Quite a number of years ago now, I earned a liberal arts degree. Throughout my program, I had no idea what my professors thought about anything, except the subject matter they were teaching.
I was taught that, when reading literature, I had to consider the times in which it was written. Context was important. We also looked at “great themes:” life, death, love, honor, and so forth.
A few years later, a family member was taking a college English class and was struggling. She had an important paper to write and was having a hard time and asked if I could help. I told her that I would try. The paper was to be based on a Hemingway short story.
I had never read that particular story, so I did so. I made some notes and did some thinking. I then wrote down some notes that I thought my relative might use in writing her paper (I did not write it for her).
She answered me back: no, no, this won’t do. It’s not what my professor is looking for.
What? She sent me a copy of her class notes taken from the professor’s lecture.
The story I had read was fairly early Hemingway; it was written shortly after he returned from Europe, where he had been an ambulance driver in wartime. Silly me, I thought that had had some impact on the story he wrote.
What did her professor read in the story, that I did not see? Feminism. FEMINISM? HEMINGWAY? Really? The notes consisted of a bunch of abject nonsense, conjured totally out of the professor’s head and not from the actual story.
After more thought, I gave my relative a different set of points to use in writing the paper. I told her that what I was giving her was complete nonsense BUT it was what her professor wanted to hear. She used what I gave her and the professor loved it and gave her a high grade on the paper. (My professors probably would not have given the paper a passing grade).
The professor wasn’t interested in a paper reflecting the students’ own thoughts and analysis of the story; she was interested in having her own ideas and biases reflected back to her.
(I could imagine my own professors’ response to her paper. “That’s what I said in my lecture. You just repeated it back to me. I want to know what YOU thought!”)
We subject students to that sort of teaching and expect critical thinking in return?
I ended up going into a completely different professional field, but I’ve always regarded my liberal arts education as foundational. I never regretted getting that degree.
I’m sure it helps that I graduated with a grand total of $1200 in student loans!