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The  Fog of Learning and Teaching

 Rita Barnard

I’d like to start my reflections indirectly, by considering (as literary critics like to do) a text: in this case, Erroll Morris’s arresting documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. The film has been described as a meditation on the experience of war, an examination of the epistemology of perception, and a demonstration of how a fine intelligence can go awry. But it also strikes me as a sophisticated reflection on teaching and learning. The film foregrounds the indeterminacy of any serious educational experience. Though it enumerates a number of insights or maxims (“Empathize with your Enemy,” “Rationality will not Save Us,” “Belief and Seeing are both often Wrong,” “Be Prepared to Re-examine your Reasoning,” etc.), the film ultimately undermines the notion of the easily-summarized lesson. Who, after all, is the teacher here: the often-didactic McNamara, or his interlocutor? And who learns? Is it McNamara, concerned as he is to rectify humanity’s failure to learn from the devastating wars of the twentieth century? Or the viewers, who must make sense of his not-entirely-successful attempt at learning? The film’s overt lessons are all ironized by Morris’s techniques of juxtaposition (e.g., while McNamara learns to value empathy, we see that his understanding of this quality remains tactical rather than ethical: it entails comprehending the other’s motivations rather than accepting responsibility for him/her.) And is “fog” ultimately a good or bad thing? Is it the result of a failed vision, or is it real—a complex reality ignored in the “single vision” of technocrats and powermongers? Is the lesson of the film, in effect, an anti-lesson?

For me the job of teaching twentieth century literature (a task fully as challenging as that of teaching the period’s staggering history) is a complicated matter of translation and mediation. Though the matters at hand in my classroom on any given day may be less weighty than those treated in Morris’s film, the processes at stake are similarly replete with resistances and disavowals, revelations and discoveries. To be a good teacher I must be a good reader. I must be alert to the narrative forms and optics that mediate between the world and the text. I must train my eye to details, for literature is the place where the particular and the general converge, where we learn in both emotional and philosophical ways. I must model this kind of attentiveness for my students: they must see a person engaged in the act of learning. I must promise no reassuring simplicities, but persuade my audience that learning involves an increased capacity to see contradictions and ironies, without falling into ethical paralysis and cynicism. Whereas teaching is often seen as a process of enabling and empowering students, I believe (especially since we deal with relatively privileged persons) that teaching should equally be disabling. I hope to disable stupidity, to short-circuit habitual responses and self-congratulatory attitudes towards our complex and frightening world. 

There are techniques crucial to the conduct of a successful class: one must be animated and alert, select one’s examples well, ask the right questions at the right moment, and devise syllabi that set texts in productive dialogue. But our most important concern may be to keep the boundary between teaching and learning open and blurry. By this I don’t mean that professors should abdicate authority, that the classroom should be a place where every ignorant notion is entertained and every contribution praised. But we should retain an improvisatory flexibility; we should listen carefully to students, not just pretend to listen until our own opinions are confirmed. “Be prepared to Re-examine your Reasoning” is not such a bad maxim for the teacher/student. Politicians today seem impervious to argument and fact: their blind certainty and reluctance to re-examine anything should inspire us in our task of bringing our students—and ourselves—to confront contemporary experience in all its fogginess and ambiguity.



Teaching “What Can’t Be Taught”

Paul N. Lanken

I had just presented my plans for a new required one-week course in medical ethics to the Curriculum Committee when the eminent senior professor raised his hand to comment. His message was blunt: “You can’t teach ethics. People are either ethical or they’re not.” These were not the most auspicious words I wanted to hear. I was starting more than a decade of work to integrate teaching ethics, professionalism and humanism into all four years of medical school education.

Some educators, like my contentious colleague, believe that moral values and behavior are immutable after a certain (early) age. They hold this belief despite the work of prominent researchers such as Lawrence Kohlberg and others1 that indicate that moral values may continue to evolve in adulthood. It’s also despite row after row of self-help books at the bookstore that symbolize support for those researchers’ findings. Nonetheless, the challenge was clear and the question simple: How does one go about teaching ethics successfully in a professional school?

Like many other questions in ethics, no single answer is “correct.” It depends on variables such as educational context, who the teachers are and, most importantly, who the learners are. When I started teaching ethics to medical students, I used two ways: one worked well and one didn’t.

The successful method was by “borrowing” time out of the Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) course required for fourth year students. Students held the ACLS course in high regard. Because students had considerable clinical experience prior to the course, they appreciated its relevance. They also knew that they would need ACLS skills in the not-so-distant future, i.e., after graduation as interns. It was practical, interactive, timely, and built upon their prior education and experience. It taught mostly by using simulated “cases” on which students practiced their resuscitative knowledge and skills.

I asked the course director, “Shouldn’t our students know something about when not to resuscitate too?” He agreed and gave me one morning for teaching ACLS ethics. My goal was for students to consider learning medical ethics as relevant and interesting as the ACLS algorithms and simulations. To fuel discussions and ethical analyses, the small groups of students and faculty facilitators used authentic (but disguised) cases from my personal experience. We also encouraged students to bring cases from their own clinical experiences to their groups. The initial morning session has evolved into a required one-week course, Bioethics and Professionalism, that seniors rate as one of the best courses in their four years of medical school.

What was the not-so-successful way? I taught an elective seminar on medical ethics for students in their pre-clinical years. We discussed chapters and cases from a textbook. However, these students had no clinical experience to bring to the discussions. As a result, they felt like intellectual exercises to me rather than the emotionally charged and professionally challenging experiences that students have in the clinics.

Why does the one-week required ethics course for seniors work so well? To me, it’s because it engages the students as adult learners. According to experts in adult education,2 adults are motivated to learn when their own experiences and career interests identify the needs that learning will satisfy. It is experience-driven and interest driven and not topic-driven.

As a pragmatist, my educational philosophy has been to use adult learning methods in developing a sequence of courses related to bioethics, professionalism and humanism. Together they form a required four-year integrated curriculum whose overall goal is to help students be better physicians.

Now I’m interested in measuring this curriculum’s impact on students after they graduate. I suspect that my esteemed colleague who told me that ethics couldn’t be taught years ago would tell me that such outcomes can’t be assessed. To me, however, trying to assess “what can’t be assessed” looks like another interesting challenge and, as the task of teaching ethics has turned out, I believe it will be well worth the effort.

1. Kohlberg L. The cognitive-developmental approach to moral education, in Scharf P (ed.), Readings in Moral Education, Minneapolis: Winton Press, Inc., 1978, pp. 36-51.

2. Knowles MS, Holton EF III, Swanson RA. The Adult Learner. The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. 5th ed., Woburn, Massachusetts: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1998.

Rita Barnard  is associate professor of English and director of the Women’s Studies Program.

Paul N. Lanken is professor of medicine and medical ethics at HUP and associate dean for professionalism and humanism at the School of Medicine.

The authors are 2005 winners of the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching and their essays continue the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 3, September 13, 2005


September 13, 2005
Volume 52 Number 3


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