I learned about the tutorial method before I got to Oxford. My small college in Memphis, then known proudly as “Southwestern,” now Rhodes, laid a particular emphasis on individualized study. So by the time I reached my senior year, I shopped around the College and put together a wonderful program of reading, writing, and directed conversation.
For instance, my roommate and I prevailed upon a then new professor, Bob Llewellyn (Phi Beta Kappa, Davidson), to guide us through a reading of the works of Alfred North Whitehead, who is perhaps the only philosopher who wrote in English who can rival Hegel or Heidegger for obscurity.
It was tough sledding. But we met weekly, wrote papers, talked through them, and got through the guts of Process and Reality. That year I read Dostoyevsky and Kafka like that, as well as Nietzsche, and American constitutional law. There was Wittgenstein with Jim Jobes, and Aristotle with Larry Lacy, in small seminars. We read a lot, wrote a lot, and talked intensively. I learned a lot. So when I got to Oxford the drill seemed pretty familiar. Extraordinarily good, mind you, but the format, I knew.
I thought of all this as I read a recent column by Tom Friedman, called “Come the Revolution” (New York Times, May 15, 2012). His point is that there is a surge of availability of top-rank lectures on the web. You can check out the projects branded by Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Yale, etc. This access, rather than threatening everyone else’s livelihood, in fact allows faculty everywhere to turn over the part of education that consists in transferring information to this new format, freeing them up for the more interesting, productive, and sophisticated aspects of education that lie in face-to-face interactions. This is apparently now called “flipping the classroom.”
Revolution? In terms of the medium, yes. In terms of the division of activities? Not so much. My Oxford tutors gave me reading lists. “Read these books,” they said, “and come back next week. With an essay. We’ll talk about what you’ve written.” They didn’t waste instructional time on trying to give me what I could get from a book or a lecture delivered by someone else whose expertise was greater than theirs. It strikes me that the “revolution” under discussion is not so much an amazing novelty as it is the application of a very powerful new system of delivery to a very old and extremely effective instructional format.
There can be little doubt that the pedagogical implications of information technology will be ─ to snatch a hackneyed phrase ─ profound and far-reaching. Part of the depth and stretch of that reach will be into the structure of colleges and universities and into the professional responsibilities of faculty. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the massive transformation now sweeping through American higher education will be the emergence by trial and error, experiment and correction, in thousands of different contexts, of new patterns that incorporate these new possibilities.
Friedman’s point ─ which I celebrate ─ is that this could be a very good thing, if rightly received and rightly responded to. We could be looking at the democratization of a hitherto prohibitively expensive tutorial format, in which the very best of personal educational processes rests on a technological substratum, the way my Oxford and Southwestern tutorials rested on the library.
James A. Garfield defined a university as Mark Hopkins (19th century president of Williams) on one end of a log and the student on the other end. Contemporary Mark Hopkinses and their students can ground their face-to-face discussions in the resources of the web. But the critical part, the fun part, the part that eventuates in education, stays live and in person. Socrates knew that: After the speeches recorded in the Symposium, he wandered off to the agora to find someone to talk to.