Seamus Perry on passive learning and the predicted death of lectures

Educationalists often announce the death of the lecture, but, like vinyl records or Dr Who or the House of Lords, the expiry date of which might have seemed long past, the lecture has proved remarkably durable.

At a previous institution I was required to attend a course that kept me up to date with the latest pedagogic thinking.

One presentation, I remember, was about bad ways of presenting information to a class, and it began with a list of bullet points on a slide, the first of which read ‘Avoid bullet points’.

Another session featured a lengthy lecture all about the demerits of presenting material as a lecture.

No spirit of irony was obviously abroad.

As we new recruits sat there drifting in and out, our man explained that the problem with lectures was that they encouraged what he called ‘passive learning’.

‘Passive’ was a very bad word in his vocabulary, although it is not difficult to imagine circumstances in which passivity is just what you need. “There are Powers,” as Wordsworth sagely observed, “Which of themselves our minds impress; / That we can feed this mind of ours /In a wise passiveness.”

Wordsworth would have cut no mustard with my educationalist, who told us that a lecture treated students as buckets into which you pour information. ‘Bucket’ was as pejorative a term for him as ‘passive’. He wasn’t mad about ‘information’.

This view seemed to me then, and continues to seem to me, completely wrong. I have always loved lectures, and if they are done well they are nothing to do with buckets.

When I listened to Quentin Skinner give his Shakespeare lectures in Oxford a couple of years ago I felt really remarkably unlike a bucket.

Not all my colleagues enjoy their lecturing duties, but I have always relished mine, a fact which is not unrelated to my belief that, in a previous life, I should have run away from home to become an actor-manager of the old style.

Not that you positively need to be a ham to pull them off. The Victorian critic Walter Pater mumbled his way through his lectures, nose buried in notes. “Could you hear me?” he asked Oscar Wilde after one performance.

“We overheard you,” returned Wilde. “You have a phrase for everything,” said Pater, reasonably. No doubt the dramatic magic was only enhanced by Pater mumbling.

When the young Auden, not a zealous scholar, attended lectures by Tolkien he found them just as difficult to follow, until at one point the great man threw his head up and declaimed some lines of Beowulf. Something in Auden’s imagination caught alight, he later recalled, and he was changed for good.

I find myself from time to time standing on the very spot in Lecture Theatre 2 where, a quarter of a century ago, some wonderful lecturers stood, my eyes upon them.

I try to suppress the recurrent childhood memory that unhelpfully comes to mind: trying on my father’s shoes, incredulous at how impressively big a pair of feet he had compared to my own.