AC Grayling: For University Students, Stop the Hand-Holding?

In today’s Guardian, philosopher AC Grayling offers his view of the role of a university education:

University is emphatically not about spoon-feeding and hand-holding through courses, but the very opposite. It is not about maximising contact hours, but about autonomy in thinking, researching and writing. We once used to ask, “What are you reading at university?” In those words lies the clue to what a university education is supposed to involve. People who get into university change educational gear and direction on doing so. They read and attend lectures, they write essays and discuss them with their tutors and peers. To do this in a knowledgeable and intelligent way, they have to do a lot of thinking, studying and discovering, the bulk of it for themselves, because no one else can do it for them. Their tutors are there to guide their reading, answer questions, and respond to their discoveries and essays (think of the etymology of this latter word in French: essayer, to test or try; essayer de faire, to attempt). Their tutors are not there to research for them, think for them, write their essays for them, or take their exams. They most certainly should not be there to coach them for exams. Likewise, a “vacation” is not a holiday. It is (or should be) a vacating of the university premises so that its body of scholars, both students and faculty alike, can have an uninterrupted private opportunity to read and study, to consolidate what they did in the preceding term, and to prepare for the coming term.

By contact hours, AC Grayling means hours spent in classrooms hearing lectures, not one-on-one time with professors in office hours. Grayling thinks, for example, that an hour spent actually reading Wordsworth, or a book of criticism on Wordsworth, is more valuable than an hour spent listening to a lecturer on Wordsworth. And, of course, Grayling is presuming that most university students are mature, serious people, with serious commitments to intellectual and emotional complexity, and to lifelong reading, writing, thinking, and learning. That is, Grayling is presuming that a student not in class will actually be in the library, or on the campus green, reading one of Wordsworth’s books, and scribbling notes into its margins, or discussing Wordsworth with a small group of other students. I think it is right for Grayling to presume such things about a student arriving at an elite university. But what is it reasonable to presume if you are a professor at a college or university for which more than half of the students attending have received a (let’s put this generously) less than sterling high school education, with few intellectual demands placed upon them, and who appear to spend a third (or more) of their waking hours lost in the screens of their cell phones? What do you do then? Grayling, quoting Aristotle, suggests only one thing: hold the line. In other words, high expectations boot camp:

Aristotle said: “We educate ourselves so that we can make a noble use of our leisure.” The idea that education is for the mind and soul, for the whole person – the citizen, the parent, the voter, the reader, the lover, the traveller, the human being in the round – is lost to view in trying to make university education a mere continuation of school for the same sausage-machine purpose of churning out employees. It is bad news that students themselves are buying into that as the only or even the chief purpose of higher education. It is bad news that they want others to do more of their work for them, more of that spoon-feeding and hand-holding.

In other words, for Grayling spoon-feeding and hand-holding are the big no-nos. But what do you do if you let go of the spoon and the hand, and the students won’t pick up the spoon for themselves, and they won’t eat? Is that it? Escort half-formed young people off the campus and bid them good luck in the life that they have chosen for themselves? There’s something superficially satisfying in Grayling’s no-nonsense views, but if you’re a meat and potatoes professor at a meat and potatoes college or university, I think you have to meet people where they are, and have more flexibility than this. You’ve got to be more like Antigone than imperious King Creon. (And if you don’t get the reference, go read your Sophocles! I refuse to help you!)

Okay. I’ll help you. Antigone was one of the daughters of Oedipus, and in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus (and in Antigone as well), King Creon (like AC Grayling) is a rather adamant upholder of community standards. By contrast, Antigone gets into the down and dirty of the heart, and of mercy, devoting herself to being an upholder of her family members, even in the teeth of the king’s outrage. Here’s a painting of Antigone holding the hand of her father, blind Oedipus, helping him every step of the way (even though he plucked out his own eyes, killed his father, and fucked his mother). And no, she’s not escorting him off campus to now fend for himself:


Using Antigone against Creon (I mean Grayling) doesn’t mean, exactly, that I completely disagree with Grayling (and certainly I don’t disagree with him when it comes to elite schools). But one of the roles of the college and university is to get people onto the campus, and expose them to professors who love their subjects, and can infectiously turn on people to actually want to put down their cell phones and read, say, Sophocles. This requires contact time. Lots of it. That’s where the spark for independent and lifelong reading and thinking is going to be fanned into an inner burning (or not). In my own college experience, I remember a former Catholic priest who, on leaving the priesthood, became a university professor. I was eighteen, and would go to his office and sit with him, and he would tell me about Aquinas or Aristotle (or whatever I wanted), and I would devour the ideas and book suggestions that he would pass my way. There were times that I would leave his office completely dizzy, as if the world, after talking with him, had opened onto a new vista. He would also have students over to his house for bull sessions. He was one of the people who fanned the learning spark in me. He was one of my Antigones. He took my hand. What’s good for already self-motivated students at elite universities may not be the right model for mid-level colleges and universities generally.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to AC Grayling: For University Students, Stop the Hand-Holding?

  1. Pingback: A Question for Professors: Are You Demanding and Teaching Critical Thinking? | Prometheus Unbound

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