Reading two books tonight. Both of them I got from the library after seeing them recommended by bloggers.
Our Underachieving Colleges by Derek Bok (h/t to Crooked Timber I think it was) is a dryly written but fairly devastating takedown of what colleges achieve as a percentage of what they could achieve. To blame, first and foremost -- though Bok doesn't sum it up as such -- is the faculty's timidity and conservatism when it comes to learning how teaching actually works. When you're in a Ph.D. program, nobody tells you how to teach, and once you get your own classroom, it's yours, and you get awfully crabby if someone tries to tell you how to teach better. And so they don't, and so you never learn. Professors don't learn, either individually or as a faculty, whether students are actually learning how to write better, or to think more critically, or even to understand the fundamental ideas behind the subjects that are being taught. We all know that a big chunk of our students are passing the tests, or even acing them, by regurgitating material; we don't know, and honestly I think we don't want to know, how much they really understand, or how much they could apply what they have "learned" to other issues. When someone offers to tell us how to teach in such a way that students learn, we don't want to listen ... so people don't often offer. Very depressing. And yet at the same time, inspiring: the thought that current standards are so low means that really good teachers, or really successful faculties of like-minded teachers, could make a serious difference to their students' lives. Of course, making that happen -- let alone devising the institution structures to consistently reward making that happen -- is an insanely daunting task.
The other book has no relation whatever to the first, except that somebody blogged it. I don't even remember who, but I'm grateful to whoever it was. The book is called Astonish Yourself: 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life. It's by a French dude (Roger-Pol Droit) and reminds me a bunch of what I recall as a typically "French" attitude toward philosophy -- a focus on destabilizing one's views about reality, mistrusting language, questioning one's relation to one's body, and so on. But throwing the word "French" at it is only good for placing it within a genre. The book is just flat out fun. I'm just starting it and reading through a few of the exercises, and I've actually done only two of them. Both were just a teensy bit mind-blowing, especially for how simple they were. I think I want to buy this book, and keep it around. Opening up my sense of what is possible: very important. It's almost the story of my life: I get bogged down in words words words words words and more words ... and forgetful of reality. I talk so much inside my head that I forget to listen to the world.