College lectures are under attack by advocates of “active learning,” writes Molly Worthen, a University of North Carolina history professor. There’s nothing new about that. “The lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves,” warned Charles Eliot in his 1869 inaugural address as president of Harvard.
However, “in the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections,” Worthen argues. “Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.”
Learning to pay attention is a “crucial first step in the ‘critical thinking’ that educational theorists prize,” she argues.
A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article. In the humanities, a lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.
Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen.
This is difficult for many students — and perhaps more difficult for first-generation, black and Latino students, recent research suggests.
In a 2014 study, science and math scores improved after professors replaced lecture time with “active learning” methods such as group work and student-led discussion. “It’s almost unethical to be lecturing,” said Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist.
“Humanists have been beating back calls to update our methods, to follow the lead of the sciences, for a very long time,” responds Worthen. If “active learning” works best in science classes, that’s fine. The humanities still has a place for the “sage on the stage.”