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I still remember my first real object-lesson in teaching. I had just started as a teaching assistant and they had me working in a class on early American History. The professor spent a good deal of time on the Puritan colonists that semester. By “spent a good deal of time on” I mean he railed on about this particular subject for hours while we slowly fell behind the syllabus, …which was fine with me actually, but quite a few students balked at this approach.

The professor did his best to debunk one common misconception about the Puritans; the notion that they came to America for religious liberty. In his view, it would have been more fair to describe the Puritans as coming to America because their efforts to oppress others had been thwarted in England and Holland. He could go on in great detail about various things they did which were wholly inconsistent with the notion of religious freedom. The very idea was as foreign to them as it was to any of their supposed oppressors.

This message found its way into several lectures that semester. The textbook was a little less emphatic on the subject, but it certainly did nothing to undermine the message, my Professor had been working so hard to get across. Whenever I had a chance to talk to the students I was right on the message. Hell I loved that argument, and I was happy to have a go at it whenever I got a chance. With three separate sources providing re-enforcement for the same message, I was pretty confident that it would get through. If the students in that course had learned nothing else, surely I thought they would have learned that the Puritans did not really come to America seeking anything we would recognize as religious liberty.

So, you can imagine my surprise when well over half the class turned in midterm exams with essays going on at length about how the Puritans had come here to find religious liberty and establish democracy!  I actually had to ask the instructor to go over the subject one more time, just for me, because I was convinced I must have misunderstood something. But no, his take on the subject was exactly as I had remembered it.

I looked for signs of conscious disagreement. Were these students showing spine? I didn’t see that either; no-one fielded a counter to the specific points made in class. They were simply repeating the same platitudes the teacher had been at pains to refute as if they had no reason to suspect anything was wrong with those notions. Near as I could tell, these students were telling a story they thought true with the full expectation that it would match perfectly what the professor had been telling them all semester. It wasn’t absenteeism either; many of those hitting this theme had been present virtually every day of class. Judging by the essays, only a handful of the seventy or so students in that class had picked up on the actual lesson. Most were completely unaware that they were telling us the exact opposite of what we had been telling them for over a month.

Why?

It was a complete mystery to me, but I red-inked the Hell out of the tests, assigned grades with a touch of mercy, and we both set about explaining the subject one more time.

Over the next few weeks I came up with a theory. I never had a chance to test this explanation, but it remains my guess as to how the whole thing happened. I watched carefully to see how the students were taking notes, and in most cases the pattern was pretty clear. When the instructor announced the general topic for a stretch of his lectures, the students I could see wrote down down that topic and then sat back to listen to what he had to say about it. As each each major sub-theme came down, they would write down a single word or phrase underneath the major topic and continue listening. The end-result was something that looked a lot like the outline for a speech or paper. So, when it came time to study for the midterm, a lot of the notebooks must have ended up with a section that looked something like this:

Puritans

- Religious Freedom

- Democracy

Assuming I am right about the note-taking, I can just see the students looking down at their notes when it came time to study for that exam and seeing a simple list of topics. Lacking any of the details from the actual lecture, the students must have simply filled in the gaps with their own preconceptions about the topic, preconceptions that had been re-enforced by years of K-12 lessons and countless pop-cultural references.

All the instructor had managed for all his railing against the notion was to underscore the importance of the very message he had set out to refute.