What is merit?

What is merit?

One of the topics which interests me pedagogically (and politically) is the question of merit. What is merit? And how do we know if an idea has any?
Since I do not assign grades I am always thinking about how to convey the notion of merit to my students. I know of one way from my experience in higher education: if a paper is cogently argued then it merits at least a passing mark. If a paper is well argued and has a command of source materials then chances are it is worth a higher mark. In other words, I can show students how to write a cogent essay and then instruct them on how I would evaluate that essay on its structural merits if we were working together in a formal institutional setting.

By now I probably don’t have to tell you that I do not feel that this approach on its own is very satisfactory.

In humanities and social science programs in universities it is commonplace for students at the undergraduate level to research and then write on a chosen or assigned topic. The turn around time for essays is usually brief and the expectation is that the student will demonstrate the ability to read, summarize and perhaps even synthesize the material assigned. From a practical point of view, the challenge of learning something quickly and then churning out a paper is a valuable exercise. I think that it is probably a truism to say that being able to write clearly and deliver a formal presentation is a valuable skill that can be applied in most venues including at a job interview, when making a sales pitch or even when volunteering, campaigning or fundraising. I think it is also true to say that if you learn how to do this quickly then you have gained a form of professional advantage. But what I think that this exercise does not do is teach someone how to test the merits of an idea.

If a student chooses to study within the field of the humanities and social sciences it is unlikely that she will be required to do any original research during the course of her undergraduate career unless she opts for an honour’s degree or elects to attend graduate school. Otherwise, the bulk of the work she will do is likely to be confined to secondary research and summarization. The sciences are different, though I admit I am not qualified to speak about what a scientific education looks like.

One of the advantages that independent study offers students is the ability to do original research, an exercise which may come in a variety of forms. Literacy or wide reading is one example of original research. For example, if you decide that you would like to familiarize yourself with the works of William Shakespeare and undertake the task of reading all of his poetry and plays, then you are positioning yourself to be able to speak as a critic and an informed reader of his work. Once you have attained the enviable level of literacy that comes with completing the Shakespearean canon you are also in the advantageous position of being able to think about the Bard’s work from a synoptic point of view. While I think that it is certainly useful to read the criticism of great literary critics, like Harold Bloom, who possess a widely regarded command of the Shakespearean oeuvre, you are now in a position to assess the merit of Bloom’s ideas.

I think that merit, in one sense, is something whose meaning we can begin to grasp when we allow ourselves the opportunity to test our understanding. While I endorse a systematic approach to reading and study, I do think that the best forms of independent inquiry are imaginative, creative and even whimsical. Often the most interesting ideas are the result of insight and accident on top of rigorous study. I also think that insofar as a teacher/student relationship is concerned, the best of all possible situations is when a Socratic dialogue is taking place while the research is being conducted. If there is a certain romanticism in our culture about the lonely scholar at work pursuing truth in some sequestered tower, the reality is that the most dynamic learning happens in communities and in conversation.

What I value most about the work that I do is that it affords me the opportunity to work with students to construct lines of independent inquiry which inspire them. This form of learning is something which many teachers and scholars (Henry Giroux of McMaster University, for one) have said is diminishing in our public schools and in higher education. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that the opportunity to focus on an idea and to explore that idea for as long and as far as you would like, is an increasingly rare privilege. I hope to discuss in a subsequent essay what I feel the benefits of focused study can offer students in their quest to attain a wider, cross disciplinary literacy.

Jeremy Nathan Marks