by David B. Brownlee
September 16, 1997
Learning is a way of living. We teachers can try to inspire and instruct our students with our lectures, answer their questions during discussion sections, and create provocative assignments for them. But they learn for themselves, mostly during the ninety percent of their hours when they're not in class. It's then that they read books, write papers, do problem sets, and, of course, accomplish the myriad other things that may not have a clear relationship to what goes on in the classroom but which in the end will have a lot to do with what they learn-and how they live now and for the rest of their lives.
I think that the most important thing that college can do is to introduce intelligent young people to the ordinary pleasures of an intellectual life that is not limited to specific hours and places. I am sure that most of us have had experiences that support this notion, and it has been foremost in the minds of the faculty, students, and staff who have been rethinking the residential environment of Penn's campus (see, most recently, "Choosing Community," Almanac April 29).
Let me recount some of my own college remembrances, not because they are unusual, but because I think they are typical of a good college education and can serve as the basis for some generalizations and further reflection.
As I ponder what we do and might do at Penn, these stories offer two important lessons, and I suspect the same concepts could be extracted from everyone's college memories. First of all, most of the events I remember seemed ordinary and probably non-educational at the time. And yet they changed my life. The other lesson is that, outside the classroom, intellectual energy is exchanged in an environment that possesses little formal hierarchy. Authoritative teaching may come from peers, and classroom teachers may play other roles, without diminishing their status as intellectuals.
These are important things for us to remember. Our challenge at Penn is to bolster the intellectual environment in ways that are non-coercive and natural, placing intelligent people together and providing a supportive environment in which they may do the things that intelligent people do. After all, intellectual life is the ordinary attribute of an academic community. We simply have to provide the time and place in which it may flourish.
Not surprisingly, the most successful aspects of Penn's present residential programs already embody these principles. Here are a few examples:
Like the things we remember favorably from our own college days, these successful enterprises underscore the importance of keeping our plans for Penn's residences simple and adaptable. With that in mind, we can find many ways to strengthen the community in which Penn's scholars live-and learn.
With this column, Talk About Teaching resumes monthly publication as a joint project of the
Lindback Society and the College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Brownlee, professor and former undergraduate
chair of the History of Art Department in the School of Arts and Sciences, headed the
Residential Planning Committee of the 21st Century Project.