“Tell me how you liked the book.” We sat in the professor’s parlor–about ten or twelve of us, a small history cohort. The professor was an old-style academic from the Midwest, who had completed his masters’ degree at the university where I’d been an undergraduate. He held class in his parlor, like Socrates would have done. With coffee, not hemlock.
“Well, I thought the insight he showed into the presidents was very intriguing,” said one student. He went on to outline the amazing revelations he received from the book in unabridged detail. I was confused. Did he accidentally read the Bible?
“It was good,” said another. “I thought last week’s was better, but I enjoyed it.” No further details.
We went around the circle, a few saying little or even passing on their turn, a solid handful giving adulations. Others shifting in their seats.
“And what about you, Dawn?” I hesitated. I had a very different experience with this book.
“Um,” I looked around the room. Half a dozen pens and notebooks were at the ready, as they tended to be in graduate school before we had laptops and iPads. “I thought this was the worst book I’ve ever read.”
“Go on,” the professor said, his face without emotion. It was too late to put the top back on the can of worms. I continued.
“Well,” I said, “The author doesn’t seem to have any academic credentials in this field–I researched him–but that’s not my issue. I might’ve still enjoyed it.” I looked around the room. The one kid seemed ready to revolt. To throw tomatoes. I looked for tomatoes in his hands. Relief–just a pen. And a notebook. With angry notes.
I bent down and extrapolated the offending manuscript from my bag.
“Look,” I said leafing through the circled text and notes in the margin. “Spelling errors. Editing errors, and I’m not sure this event,” I opened to the page, “ever happened,” noting one historical event in question.
“Also, what’s his thesis? I couldn’t find it….he spoke in vague terms. I couldn’t nail it down. My mind drifted. Sorry. I just didn’t like this book.” I listed a couple of others I did like, historians that gave me deep insights into the dead presidents.
“Congratulations. You got the answer!” he exclaimed. “THIS…is a good example of a really bad book.” The professor excoriated the book for us all. “Sometimes you need to look at the worst of the worst to appreciate the best.” We’d just learned a lesson as historians.
It’s true for life as well.
I do this to my students. I give them a passage, video, or assignment that requires they examine something that stinks worse than a grocery bag of meat forgotten in the trunk of a car in July. I let them debate, argue, and kiss up. Then, I lay on the truth. Sometimes, a kid stands up for his or her belief in the face of everyone else “loving” the passage to seek my approval. That’s the kid who’s going to get through the system and be great.
You see, it’s not about a bunch of minions reading my assignments, and obeying my instructions. It’s about developing keen minds and confidence where students research, connect the dots, and refuse to be the yes man. And can back it up. These are the students who will innovate and iterate the solutions for the future. If you don’t give them things with flaws to examine, then they don’t see anything that needs to be interpreted or fixed.
“A good example of a bad book.”
That was one of the most valuable lessons I learned in school.