I’d like to take a minute start a discussion on the second part of Lang’s chapter on “Student Learning”. In the second part, Lang discusses Perry’s model of intellectual development in college. He has a lot to say that’s pretty interesting – especially for those of you who teach ethics. Check below the fold for more.
Perry’s claim is that students in college tend to talk through a developmental model as they progress from freshmen to seniors. This developmental model has two major points. First, Perry thinks that as students progress through college, they come to have different beliefs about the status of the truths of the subject matters they are encountering (its metaphysics, say). Moreover, they come to have different beliefs about the accessibility of those truths (its epistemology, say). As they progress through these stages, their way of understanding how their education should and should not be structured changes accordingly.
Here are Perry’s three stages:
Stage One: Dualism (the Education Fundamentalist)
When students start college, Perry suggests, they are dualists. They believe in absolute truth, and they think that their professors possess those truths. As a result, they want the professor to just “pass it along” in an uncomplicated lecture-oriented format. Because the transmission of facts should be uncomplicated and factory-like, students in this stage dislike discussion or small group work. After all, what’s the point? It’s not like the other students have the knowledge, so these pedagogical methods are really just wastes of time. Interestingly, Lang also suggests that students who have a difficult time moving out of this stage may, in fact, turn out to be dropouts, perhaps because thinking of knowledge and truth in a different way requires too much accommodation and revision.
Stage Two: Relativism (the Education Chameleon)
At the second stage, students have overcome Dualism. But here they start to challenge all education. As far as they can tell, if there are no right answers, then they are all the same. As a result, students start to see education as really just a game (and mostly bull). It’s just a bunch of paper pushing, a shell game that they need to figure out. As a result, they become uninteresting in knowledge, and more interested in figuring out “what the teacher wants”. The teacher has the goodies (the grades), and so they need to figure out how the teacher plays the game so they can get them.
Stage Three: Commitments (the Educational Existentialist)
I don’t think Perry uses “existential” but I will because it sounds similar to me. Here, the student learns to transcend the relativism stage and make a commitment to being an embodied learner. The student accepts that part of what education is requires their own appropriation of what they are encountering. The teacher is now not seen as a game player or a sage on the stage but instead an experienced facilitator whose job it is to introduce students to previous “commitments” and then create an environment where new facts and commitments can be formed.
There are lots of places to go with this thread, so I’ll leave it open. However,
I’ll briefly note a few things:
1. The move here from one to the next does remind me of Nietzsche. In the dualism stage, the student thinks that God is truth. In the second, God is dead, but with God’s death truth dies too. As a consequence, we might see this not as a movement away from dualism, but rather a move into a kind of lamenting dualism. The student is mourning the death of Dualism, suggesting that if there are no absolute truths, there are no truths at all. In stage three, the student finally learns to overcome dualism entirely (as far as I see it). The student learns to see truth in a new way (different from stage one and two).
2. In my own ethics course, oddly, I don’t move through these stages as Perry has them. Instead, I start with the assumption that my students are relativists, and try to get them to move past it to a form of Dualism, to a recommitment to truth. Then at the end, I use Nietzsche (specifically) to challenge their newly-formed dualism and leave them with the convictions to ethics and to living a good life, but with no preference for relativism and a new-found dislike for dualism. My hope is that this creates the ground for “commitment”. But I’m not sure if it actually happens. I’d be curious to know how other people structure their own ethics courses.
Any thoughts in general?