Students in my history of architecture course are amused to discover that the final exam offers a choice of questions. Some are bone dry (“discuss the development of the monumental staircase from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, citing examples”) and others deliberately open-ended (“General Meade overslept at Gettysburg and the South has won the Civil War; you are commissioner for the new national capital and must tell us which architects you will choose and what instructions you will give them.”) In offering this whimsical range of options, I do nothing original; my own professors at Haverford College did much the same in their day.
But a peculiar thing has happened. When I began teaching twenty-five years ago, almost all students would answer the imaginative question but year in, year out, their numbers dwindled, until almost all now take the dry and dutiful one. Baffled, I tried varying the questions but still the pattern held: Given the choice, each successive cohort preferred to recite tangible facts rather than to arrange them in a speculative and potentially risky structure. In other respects, today’s students are stronger than their predecessors; they are conspicuously more socialized, more personally obliging, and considerably more self-disciplined. To teach them is a joy, but they will risk nothing, not even for one facetious question on a minor exam.