virtue.  Students should seek the perfected happiness achieved by the Immortals.  Schools can facilitate this goal by emphasizing the study of anthropology and ecology to understand the deep connections we share with our ancestors, neighbors, and environment.  They can also highlight the importance of narratives to the human psyche and social behavior.  Students should also be encouraged to investigate the interplay of power and morality.  Study of the scientific method – with increased attention to language and rhetoric – will equip students with the tools necessary to skeptically evaluate the narratives of their time and maintain their intellectual autonomy without diminishing their capacity for collaboration.

Hesse’s novel offers many other insights for students, teachers, administrators, and politicians.  It hope my essay serves as an argument for investigating it for yourself.



Hesse, Hermann.  Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game/Magister Ludi): A tentative sketch of the life of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht together with Knecht’s posthumous writings.  Henry Holt and Company.  1990.

Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha.  NJF Books.  New York, NY. 1951.

Hedges, Chris.  Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and Triumph of Spectacle.

Postman, Neil.  The End of Education.

Kohn, Alfie.  What does it mean to be well educated?

Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Lessons from Castalia (Part II)

Part II deals mostly with an analysis of the novel’s main characters and the examples they set for students and teachers.  Please see Part I for a brief synopsis of the text.  Part III continues the discussion of Part II and evaluates connections between Castalia and contemporary public schooling.

Part II

            For such a rich text, I think it is appropriate to analyze the novel in two parts.  Part II will be an investigation into the novel’s main characters to see what lessons there are for teachers and students.  The focus of Part III will be on the example and warning Castalia sets for contemporary educational institutions.

Perhaps the most outstanding example of pedagogical excellence that the novel illustrates is the level of collaboration between the instructor and pupil.  Castalia has a seemingly rigid structure and hierarchy; however, the majority of Castalians are afforded the luxury of studying whatever suits their fancy.  In his collection of essays, What Does It Mean to be Well Educated?, Alfie Kohn argues with supporting evidence that education works best when it resembles such a collaborative environment.  Many teachers profess that one of their highest goals is to create life-long learners.  What better way to do so than by giving students some authority to direct their own education?  Students should be involved in creating class assignments and learning objectives.  Of course, senior members of The Order’s Hierarchy do annually review scholarship but, the evaluations are far more qualitative than quantitative.  That is, the quality of Castalian learning is assessed narratively rather than alpha-numerically.

This is an invitation to educators to rethink their use of grades and the educational goals they serve.  Kohn’s essays further argue that a focus on or even use of grades as a means of evaluating students can undermine quality learning.  Grades attract students’ attention away from the content and reduce their interest in learning as they tend to worry about how they will be evaluated instead.  Acting rationally, students opt for easier assignments over challenging ones when grades are emphasized in the classroom.  The pressure to perform is also cited as a reason many students cheat.  He does concede that this kind of very personalized assessment is more demanding of often already over-worked teachers.  However, even if giving students a simple letter grade makes things easier for teachers, does it serve the best interest of the students?

I suspect many educators will feel that they tend to collaborate with their students and their intellectual journeys are mutually beneficial.  And I don’t mean to suggest that students and teachers are equals in this journey.  Teachers obviously are in a position of power and, correspondingly, responsibility; teaching is arguably the most influential profession on the planet.  It has been my experience that professors vary widely in their feelings about their obligations to students.  On one hand, I have seen professors who seem – at least unconsciously – more interested in merely having their own ideas and perspectives paraphrased back to them.  I can understand the joy it must be to see one’s intellect mirrored and echoed in this way with the vitality and vigor that youth are blessed to possess.  The temptation to exert such unjustified influence is surely enthralling.  I’ve also seen contempt for ignorance: as if the last place the professor would rather be is in the classroom sharing their knowledge, that they are primarily researchers and discovers of truth who cannot be bothered to explain the more fundamental aspects of their field to novices.  As a student helping his peers, Knecht struggled with some of these issues.  He admits to being flattered at their tendency to seek his guidance but also annoyed with their lack of self-reliance and temptation to use his influence to exert undue power over them (135).  On the other hand, I have been lucky to have so many educators in my life whose character reflects more closely that of Knecht as Magister Ludi.  They have been caring and patient, willing to earn respect and win authority by interacting with students on a genuinely individualized level.  Like Knecht, the examples they set were far more valuable than any information they were able to transmit.

Students can also learn from Knecht’s example.  For instance, when he is sent as a diplomat to Mariafels on the pretense of introducing Benedictine monks to the Glass Bead Game, “Knecht thought it important to win Father Jacobus’s approval for the Castalian authorities’ project; but it seemed to him far more important to learn as much as possible from him” (191).   Here again, the best learning is shown to be a collaborative effort; the biographers credit his studies with Father Jacobus as an integral part on Knecht’s path to becoming Magister Ludi:

The result [of their “animated exchange of views”] was that at the very time [Knecht’s] areas of study were so notably expanding , he was also forced once again to contemplate, understand, and reinforce his own intellectual and historical base.  In his efforts to present the nature of the Order and of the Castalian system to Father Jacobus with maximum simplicity and clarity, he inevitably stumbled over the weakest point[s] in his own and all Castalian education (194).

The lesson for students is that their education will be of little value to them unless they take an active role in directing it.  Passive learning is just a euphemism for no learning at all.  Their example shows that the best teacher-student relationships are dynamic – where each individual serves alternately, or even simultaneously, as student and teacher.  Plinio Designori, a non-Castalian whose family’s children are privileged to receive Castalian education and who engaged Knecht with lively debates concerning the virtues of the meditative versus natural life during their adolescence together, describes to the Magister how Castalian education served him when studying at university.  Designori explains,

I abided by the rules I had learned among you… They seemed to strengthen and shield me, seemed to preserve my gaiety and inner soundness and to increase my resolve to pass my student years in the Castalian way as far as possible, following the paths that my craving for knowledge indicated and not letting anything coerce me into a course of studies designed to prepare the student as thoroughly as possible in the shortest possible time for a specialty in which he could earn his livelihood, and to stamp out whatever sense of freedom and universality he may have had (297).

In the same way that the Music Master’s peaceful serenity and Father Jacobus’s sagacity tempered “by a profound insight into the inadequacies and difficulties of human nature” highlight the contrasts between contemplative and engaged forms of scholarship, Designori’s juxtaposition with Knecht illustrates the different paths students may take toward exemplifying either form (193).  Knecht, with “his educator’s perception of the various shades of character”, observes a remarkable change in his friend (289) when they are reunited as old men.  Compared to the bold, exuberant, student whom Knecht knew at Waldzell, Designori’s

youthful charm had been submerged and extinguished…, but the traits of superficiality and blatant worldliness had also vanished.  The whole man, but especially his face, seemed marked, partly ravaged, partly ennobled by the expression of suffering” (290).

As their conversation continues, Designori goes on to lament,

You recall how in defending our world against yours I used to extol the unspoiled, naive life? If that was a piece of foolishness deserving punishment, my friend, I have been harshly punished. Because this naive, innocent, instinctual life, this childlike, untrammeled brilliance of the simple soul, may possibly exist among peasants or artisans, or somewhere, but I never succeeded in finding it, let alone sharing in it… I don’t know whether my life has been useless and merely a misunderstanding, or whether it has a meaning. If it does have a meaning, I should say it would be this: that one single specific person in our time has recognized plainly and experienced in the most painful way how far Castalia has moved away from its motherland. Or for my part it might be put the other way around: how alien our country has become from her noblest Province and how unfaithful to that Province’s spirit; how far body and soul, ideal and reality have moved apart in our country; how little they know about each other, or want to know… – in any case, it ended as it was bound to end.  The world was stronger than I was (295-298).

            Knecht – tracing an alternative path to enlightenment – struggles with similar problems reconciling the value of rigorous introspection with our natural instinct to ascribe significance to worldly experience.  And once Knecht

explored all the possibilities the office  provided for the utilization of his energies and had reached the point at which great men must leave the path of tradition and obedient subordination and, trusting to supreme, indefinable powers, strike out on new, trackless courses where experience is no guide (286-287),

he resigns from his office.  His resignation is a means to expresses concerns to his colleagues on the Board of Educators regarding the Pedagogical Province that mirror Designori’s complaints about the inadequacies and limits of Castalian wisdom as applied to the outside world.

Peer-taught Classrooms: A Recipe for Creating Learner-centered Bonanzas

The syllabus workshop we did in class was pretty fun. Some of the feedback I got was that my syllabus may have been a little too learner-centered and lacked enough structure to guide more apprehensive students. So I made some revisions. I’ll share the syllabus below and highlight some its aspects that may be useful to other instructors.

First, don’t pretend that teaching and learning can be separated. Be explicit that you do not have perfect knowledge and fully expect to learn something while working with your students. My syllabus starts with a short teaching philosophy that says as much.

The structure of the class is also very adaptable to scale and course content. The gist of the idea is to let the students teach themselves. In my syllabus, they may teach anything so long as the rest of the class agrees. Topics can obviously be narrowed by the instructor for more targeted lessons. Anyway, here it is. Critiques are appreciated. And reading recommendations for the course.


Virginia Tech

PHIL 2984: Self-Directed Learning Techniques & Strategies

Spring, 2016


Instructor:                  Andrew Schultz                                                           Office: HOLDEN 126

Email:                           andrew2@vt.edu                                           Office Hours: By appointment


Any student with special needs or circumstances should feel free to contact me to arrange
appropriate accommodations.


Teaching Philosophy


I think of myself as more of a veteran student than a teacher.  We’ll be exploring some interesting problem spaces in this course and I probably have more experience with the areas instead of some inherently better means to navigate them.  I should be thought of as a guide.  I can show you around, point out interesting landmarks and questions, but I am perfectly happy to help you start exploring something new and outside of my direct expertise.


Educational Objectives


Having successfully completed this course, the student will be able to:


  1. Identify their personal reasons for learning and the value of their education.


  1. Research reliable information and techniques for learning.


  1. Plan and implement strategies to acquire specific knowledge.


  1. Clearly and effectively communicate ideas, propose questions, flexibly frame problems, suggest solutions, and justify conclusions.


Course Description


This is a course about learning: the process of questioning truth more often than finding it.  What is your definition of learning?  Why do we do it?  What’s worth knowing?  When?  How can we learn? Which ways are best?  Who should do it?  Does that change with the content of the learning? Why?  What can we learn from asking the same questions about teachers and teaching?


Learning is (a) gaining the ability to identify questions that are personally, socially, scientifically, economically, etc. interesting and novel, (b) discovering and/or inventing reliable means to gather information, (c) evaluating and prioritizing the importance of and need for specific information, (d) developing the capacity to verify information and its source’s validity via routine, rigorous skepticism, (e) efficiently recalling past experiences by (f) making creative associations within and between areas of information, (g) building ready access to dense webs of knowledge that allows for adaptive critical thinking and creative problem solving, and (h) becoming proficient at sharing valuable information in ways that facilitate understanding – in a word, teaching.  This class is about developing your own philosophy of learning and gaining new strategies to better control and direct your education.


Teaching and learning can’t be separated; therefore, teaching will play an important role in this course.  It is more than merely transmitting information.  Teaching well means doing one’s best to inspire the students’ interest and imaginations, nurturing their confidence and enthusiasm to explore independently, anticipating students’ frustrations, misunderstandings, shortfalls, reservations and resistances – this requires you to simulate disparate ways to formulate problems and generate solutions – teaching is about manufacturing rewarding challenges, pointing out opportunities, and illuminating ways in which students can attach meaning to their learning.  Basically, if you can learn how to effectively teach others a topic of mutual interest, you will be empowered to better direct your education through teaching yourself.  In this class you will be teaching your peers.  Your first task will be convincing them that you have information worth learning.



Course Reference Materials


Heinrichs, Jay. Thank you for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson can Teach us About the Art of Persuasion.  Published by Random House, Inc., New York. 2007.  


Class Structure and Proposed Procedure


(for letter grade and Pass/Fail; No Audits)


“The purpose of education is to teach a defense against eloquence.” – Bertrand Russel


“Truth springs from argument among friends.” – David Hume


Whatever we decide to learn this semester, my hope is that we will question and argue about it – Is it relevant? Why do we care?  Is it important?  How much? Is it accurate?  To what limits and in what situations? Et cetera…  The class will be based mostly on student-lead discussion under the instructor’s moderation.  Participation and engagement are critical in this class.  One of two required reading for the course is Thank you for Arguing by Jay Heinrichs.  As the course description explains, the ability to learn relies on one’s knowledge of and skill at teaching; further, teaching begins with persuading students to engage the material.  Heinrich’s book is a fun introduction to rhetoric: the tools, techniques, and strategies of influence.  It’s actually not even required if you feel confident in your persuasive abilities, but it’s a great read and even better reference for this class.  The best way to resist the influence of others is the ability to reciprocate targeted influence in them.  The second “mandatory” piece of reading is an excerpt from Love is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends by Tim Sanders.  The excerpt contains arguments I like for the efficacy of books as self-directed learning tools and the significance of reading as the most important habit for continuing one’s education.  I hope it justifies the course structure proposed below.  The rest of the course material and structure is up for debate between the instructor and students.  Here is a suggested format:


First, identify individual and collective learning interests, brainstorm questions related to those interests, and systemically design plans to investigate as many topics as possible.  Teams of 3-4 students could produce a presentation that introduces the rest of the class to an important idea (perhaps the thesis of a book) pertaining to one of our predetermined subjects of interest (something like a TED talk).  Their goal could be persuading their peers to investigate the concept or topic further for themselves.  Each person would do this 3-4 times throughout the semester; teams may (are encouraged to) change between presentations.  This ensures that each person will experience responsibility for researching and teaching their peers while gaining familiarity with multiple team dynamics.  Say, for instance, each presentation is primarily a kind of book report – an attempt to persuade the audience to read the book(s) upon which the presentation was based.  Alternatively, a group could refute the main theses presented in a book, convince the audience it’s not worth reading, and propose another option.  Students can also write short summaries of their books to share with the class.  Conducting class this way and assuming groups only present 1 book at a time, individuals need only read 4 books while we collectively receive the benefit of reading 20-30 books worth of customized education over 13 weeks – pretty impressive!  Ideally, the presentations will inspire and convince individuals to read more than the minimum 4 books and groups’ presentations will tie the ideas and conclusions from multiple books together.  Students are challenged to read 10 or more books this semester.  Imagine if a class of 20 did this and summarized each book for their peers.  That would be 200 books in 13 weeks – damn impressive!  Let’s shoot for somewhere in the middle: collectively averaging 6-8 books per person this semester.


Proposed Course Schedule


Week In-Class Readings
1 Intros, Team Formation, Curriculum Brainstorming Love is the Killer App (excerpt)

Thank You for Arguing

2 Discussion Book 1
3 Discussion Book 1
4 Presentations Book 1
5 Discussion Book 2
6 Discussion Book 2
7 Presentations Book 2
8 Discussion Book 3
9 Discussion Book 3
10 Presentations Book 3
11 Discussion Book 4
12 Discussion Book 4
13 Presentations Book 4


Grades and Expectations


You are responsible for directing your learning through the selection of course content and design of your presentations.  You have the freedom to teach the class however and about anything your group agrees to so long as you do so with civility, foster an inclusive environment, demonstrate intellectual integrity and remember…


Evaluations (assuming the suggested format is agreed to) will be done utilizing in-group peer-reviews, audience reviews, and instructor reviews.  For instance, in-group reviews will evaluate individuals’ contributions to preparing the presentations; the audience and instructor will review the engagement value, relevance, clarity, accuracy, and persuasiveness of the presentations.  Class participation will be based on your contributions to developing the course’s content and engagement in the weekly discussions.  A good rule of thumb would be to have at least 5 comments and questions ready for each session.  Students are expected to propose materials and justify their relevance to the rest of the class.  Involvement in designing assessments and providing meaningful feedback for peers is also expected.  The instructor has veto power in creating and modifying rubrics for assignments but student input is welcome and encouraged.  The details of each rubric should be mutually created and agreed to by the students and instructor.



The tenets of the Virginia Tech Graduate Honor Code will be enforced in this course, and all assignments are subject to the stipulations of the Honor Code.


Class participation:  (25%)


Presentations (75%)


Peer review – 30%

Audience Review – 25%

Instructor Review – 20%


*Notice that students control more grading power (55%) than the instructor (45%).

Recommended Readings



  1. The Tao of Pooh – Ben Hoff


  1. Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism – Richard Wolff


  1. The Spiritual Emerson – Ralph Waldo Emerson; Ed. Jacob Needleman


  1. The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg


  1. Natural Capitalism: The Next-Industrial Revolution – Paul Hawken and Amory & Hunter Lovins


  1. Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahnemann


  1. Siddhartha – Herman Hesse


  1. Love is the Killer App – Tim Sanders


  1. Your Money or Your Life – Vicki Robin & Joe Dominguez


  1. How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie


  1. Thank you For Arguing – Jay Heinrichs


  1. Moon-Walking with Einstein – Joshua Foer


  1. Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer


  1. Ishmael – Daniel Quinn


  1. Empire of Illusion – Chris Hedges


  1. The Omnivores Dilemma – Michael Pollan


  1. The Heart and The First – Eric Grietens


  1. The Glass-Bead Game – Hermann Hesse


  1. The Ecology of Commerce – Paul Hawken


  1. The Science of Discworld – Terry Pratchett & Ian Stewart


  1. Why Men Don’t Listen & Women Can’t Read Maps – Allan & Barbara Pease


  1. The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan


  1. The Power of Myth – Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers


  1. Ecological Intelligence – Daniel Goleman


  1. The Hidden Brain – Shankar Vedantam


  1. Republic – Plato


  1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari


  1. How to Train A Wild Elephant – Jan Chozen Bays


  1. Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond


  1. A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn


  1. Walden – Henry David Thoreau


  1. Verbal Judo ­– George Thompson


  1. Think Like a Freak – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner


  1. Freakonomics – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner


  1. Outliers – Malcom Gladwell


  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen Covey


  1. Who Moved My Cheese? – Spencer Johnson


  1. I Moved your Cheese – Deepak Malhotra


  1. Our Iceberg is Melting – John Kotter


  1. The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer


  1. America: Imagine a World without Her – Dinesh D’Souza


  1. What Does it Mean to be Well-Educated – Alfie Kohn


  1. The Gift of Fear – Gavin de Baker


  1. The Social Contract – Jean Jacque Roseau


  1. A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers


  1. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde


  1. Cradle-to-Cradle – Michael Braungart & William McDonough


  1. The Outsiders – William Thorndike


  1. Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut


  1. Pedagogy of the Oppressed – Paulo Freire


  1. Pedagogy of Freedom – Paulo Freire



Placid vs. Pandering Pedagogy

I found this weeks readings… interesting. I did especially enjoy Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens’s “From Safe Places to Brave Spaces”

Full disclosure, I am a white male – so some of the reading put me a bit on the defensive side emotionally. For instance, at some point in Arao’s and Clemen’s essay, violence is equated to a masculine quality and white participation in a safe space was somehow the same as the ultimate expression of white privilege. I thought their overall point of emphasizing the abrasive nature of social justice debate was valuable and agree that ‘Brave Spaces’ offer more opportunity for authentic and transformative learning than do ‘Safe Spaces.’

But – and I’m sure this is a matter of my privilege – are the problems as big as their being made out to be?

I think one of my problems is that I don’t particularly care about people’s feelings in an intellectual debate. People don’t have a right to feel a particular way – even safe. That is not to say they do not have a right to actual safety.  But they don’t have a right to not be criticized or have their ideas criticized.  They can certainly feel offended.  But I still don’t have to care.  How can I reasonably be expected to know ahead of time if someone will conflate an intellectual challenge or moral criticism with danger?

Another personal challenge I have in identifying with the content of the essay is that I am an engineer. A persons gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. are factors far from the realm of technical expertise and ability to apply science to problems so its not something I am often faced with thinking about.

At some level, I think we make these things into bigger issues than they are when we discuss them in such a tip-toed manner. Yes, we want our classes to run placidly and for all students to feel welcome but at what point does it become pandering to oversensitive students? Should dietary lifestyles be discussed as well – vegetarians are the minority and may feel that offended by subliminal references to a bloody diet. My point is there are literally an infinite number of categories in which students may feel they don’t identify with the dominant cultural norm and that is largely something they will need to deal with on their own or in a setting dedicated to discussing those kinds of issues – not every classroom.


The Hidden Brain reading was interesting as well.  It reminded me of Thinking, Fast and Slow – which I read last year.  Its a bit dry but a really fascinating depiction and exploration of cognitive mechanics and the human psyche.  I ordered the Hidden Brain on Amazon.  If you like those type of psychology books I would definitely recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman).

Totally Terrific Teaching

The readings this week offered some valuable advice on how to develop an effective teaching mindset. Admittedly, most of it seemed rather intuitive – not because I’m a particularly talented teacher – but because I’ve been privileged to experience high quality teaching throughout my academic career. My best teachers were not the ones that conveyed information the most effectively. The best were the ones who could infect me with their enthusiasm and passion for the subject matter. With that sort of fuel, I think anyone is capable of directing their own learning faster and more efficiently than someone else would be able to teach them.

As a teacher, I try to be less of a source of information to my students than a resource to challenge their thinking. Rather than confirming something for them, I think it is far more valuable to present them with a challenge that would allow them to confirm or invalidate their suspicion/theory.

There are a few reasons I think this works well for me. I am 24 and my students are 20 – 21. I’ve always been very clear with them about my level of expertise and inexperience as a teacher. The students have a very realistic expectation to match and even surpass my understanding of at least some class concepts and materials. I think many students find the prospect of educating their teacher enticing. After all, what pupil doesn’t want to become the master?