Quote of the Day: Mephistopheles on Professors

Many visitors to German universities puzzle at the tendency of many professors to 'lecture' by reading from their most recent textbook in a flat monotone, and ask themselves: 'Whoever thought this was the way to teach?'

The answer: Mephistopheles — who else? Jaroslav Pelikan's prose translation of a passage (g) in Faust in which the demon explains the facts of life to a prospective student:

For … five hours a day, the student should be prepared to listen to the professor, in accordance with the pedagogical method of the universities, "in such a way that afterwards you will be able to recognize better that he is not saying anything except what is already in the book. But you must be writing it down, as thought the Holy Spirit himself were dictating it to you!"

Norton Critical Edition of Faust, p. 590.

5 thoughts on “Quote of the Day: Mephistopheles on Professors

  1. Not that I am claiming to know anything about German academia, but…..

    From what I understand that was the pedagogical style of the first European universities. Students would congregate in particular places (La Sorbonne, Salamanca, Pisa, Bologna, Oxford, and Cambridge) where scholars offereed courses. This being well before the advent of Johannes Gutenberg, the only way to acquire a textbook was to listen to the lecture and copy it out yourself.

    It’s somewhat surprising that the German system seems to have retained this style into the present day. Particularly given that I understand that the rise of the German research university occurred during the 19th century, well post Gutenberg, and particularly surprising given that most historical authorities agree that the German system was without doubt far the world’s finest between 1830 and (probably) WWII.

    It certainly formed the model which the great US institutions took, and upon which the great British universities reformed themselves. Today US universities still use lectures to a degree, although study labs, study groups, seminars, and Socratic dialog are also popular teaching tools depending upon the discipline. When I attended university (mostly in the liberal arts, economics, and history, a large bulk of my work was writing-related in the form of papers and extended essay tests. I found thes emore difficult than multiple choice tests and the like, btu also found that having to set fingers to typewriter by far the most rewarding and stimulating of learning experiences. That is, reams of reading followed by writing about what I had learned first brought the information into my brain. But the writing forced me to think about what I had learned and creat mental summaries in usable form.


  2. One more comment: I have read that many professors in the US have adopted what might be called the Germanic style, teaching even survey courses out of their own (frequently very narrow) subspecialties. SO perhaps this trend is more prevelant than Andrew thinks?

    Then again, what do I know about it? Andrew is a college perfessur and I am not….


  3. Win some, lose some.

    I guess I have a 1 to 5 boring/great lecture ratio. I punish the boring professors with not coming to there lectures.

    The strange thing is that some of those boring professors are pretty great to work with if they happen to not hold a lecture. Not born to teach?


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