Saturday, January 21, 2012

The education contract

Before I learned how to study for class, from fourth grade up to some time in college I was never better than second best in class. After I learned how to study (see yesterday's post), one year, the year I switched to computer science, I decided to apply that studying method and give my all to learning CS. That enabled me to maximize the benefit reaped from my courses (with amazing results on my grades, but that's a detail).

Still, I did not learn as much as I could have, but the fault lied, not with me, but with the teachers. Even now, I am still a bit annoyed with those among my instructors that year who taught bad courses. Dedicated students deserve good courses. When students put a lot of effort into a course, the instructor has a responsibility to make it worthwhile by also putting a lot of effort into the course - and conversely. It's a dynamics of mutual emulation.

I am thinking about this as I re-read "La Sorbonne en guerre", my grandfather's book about being a professor during the Occupation. At the beginning of the war, universities were temporarily closed, students and professors were scattered, and no one knew what was going to happen. In the middle of the chaos, students kept trying to study for their exams, and my grandfather's students resorted to sending him assignments by postal mail. He would receive translations of ancient Greek classical texts, grade them and send them back to his students by postal mail. Word got around, and he started receiving translations from students who were not his! And so he graded even work written by complete strangers and mailed it back to them. It seems to me that there was a sense of duty and of mutual respect: one party was there to learn, and the other was there to help learn, like an implicit contract. Even in the middle of destruction, survival of the intellectual life was for them a matter of highest priority.

That view of education, resolutely non-utilitarian, is to some extent present at Brown. It can also be found in France: for example, when I taught with Jean-Jacques Levy, I was amazed by the time he put in preparing lectures and assignments, true perfectionist that he is. That makes teaching a large class intimidating: each typo in a homework problem, each poorly specified exercise, each algorithm whose presentation in class is botched means that many dedicated students will waste time on something non-constructive, and it is damaging. It puts a dent in the contract.


  1. The story about your grandfather is impressive. Was the book translated to English?

    I wholeheartedly agree with the message of this post and the non-utilitarian, perfectionist view of how education of the best students should look like.

  2. No, it only just came out this month in French (I'm not even sure it's in bookstores yet). Sorry!

  3. I have gained a lot of knowledge by reading your post. It is really a wonderful blog endow with a lot of knowledge for readers who wants to know about the subject matter. Thank you very much.


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