, , , , ,

I have recently begun the exciting opportunity to teach a course in Indian philosophy in Boston University’s philosophy department. Thinking about and designing the course, I had the great opportunity to work with the small but excellent staff of BU’s Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching. They asked me: what’s your objective for the course? More specifically, what will your students be able to do when the course is done? They recommended that I pay particular attention to the verbs identifying these student abilities.

Such a question is easier to answer in skill-oriented courses – courses in Java programming or academic writing. There, the point of the course is all about something that students will be able to do. In a humanistic course, objectives are different, and often not easily specified. It’s not just that humanistic learning may have as much to do with personal transformation as with any acquired ability. It’s that even the abilities acquired are themselves difficult to define. In particular: one of the first verbs to come out of my mouth in response was “understand”. And one of the staff soon said in response, “we’d like to encourage you to avoid the U-word.”

They preferred other relevant and appropriate verbs like “apply” or “integrate”. But, I pushed back, what is wrong with “understand”? One responded: “Understanding is the easy part. A fifth-grader can do it.” And here, I realized, we were dealing with a bigger question. How does one understand understanding?

The theory behind their approach comes out of Bloom’s Taxonomy, an extraordinarily influential theoretical approach to teaching – one that classifies learning-related verbs in six different levels that build on each other, arranged in a hierarchy from lowest and simplest (know) to highest and most complex (evaluate). “Understanding” was at a low level here… or was it?

I got Bloom’s book out of the library, and found that “understand” per se is actually not one of the verbs that Bloom analyzes. What in fact takes that low level (level 2 out of 6) is “comprehend”. And that has to do with simply getting the literal meaning of a sentence: could you restate the sentence in your own words? Translate it?

“Comprehension” in that sense leaves out depth of understanding or interpretation. In this context “depth” means that one can see below the surface of the text and understand not merely what it says, but why it says what it says: both the logic of its internal reasoning and arguments, and the unspoken assumptions (or prejudices or “intuitions”) that it leaves in the background. These two reasons behind a text would each fit in different parts of Bloom’s Taxonomy: the logic would be “analysis” (level 4), the assumptions more like “integration” (level 5). To my mind this analysis and integration are themselves an essential part of true understanding.

Now so far this is mostly a semantic point about the meaning of the word “understand”: does it include merely low-level comprehension, or does it embrace a wider variety of concepts? And to that point the distinction isn’t that important; one can put the U-word to the side and focus on other words that are clearer. The issue is when those other words themselves turn out not to be so clear. For when it comes to philosophical texts, even straight-up comprehension can turn out to be strikingly difficult.

Consider the first sentence of the Daodejing: 道可道非常道, dao ke dao fei chang dao. This is most commonly translated into English as something like “The way that can be walked is not the true way.” The surface meaning of this translation alone is itself not entirely clear; it lends one to believe that a paraphrase might get something wrong, since it is not clear what the “true way” would be. And of course beneath that is the meaning of the Chinese words in the original, disputed at length over the generations. I recall a paper delivered at the SACP a few years ago that was entirely on how to translate this one sentence. A fifth-grader who truly comprehended this phrase – even a native Chinese speaker – would be nothing short of a prodigy.

When Bloom discusses comprehension, he ties it closely to the idea of translation: if one comprehends a sentence, that means could translate it into another language that one speaks fluently. I think that is true of comprehension, and even of understanding itself – but I think it also runs the risk of grossly underestimating the task of the translator. The translation that can occur at a low level is the sort that, in our age, can be automated: one comprehends a sentence at a low level if one can do to it what Google Translate does to it. But this hardly indicates comprehension. Google Translate renders 道可道非常道 as “Road to Road, very Avenue”. That’s a translation, all right, but it’s not a good translation. Good translations themselves require a deeper level of understanding, often the very deepest, and something always winds up lacking. (Thus we can find over 175 English translations of the Daodejing; the existing ones never seem to be good enough.)

It strikes me then that Bloom’s Taxonomy, like much of the instructional design literature, is designed for fields where most words mean something precise, commonsensical, or some combination of the two – chemistry, computer science, medicine. Humanities teaching frustrates our attempts to classify goals so easily.

This is not, of course, to say that attention to pedagogy would be of no benefit to the humanities. Far from it. The common model of lecturing to the class with few questions is one that allows little room for deep understanding; at best one comes to understand only one side, the lecturer’s side, and even in that one misses what the lecturer must leave out. Most readers recalling their humanities classes in college or university will likely recall some professors who had no idea how to teach. And indeed many still manage to finish graduate school having had no instruction, or even experience, in teaching. Most often, one simply mimics the teaching methods one’s own professors used, whether or not those were any good. One reason I’m in the business I’m in is I firmly believe most students would benefit greatly if their professors, in any field, paid more attention to teaching and made conscious changes to their teaching methods. The trick is that in the humanities, it is not obvious what those changes should be. But that’s to be expected, because part of the point of the humanities is to study that which is not obvious.