Speak to the Smartest: Bringing out the Best in Students


Teaching is, in many ways, an impossible task. Socrates posed it as an epistemological question, a question of knowing: How is it possible for someone to learn something he doesn’t know? For Socrates, the movement of the mind from Point A to Point B is infinite. He therefore claims that all learning is memory and the duty of the teacher is to make students remember what they already know.

Perhaps. But I don’t agree. I believe it is the job of the professor — not the elementary school teacher who faces even harder, but different, challenges — to radically alter (yes, I split infinitives because grammar is often arbitrary) how students think, to have them look at the world in ways they never even thought possible. After all, I’m not teaching them the names of veins and muscles: I’m teaching them — or trying to teach them — how to think in a multicentered universe. Not every teacher’s job is the same. I assume this is obvious.

Now look at the room: 150 students, 150 lives, 150 different ways of learning, 150 different attention spans, 150 different appetites, vocabularies, experiences. How in the world am I going to reach them all?

The fact is: I’m not. Some students just don’t want to be there (even though college is a choice for which you literally must pay). Some have personal issues distracting them. Some learn incredibly quickly; others take time — lots of time. Some will just never get it no matter what — out of an endless boredom, lack of interest, or lack of cognitive ability.

So what am I, as the professor, to do? I could aim for the most bored, least intellectually curious and capable. But then I’ll waste the time of the bright and curious and ready and attentive.

And even if I aim for the least intellectually capable student, must I simplify the material? Do I dumb it down? Or do I say: I will teach you if it takes all year but I will teach you the full complexity of the book? I will not reduce Nietzsche for you. I will not dumb down Deleuze. You, student, will have to reach towards me just as I reach towards you.

Well, I don’t think it’s right to speak to only that student, that one out of 150. So I aim for the brightest, the most attentive, the students who really want to be there. I don’t simplify the material — ideas and books that are complex and strange. On the contrary, I amplify the oddity, amplify the complexity. Of course, students will get overwhelmed, confused — that is a necessary stage of all learning, by definition.

So I repeat myself, often. I try to make the same point from different perspectives, using different examples. But I never simplify; I never reduce. I continue to teach to the smartest in people. Because I believe by reducing the ideas, dumbing them down, I do no one a service. I just make the world dumber and less interesting.

And when the brightest, most attentive students seem to get it, I’ll linger just a bit longer and then move on. For those who don’t get it but want to get it, well, that’s why there are office hours. But I’m not going to bore the rest of the class just to reach you. The smarties have suffered enough throughout their schooling.

And then, once in a while, I’ll push the material even further. Why? Because I don’t want those smartest, most attentive students to think they’re done. I want them to aspire, always, to thinking more. I want them to know that to master material is to die intellectually. A little confusion, a little wonder, spurs thought and creativity.

To bring out the best — in students, in the world — I believe it best to speak to the smartest in all.

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