emoment with carl

“So what kind of business are you in?” the traveler next to me in the airplane asked. “I’m a college professor,” I answered. “So you’re in the education biz,” he replied. “You’re stuffing all those kids’ heads full of knowledge.” “If all I’m doing is stuffing their heads with knowledge,” I replied, “they’ll forget it. It’s what I’m teaching them they can’t forget, that’s the real education biz.” Puzzled, my glib seatmate said, “What can you teach someone they can’t forget?” I told my seatmate much like riding a bike, swimming, or driving a car, college at its best teaches you how to do things: deep knowledge.

I learned this in a history class. The professor made the final exam a long quotation, written by somebody during the Renaissance, the era we studied, and posed one question: “Who wrote this?” If you knew the answer, you can write the person’s name and leave and get an A. This quotation was pretty obscure, however, so none of us knew who had written it. Our job was to analyze the quotation and make an argument as to who or what kind of person would have written it and when he or she lived.

The quotation was in the form of a letter. It mentioned Protestants, so it had to have been written after 1517 when the Reformation began. The author referred to “this kingdom,” and worried of impending civil war, pondering if war would be detrimental for trade with the East. The Italians traded with the East, but also lived in city-states, not a kingdom. It took pages to explain why, but if you’d paid attention in the course, you could turn in a final exam that argued the letter had probably been written by the ambassador of Venice or an official representing a large Italian city flourishing in trade with the kingdom of France in the 1560s, where civil war between Catholics and Protestants was imminent. In the course we had learned what happened when and who accomplished what during the Renaissance. But the professor wasn’t teaching us just information. He was teaching us how to analyze texts carefully, how to use references as clues, and to see how small-scale events could have enormous consequences. It was the deep knowledge of what documents reveal and of how institutions work that I learned then that has aided me in my career.

Deep knowledge means that you will know how to carry out an experiment, understand a novel, analyze survey results, help a client, map out circuits, teach a class, construct a balance sheet, interpret a text, or design a system. Aristotle put it well: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” It’s still true today at Elizabethtown College. All of our students, whether it be in Education, Business, Occupational Therapy, or Engineering, acquire hands-on experience as soon as possible in learning by doing.

P.S. I got an A.

Elizabethtown College not only teaches students about many different areas of study and interest, but also instills within them the deep knowledge they need for helping gain hands-on experience.

Enjoy the moment,

Carl J. Strikwerda,

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