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Sentimental Education: Better to teach from the book or bring it to life?

With a title like “Sentimental Education,” I suppose it’s only appropriate to devote one column to pedagogical imperatives.

Last week, I attended a conversation hosted by The Current between Columbia professor Mark Lilla and Barnard professor and former CC instructor Mark Carnes on the Core Curriculum and their respective teaching methods.

This semester, I am enrolled in Lilla’s seminar on the intellectual history of education. Hence, a lot of my recent thoughts and conversations have revolved around my column’s namesake.

Professor Carnes teaches a course at Barnard titled Reacting to the Past. In his classes, Carnes recognized that the Socratic method did not have its intended effect. His students were not responsive and, worst of all, seemed bored. After witnessing their indifference to the texts, Carnes embarked on a new method to immerse his students in abstract political theory: role-playing. He assigned them historical figures from the texts to embody, which they would act out in an interactive debate in class.

Professor Lilla runs his seminar rather conventionally in comparison. He sits at the head of the table, flanked by six student-disciples on either side—it’s very reminiscent of the Last Supper. The seminar proceeds as expected: Lilla provides a few jumping-off questions, and then allows the class to unfold through discussion. Although he interrupts this discussion periodically to ensure that all the important points are covered, the students do most of the talking.

On paper, there is nothing extraordinary about this seminar. But as a student in the course I can attest that in practice, its effects are incredible. My classmates and I populate Butler Lounge late into the night on Thursday (or, rather, until 2:30 a.m. on Friday). Clutching our well-annotated copies of Emile, we jabber on about Rousseau’s perception of happiness and philosophy, political theory, and successful teaching methods—all in the midst of ubiquitous gossip and relationship tête-à-têtes. It begs the question: how does one seminar cultivate such a community?

A huge distinction between Professor Carnes’s and Professor Lilla’s approaches lies in the understanding of text. Professor Carnes urges a historical reading. His students espouse the ideas as if they were its originators. Conversely, Professor Lilla advocates examining ideas in their abstraction. Though advertised as a history class, I’ve learned more about The Sopranos than the Enlightenment. I understand Professor Carnes’s method of motivating students to relate to the ideas, but in my personal experience, I’ve found that the absence of a historical context is more conducive to identification.

Yes, Lit Hum is meant to trace developments in western literature and CC introduces students to western philosophy. But at the crux of both courses is the fundamental question of what it means to be human. The answer to that requires little historical context.

In seminar, we debate and try to understand the pedagogy of Descartes, Locke, and Rousseau, often in relation to our own upbringing. Because we know so little about actual Enlightenment education practices, we are able to apply it ourselves, and this stimulates debates at the Hungarian Pastry Shop about whether or not Rousseau’s educational methods should be incorporated in our future parenting.

During the conversation between Professor Carnes and Professor Lilla, a student raised her hand and professed her dislike for seminars and the use of the Socratic method under the premise that she would rather hear the professor’s thoughts than those of her fellow students.

Implicit in her argument is the suggestion that her peers do not raise intelligent points. John Locke shares her view: in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, he advises parents to keep their sons out of school because most young boys are riffraff. However, both of them overlook a huge exception—when all of a student’s fellow peers are excellent.

This is precisely the case in Lilla’s seminar, which is composed of twelve intelligent and thoughtful individuals. Through three-page coursework postings and classroom discussion, we’ve all formed an extremely strong attachment to each other. At the end of the day, perhaps Rousseau is right—perhaps education rests on the sentiment of existence, found in those so-called “great books,” and social sentiment, derived from a Claremont classroom.

Lucy Tang is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. Sentimental Education runs alternate Mondays.

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