The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 20, 2018

Last Things: Classrooms
James V. Schall, S.J. - 02/17/10
“For no one, in our long decline, / So dusty, spiteful and divided, Had quite such pleasant friends as mine, / Or loved them half as much as I did.” Thus Belloc of his Oxford; so I of mine. The record of my life there is essentially a catalogue of friendships. “We kept a school and taught ourselves.” The lessons were in no curriculum of scholarship or morals. Drinking had a large part in it. We preserved a sort of mystique derived largely from Belloc and Chesterton about the convivial swilling of beer and wine, quite unlike the contemporary transatlantic cult of whisky.

—Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning


Whether we can “teach ourselves” is a worthy reflection. We are haunted by the famous, but rare, “self-taught man,” as we are of those few intellects which seem to have no need of being taught. We all acknowledge that we have much to learn from others. There seems to be those few who learn directly from what is. But it is the experience of our kind that teachers can give us ways to meet the reality before us that will shorten out efforts. The good professor can take us to what is most essential more quickly than the one who does not know the order of his discipline. The teacher’s authority is not itself but truth to which it leads both student and teacher. The teacher takes the student not to himself but to the truth, which both, student and teacher, hopefully, come to see. Teaching itself is a service to truth, which is its end.

Of late, I have been thinking of whether the physical configuration of a classroom makes any difference. Builders of school buildings no doubt hire “experts” on the latest models of classrooms. The newspaper not too long ago showed the current American president in a local sixth-grade classroom. There he was, surrounded by his usual teleprompter equipment, explaining I know not what. Such technological “aids” seem to be everywhere. The first thing young students learn, even before they go to school these days, is how to use the computer and all its surroundings. Maybe it is no longer possible to learn face to face.

I began to think about these matters when I was recently invited to speak to a group of young business, academic, and governmental executives. The room chosen for this talk was unfamiliar to me. It was in a quite handsome new building wherein things seemed more up-to-date than anything in Kansas City. This building was “wired for sound” and everything else. It featured large classrooms and an auditorium, as well as small meeting rooms for about eight students and a professor.

Smaller rooms are common on most campuses now, and are usually called “seminar rooks.” Often we find a “seminar mystique” on most campuses, something originating in the old German universities, I think, that holds that any class over fifteen constitutes an act of injustice to the student. I do not hold this theory. I like large classes—of fifty to a hundred, that is. Classes larger than that have to be held in large auditoria and programmed with multiple teaching assistants and other fancy devices.

But let me describe some of the older classrooms on our campus, for these are the ones with which I am most familiar. The room I used to live in, for twenty-five years, was in a building built in 1845. It was once, before being partitioned, a study hall and, at another time, a refectory. The most elegant building on campus, the lofty, two-spired Healy Hall, was built in the 1870s. When I was a student here in the 1950s, its upper floors were student rooms. Now they house university bureaucracy. The bottom two floors had rather large classrooms with chair desks for students with a larger desk and lectern for the professor.

There was and still is, however, a curious small classroom on the first floor. It is quite ornate, with dark wood furnishings. It has a dais with a built-in lectern that faces two rows of chairs with tables, perpendicular to the professor. I have always found it a strange room to teach in. The students do not face the professor; rather, they face the two rows of other students across from them—though of course they can turn to look at the teacher if they wish. The room is a jewel of some classroom designer from an earlier era, well worth keeping if only for historical purposes. As a classroom, however, I find it worthless. Of course, I am sure others like it. I have my eccentric moments.

Healy Hall, first-floor aisle

Down the main aisle of this same building, we have much larger classrooms. About twenty years ago, some revamping of the building took place. It resulted in taking out of these large rooms the moveable individual chairs or desks that could be arranged in rows. They were replaced by semicircular banks of tables and chairs that went back three rows. Each row is elevated over the lower one, theater style. No break is found in the arcs of desk-benches. One can enter the row only from either end. The center of the room looks down on the desk and lectern of the professor. Behind him was later added electronic outlets and screens. This arrangement meant that one could not roam in the classroom. Its designer-logic was that all eyes were to rivet on a central spot. I call this arrangement the barricaded classroom.

Another building, built in the 1920s, I think, where I usually teach, still contains several large and smaller classrooms, with ordinary school chairs with folding writing arms. The room that I use seats around a hundred. It too has been “modernized” with electronic equipment. But it retains the configuration of the classic classroom—namely, students face the teacher. I have noticed that in such classrooms, several teachers manage to rearrange the students in circles, so that everyone looks at each other. For teaching, the circle format, however cozy, is the least conducive learning form. But when arranged in rows facing him, the teacher can either be in the front of the class or roam. The room is big enough to spread out a bit but small enough that it is not an auditorium for classes of a couple of hundred.


Now, all of these classroom configurations are probably still found on most campuses. But something rather awful is happening to classrooms. They are becoming more like small movie theaters or monitor outlets, not unlike designer living rooms in homes with big, big screens. Something now stands between the teacher and student. It is usually a computer. Reality is filtered.

What to do with the computer in a classroom is a rather more important question than we might want to admit. Philosophical issues of a rather fundamental import are involved. Logically, if a teacher mainly uses a computer to show students what it is he wants them to know, do we really need a teacher to be present? Is there anything about an actual, living human being that is not caught on a machine, even if it conveys his own face and words? Why not reduce the number of expensive teachers? Education is hugely costly. Make most classes online. It is far cheaper. Is there any meaning to having actual people before actual people?

For some time, I have been concerned about a classroom gradually filling itself with students and their laptops and screens. What I began to see from the front of a classroom was a student looking at a screen. Now, I will grant that some disciplines will use this instrument in various ways. It is the modern way. Via the computer one can easily communicate something to every student in class. Grades, registration, assignments are usually handled through the machine. It is convenient, for sure.

But there seemed to me to be something alienating about a classroom semi-filled with students looking at their laptops while the professor was talking to them. I can recall frequently walking in front of a student while I was talking to him about, say, Cicero. As I talked to him, his eyes were down, looking at the computer, while he typed away. I said, “Look at me; I am right here in front of you.” Often the student did not even laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Honest, several students seemed to have typed that “Look at me” into their computers while never looking at me. But actually I have no idea if that is what student were really doing. A professor does not want or dare to look at what is on a student’s screen.

Before deciding to ban the computer in class, I asked several random students on campus about it just to be sure I was not missing something. One student told me, “Look, Father, I sit in the back of my classes. I can see those screens that you cannot. You would be amazed what is on them.” Well, for me, that did it. A teacher really has no idea what is being watched. Now, of course, we have much smaller cell phones and such that minimize what is seen. Some teachers, I suppose, may be so dull as to make the computer diversion a godsend. But in principle, teaching is something human and personal, even when it is about teaching bugs.

Several years ago, an article appeared in the Washington Post by a professor at the Georgetown Law School. He said that he was henceforth forbidding computers in class. When I read this, I said, that’s right. Actually, I have found few students complain about the computer ban. I suppose that they find it a relief. Or, better, they might actually enjoy the human contact that comes from the teacher-student relationship. I do not mind if a student takes written notes. What is the difference? He could be writing to his girlfriend just as well as talking to her on his computer?

The essential point, I think, is that teaching and learning are human enterprises. Some teachers are better than others; some students are better than others. What is at stake here, as in the case of classroom configuration, is the fact that both teaching and learning are part of the same human relationship that is not apart from the individual persons concerned.


Let me now return to classroom configuration. In recently constructed buildings, smaller rooms have computer terminals at every desk with a chair situated around a table. In addition a much larger screen is located on the wall. Everyone can see it directly. So when the modern classroom is operating as it is designed to run, the students sit around the table, with their computers ablaze, and the professor, with his own, going over the proposed material. It is probably true that there will always be some human contact here that is not just watching the machine. The machine will be the memory. Whether this innovation is the rise or fall of education at its best is what concerns me here. I think of all that Aquinas wrote without a computer. What does the design of the classroom or what is in it have to do with the purpose of the university?

Clearly, the up-to-datedness of contemporary classroom design is reduplicated on almost every college and high school campus in the country, if not in the world. This fact in itself would lead one to conclude that this new configuration of classroom is surely the way to go. With it, we can put aside ancient ways. The future is here. The computer is as much a part of the classroom as the blackboard and chalk.

But is it? I wonder. What is it that gives the spark that awakens the soul of the student? In part, I know it is reading something written by a human person, dead or alive. But how is it that we come to read what awakens us?

Suppose we have a modern classroom for perhaps forty to fifty pupils. The classroom is the state of the art. Everything is comfortable, handsomely presented. The classroom contains banks of down-sloping rows of tables or desks. The shape of the classroom is that of a horseshoe. The professor’s desk is in the center just below the prongs of the horseshoe. All posts in the classroom are fully equipped with computer, screens, and whatever other technology one requests. Behind the professor’s desk is a very large “whiteboard,” on which one can write in red, blue, black, or green easily erasable ink.

Again the banks of three rows of desks encircle one another. Each student has his computer outlet, though many modern computers use wireless systems. The eyes of the students are on the teacher from three angles as well as through the screen. But if the teacher arises to walk about the class, it is not easy to get to the back row. If the professor speaks on one side of the room, his back is to those on the other side.

Hearing and seeing still are important aspects not just of teaching but of the human experience of being taught. I sometimes think that those who design these newer rooms have never themselves taught real students or understood what teaching involves.

It will sound very old-fashioned, but the classic configuration of a classroom is still best. Professor is in front of the class. Students close, facing him. The professor needs at most a blackboard, a piece of chalk, and the attention of students, face to face. No out-of-doors classes, especially on the nicest days. No class sitting around in circles. Both the professor and the students are studying not themselves but what is.

The teacher remains a teacher. Students do not yet know. Both are to delight in what is known, in what is left to be known. Nothing should stand between the professor and the student except the distance between themselves. Aquinas said that teaching is contemplata tradere. That is, the teacher must have something to hand over, something pondered. The student must be able to receive it. Both stand in awe that something exists to be known because something is there, something that is.

The configuration of the classroom, with the best of goodwill, can obscure what is going on. A good teacher can make sense in most classrooms no matter how arranged. Still, how he stands to the students makes a difference. Things can stand between the teacher and the student. The computer has information. It is always there. The student and the teacher meet at a certain hour in a certain place. We call it a classroom. Teacher and student are related as knower to knower. But they are not there just to be there. They are there that what is known can be passed on.

What is passed on is charged with light. No one owns the truth. That is the essence of the relation of student and teacher. In the classroom, face to face, we delight in knowing what we know, in the truth. This is where the exchange of what one man knows to what another wants to know takes place. Ultimately, all knowledge is person to person. Any other structure of a classroom that seeks to substitute for this or makes it difficult is in vain.

Evelyn Waugh

But Waugh was probably right. Our best teachers are not our actual teachers but our friends, those who are there when we are there, with our professors, whom they too once heard. These are they who argue with us and think our ideas are, at best, crazy. Aristotle said that friendship is not quite a virtue, but it is the place where the highest exchanges among us take place. The classroom, noble as it is, yields to conversation that is beyond any classroom.

The mystique of conversing, of drinking while we wonder about the highest things, is what happens after we leave the highly configured classrooms. No education will really be complete until we can say, with Waugh, that “the record of my life [at university] is essentially a catalogue of friendships.” The professor is making this friendship possible by handing down to his students those things of the highest moment. About these, too, the professor, with his friends, can talk for the rest of his life, and, yes, as Socrates said, beyond it. It is into this conversation that all students are ultimately invited.

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