Who Resents Who? Another Reflection on Molly Worthen’s NYT Op-Ed

Two and a half weeks ago, Molly Worthen published a much-discussed op-ed in the New York Times. I am a big fan of Worthen’s scholarship. Her 2013 study Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism is the best of many intellectual histories of modern evangelicalism. This semester, I am reading through academic research on teaching and learning. You can see my rationale here and post on debunking differentiation here. Worthen’s piece makes some bold claims about the place of research in her understanding of pedagogy. My goal here is to unpack her piece and see how it relates to research in teaching and learning.

The real problem with this project is that Worthen does not seem particularly interested in what research has to say about teaching and learning. She invokes research only once, writing “A 2014 study showed that test scores in science and math courses improved after professors replaced lecture time with “active learning” methods like group work.” This study was conducted by seven biologists working together at the University of Washington and the University of Maine. Their goal was to compare student achievement in lecture-based classes versus classes in active-learning environments. Their work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States (hereafter PNAS). The study itself was a meta-analysis aggregating the results of 228 different studies.

The amount of research here is impressive, and the methodologies are complex (at least from the perspective of a humanist). I have not been able to find a single credible critique of the methods of this study, and Worthen does not offer one either. The conclusions are bold. The authors declare that if their project had been a medical trial, they would have stopped the process of lecturing halfway through the research, because active learning “was clearly more beneficial.” Commentators, as Worthen recognizes, have interpreted the study as concluding that lecturing is a form of educational malpractice.

Worthen frames this research as a “craze” that is “only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts.” From a sampling of the social media that celebrated Worthen’s work, it appears to me that the “populist resentment of experts” seems to be a better characterization of the academics willing, like Worthen, to dismiss careful research in favor of less-rigorous, impressionistic observations about teaching and learning.

Worthen’s real critique is that the PNAS study was conducted by scientists and in science classrooms. In her estimation, conclusions that might hold regarding learning in science do not apply to learning in the humanities. Again, I wonder where exactly the populist resentment lies when she invokes the “broader crisis of confidence in the humanities,” that is, “an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.”

I share the anger expressed here at the devaluing of the humanities, but I am unconvinced that the processes of learning in the sciences and in the humanities are so wildly different that we are unable to share research on teaching and learning across these disciplinary boundaries. In fact, while we are throwing out impressions unsubstantiated with research, I might argue that the humanities are even more dependent upon active and interactive learning. Perhaps a biology student can get by with passively absorbing a lecture on anatomy, but surely skills in critical thinking are best fostered through discussion-based or more interactive class sessions that require students to articulate, defend, and evaluate arguments.

If I wanted to be uncharitable, I might say that Worthen’s piece offers yet another dismissal of academic research in teaching and learning. And I don’t think that complaint is entirely wrong. But there’s a frustrating reality that enables her dismissal. There is not a single study on the effectiveness of the lecture that focuses on humanities classes. There are mountains of studies that focus on STEM and a few that focus on social sciences courses, but nothing that focuses on the humanities. All of the existing studies echo the findings of the PNAS piece. But, if we accept Worthen’s assertion that learning is fundamentally different in the science and in the humanities, then research leaves us without a convincing conclusion.

But another way of reading Worthen’s piece offers not simply a defense of the lecture but a call for better lectures, or, as Derek Bruff puts it, lectures that are more than “continuous exposition by the teacher.” Worthen spends the second half of her piece explaining how lecturers can encourage active listening. She ends her piece with a short quote from an 1852 lecture by the Catholic educator, John Henry Newman, which she uses to praise the lecture’s ability to teach students how to listen. I will include a larger portion of the same quote here to show how Newman recognized that listening was only a portion of education. Newman wrote that an effective education “shows [a student] how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them. He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen.”


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