The Moral Obligation to Be Interesting


College teachers often complain about students who seem bored. This can be about their work ethic: “Nobody does the reading,” you often hear, or “They just don’t want to study.” But sometimes frustrated professors mean something deeper. They believe their students are morally wrong not to take more of an interest in the academic subjects themselves.

I’ve complained like this too—although not so much (I hope) lately. Usually I whine about a supposed lack of “curiosity.” Some of my colleagues make much harsher assessments.

Our impulse to complain is understandable. We invest a lot of labor and emotion in the subjects we teach. We believe these subjects are important. Indeed, many of us probably endorse what John Erskine called a “moral obligation to be intelligent”—a duty to take an interest in how the world works:

[W]e do not insist that the more saintly of two surgeons shall operate on us for appendicitis. But … an action can intelligently be called good only if it contributes to a good end; [so] it is the moral obligation of an intelligent creature to find out as far as possible whether a given action leads to a good or a bad end; and … any system of ethics that excuses him from that obligation is vicious.

We flatter ourselves that taking our courses is necessary to understand the world, and thus to know right from wrong. (Occasionally, we may even be correct.) As pragmatists, we view a lack of educational interest as a moral failing.

However, if we’re going to be pragmatic about the morality of knowledge, then we need to direct the pragmatic gaze at ourselves, too. We know people can’t simply will themselves into being interested in what we teach. After all, each of us could name topics that other people find both fascinating and important but that simply don’t interest us. We know perfectly well what it’s like to be bored. Let’s extend a little empathy to our students for the sake of ethical and useful teaching.

What can we do to make our courses more interesting to students? Three routine practices seem crucial for any history course:

1. Stating the stakes.

We already understand why our courses matter. Our students typically don’t, and that makes sense. Most of the time, it’s as unreasonable to expect students to know the stakes  of a course already as to expect them to know the content. Spelling it out is our responsibility. We should try to express our implicit questions explicitly. We should sell our topics as something important—every time.

2. Being specific.

Much of a history education is about making generalizations. But no generalization will make sense or engage the imagination unless we can illustrate what it means specifically. We need to discuss examples. We should try to talk about individual people, at least occasionally. We should quote directly from them when we can.

3. Creating suspense.

Most historians, truth be told, are not world-class storytellers. But we know the value of simply dropping a hint about what’s going to happen later in a narrative. We know how much more interesting a story is when its characters face a dilemma. We know better than to give away a punchline too early when telling a joke. When we keep this basic intuitive knowledge in mind, we can make even the dullest topics more interesting.

Above all, what will keep history fascinating for students is the awareness that we could be telling a different story. The world could have turned out differently. That is precisely what makes our work as historians important in the first place.

To fulfill our moral obligations as teachers, it’s not enough to be correct. We need to strive, as much as is within our power, to be interesting as well.


Image: Johann Peter Hasenclever, Die Dorfschule, Jobs als Schulmeister (1845), Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, via Wikimedia Commons

5 thoughts on “The Moral Obligation to Be Interesting”

  1. Hmm. Most of the time, I try to start with questions—either (simplified) research questions or larger so-what questions, depending on the topic. I usually try not to be too definite about my own thinking until near the end of a lesson, after I’ve already laid out evidence for my position. Until then, I try to leave plenty of space for students to arrive at good conclusions on their own.

    There are exceptions. Sometimes it works better for me to stake out a clear controversial position at the outset and work toward it more openly. (When I do that, I try to be really explicit about it: “Today, I’m going to try to convince you of something that may seem unlikely at first. I could be wrong, but let’s see whether I can sway your thinking ….”) But I try not to overdo that approach. I save it for topics that I don’t mind being a little preachy about—usually later in a course, after I think students already trust me to be fair-minded and cautious in forming opinions.

    Other people successfully take very different approaches to this, though, and I’m not sure my way is better. Perhaps it depends on your personality? I tend to come across as really intense when trying to press an argument. More naturally warm and open-seeming people may have more success being explicit about their own opinions up front without putting people off. And I’m sure it depends on the subject matter and the particular students too.

    But let me turn this around. What approaches have you found most comfortable? (And is it so bad to be preachy?)


  2. Ah, I guess I was thinking less about individual lectures and more about the overall framing of “why history matters.” I’m teaching mostly students who are not only not history majors but who haven’t taken other history courses in college. Trying to convey those stakes–why the study of history is actually an important part of a full life, etc.–is tough without falling into grandiloquence. (Or at least it is for me.)


  3. Oh, I see! I think we teach similar kinds of students. Few of mine are humanities or social-science majors (during most semesters), and often I’m teaching the only college history course they’ll take.

    I do a little preaching on the first and last days of a course, certainly. On the first day, I usually acknowledge that what I’m saying about the uses of history may seem grandiose, but I ask the students to bear with me—the course itself will be the test of whether I’ve told them the truth about its importance. I make myself feel a bit less silly by presenting my claim as a conditional statement: If this course works the way I think it will ….

    Mostly I try to let case studies, primary sources, and the smaller stakes for each topic do the history boosterism for me. That is a lot easier with modern topics, of course—but even with earlier classes, I try to make sure that students get to draw some tentative contemporary connections by the end of the course.


  4. Thanks! That (and your comments on the stakes of individual lectures) is great advice. I just struggle with the whole “humanities will save your life” kind of pitch–even though I believe it!


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