This weekend I attended a workshop taught by my friend Chris, and I enjoyed what he had to say. The subject matter doesn’t really concern us here. He’s a teacher (of college students primarily) too, but his real passion is giving talks to adults on serious subjects, and for a fee he’ll come to your house and teach what he knows. With five students in your living room, he’ll give a series of talks and practices, and help you work through a serious amount of material in eight or nine sessions.
Two things struck me about this offer. First, it amazed me that there were enough people willing to sign up for this course that it was worth his time. Second, that he didn’t graduate everyone. He explained that there was a very specific set of circumstances that allowed for graduation. It was on a pass/fail basis, and it required doing a very specific set of complex mathematical computations. Either you could do them, or you couldn’t. And if you couldn’t learn to do them in eight weeks, then you were being either obtuse or lazy. He would take your money as a teacher either way, but as he put it,
“No one graduates without being able to do the work. It’s my reputation on the line, here, too.”
I found that rather refreshing. We’re expected to make sure everyone gets through to the next level, whatever that next level is. He, on the other hand, has devised a list of twelve or fourteen things that he can teach in one session a week over eight weeks; and if you can do those things — here’s your graduation certificate. If you can’t do those things — well, you’re going to have to find four more people, and shell out more money, for him to come to your house and deliver the same set of eight lectures.
He said it’s a complicated kind of school with a faculty of one, that can do this sort of teaching. It’s not likely that every school can do this, and there’s all sorts of politics involved in managing this sort of program. But ultimately, it comes down to this — you need to hear certain material, read certain material, and practice certain material. If you can do those things, you graduate. If you can’t, it’s not the teacher’s fault — it’s the fault of your habits of practice. It’s your fault.
He points out that this involves a culture of personal responsibility, and personal self-discipline: which are not positively regarded in our current culture. Sure, we talk about them all the time, but our national habits of personal self-discipline isn’t the cause of our obesity epidemic, or our failure to do well on international math and reading tests.