From the time he was 11 years old, Ron Crabtree was checking out the maximum number of library books allowed, and telling anyone who would listen all about what he was reading. Even then, a career in teaching made sense, and Crabtree never thought twice about making it his profession.
Now, after 42 years of teaching at Pima Community College’s West Campus, Crabtree has made another big decision.
“There’s just a growing feeling that it’s time for a change,” he said.
Crabtree, a 25-year resident of Oro Valley, and Pima Community College’s longest serving instructor, has decided to retire.
But, while Crabtree is indeed retiring as a full-time instructor, current and future students may still see Crabtree around Pima’s West Campus, and might even be so fortunate to have him as a professor. Crabtree will continue working for Pima College as an adjunct, teaching part time.
Crabtree said he plans to teach one or two classes a semester, and will likely teach such courses as humanities, philosophy, and mythology.
While he said teaching has been a fulfilling career, Crabtree expressed a concern over the direction of America’s education system, a concern that ultimately led to him changing his teaching style altogether.
“Over the last 50 years, the reading level of the entering college students has declined from something like seventh or eighth grade to fourth of fifth,” he said. “The attention span of the students seems to be getting shorter, and this has something to do with the media and the high demand for quick information.”
For reasons such as these, Crabtree has reduced the amount of lecturing in his classes to make more time for group discussions to keep students better engaged and “meet students where they are.”
The ultimate goal of Crabtree’s classes is to promote individual thinking as opposed to the average, standardized classroom, which he said promotes mere memorization and testing.
“Plato had a saying; ‘Learning required under compulsion has no hold on the mind,’” said Crabtree.
Crabtree cited studies at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale where students who received an A on a test were asked to retake the test, without studying, one week later, a month later, six months later, and a year later.
“Within six months, none of them passed the same test,” said Crabtree. “If you use it as a bucket analogy, while you’re carrying the bucket to the well, most of the water falls out.”
Crabtree even went so far as to call America’s educational crisis bigger than its economic crisis.
“European students were recently given a test in American history, and they outscored Americans two to one,” he said. “I asked my students this semester what they thought of the current economic crisis. They said, ‘Well, we really don’t know anything about that.’ Students are used to being told what to do. They are not into independent research.”
Crabtree said while technology has made research easier, it does little to provoke thoughtful understanding.
“They repeat what they read,” said Crabtree. “My courses are built around independent thinking, which I think is an endangered species.”
According to students who have taken Crabtree’s courses, the unique teaching style is not only effective, but also enjoyable.
“This class truly changed my life,” reads one review on ratemyprofessor.com. “I would recommend it to anyone not afraid to think and look inward to learn about the world and life by learning about how you perceive it.”
Another reads, “Definitely not the orthodox style teaching methods used in the traditional college classroom. The students are given a chance to be the teacher and teach their peers. Plenty of guided discussions as well. Ron brings it all together and gives new life to learning.”
Crabtree is currently in the process of reading “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.” Written by James W. Loewen, the book reintroduces history without any “white washing” as Crabtree calls it.
“An urge to hide from the grittier, darker truths about human nature has in my opinion killed the interest of high school students in history. History is fascinating, but you would never get to know them from a history textbook. What you get is a politicized, watered down, covered up caricature of history.” As Crabtree wraps up his teaching career, he said he plans to continue reading and researching areas of interest. In his 42 years, Crabtree taught an estimated 10,000 students.