One of the things I hate most about the method of formal education is, of course, the giving of assignments. I think if I had ever studied music formally I would have loathed having to write a piece in a certain style, or figure out harmonies for a given melody, or, what seems to be a favorite, “write a piece using only this given motif, because that’s what Beethoven did a lot.”
Though I would have loathed such assignments, I’m sure I would have learned quite a lot from them, and could probably put that knowledge to good use afterwards. So the question then becomes: is the suffering through the assignment worth the practice gained? In my opinion… no! Otherwise I would have of course pursued a formal study of music.
I think what would have made me hate such assignments so much is not only my disinterest, but the psychological suffering of feeling I’m not in control, that I’m not doing the assignment for me. If the assignment was optional or ungraded, I feel in much greater control… but then I’m probably less likely to do the assignment in the first place, especially if I’m not interested.
Why does a teacher give them?
I honestly believe many assignments are just busy work. Students get them for so long, and when they become teachers they easily get into the habit of giving it (even if they hated it themselves). In this sense, some teachers really don’t put a whole lot of thought into the assignment giving, they just do it because it’s what they’re used to, it’s what everyone else is doing.
They might even do it because on some subconscious level they like the power they have. That might sound absurd, but imagine for a second what it would be like if you were giving assignments. When I was really young, I wasted my poor brother’s time by making him go to my school, in which I was the teacher. I have no idea what I taught, I don’t think I really knew much (my how things have changed!) but it was just plain fun to be in charge and to make worksheets and plan out what someone has to do (perhaps that joy remains in my attraction to game designing, and writing, and composing… I’m dictating in a way what someone else is going to experience for at least a few minutes in their life… in a small way it is a bit of power).
Anyway, at that age, teaching seemed a very attractive job, one of power. You basically get to tell everyone what to do without having to pay them! And you’re in a higher position. You’re not just everyone’s friend sharing with them knowledge and experience on a common interest; in the teacher-student relationship, the teacher is the one with the higher status. And I do believe some people are really attracted to getting that status and set themselves up as teachers not so much because of their interests in a certain subject, but because of that psychological attraction to that higher status and that power… though, of course, this is something that no teacher would admit (just like I won’t admit why I blog… oh no, just kidding); teachers often have very romantic reasons for why they teach, about how much they care about education and inspiration and other people and the future and stuff, and I’m sure that’s true for plenty of teachers. But no teacher says “I got out of college and couldn’t really think of anything else to do, but I knew how schools worked…”
Obviously I like power too; as I said, feeling I’m in control over what I’m doing is one of the reasons I hate assigments so much. My ideal way of learning (besides books and the Internet) is talking to someone with similar interests non-formally. We both have equal status and the only assignments I do are the ones I give and choose to do myself. That said, I think there are certainly some excellent “mentors” … by which I mean more “non-professional teachers” who are somewhere between the teacher-student and friend-friend relationship. They might give assignments, but they won’t grade you, and you’ll have a say in the nature of the assignment… but they are unfortunately most rare.
I could blather on about the subject, but I won’t because I have an assigment to do…