Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ruskin on Education

And this is what we have to do with all our laborers; to look for the thoughtful part of them, and get that out of them, whatever we lose for it, whatever faults and errors we are obliged to take with it. For the best that is in them cannot manifest itself, but in company with much error. Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.  And observe, you are put to stern choice in this matter. You must either made a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. --John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice

I came across this passage from Ruskin yesterday and it immediately reminded me of teaching general education courses. From both the students and the administrators there is pressure to create perfection, skill, to form animated tools. Administrators want something measurable, which by definition is the same for every student. The students just seem to want to know the "right" answer. "What do you want me to write?" "How can I get an A?" When the students take their first steps toward more complex thinking, the result is often a mess. Then, they're frustrated. But this is a necessary step in the creative process. To make "men" (which I interpret as 'citizens') of students, some imperfection must be accepted as part of the process of discovery.