06/01/2012 05:33 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2012

Education Amplified

"Let me know if you can't hear me."

We've all heard it -- or didn't hear it. If we heard it, we didn't need to hear it and nothing changed. If we didn't hear it, we needed to hear it, and nothing changed.

If we didn't hear it but were lucky enough to be in the room or lecture hall with someone else who didn't hear it but was good at reading lips or body language, the speaker's volume might have changed.

And what we've all seen at times is the speaker so confident in the use of his (usually) or her (rarely) voice that the microphone gets pushed aside with an "I know I don't need that" statement. Those are the times when I reach behind my ears to turn up the volume on my hearing aids and give a silent prayer that the speaker isn't going to tell me something that would be injurious to my career if I didn't hear all of it.

I'm hearing impaired. High-pitched sounds have always been a mystery to me. My brain often confuses consonants ("t" and "d" sounds, for instance). Low-pitched sounds are no problem. In jest, I often say that I've been successful as a college president because I can't hear people when they whine.

So I'm sensitive to hearing problems -- and suspect that they are much more common than anyone knows. And in my own experience of listening to others, those who come in loud and clear make the best impression on me. Those who don't don't.

As a result, I'm a constant advocate for amplification. At faculty meetings I've generally insisted that a microphone be passed around to whoever wishes to speak. I wish we could do the same thing in classrooms.

Even as a college president, I've been teaching a course a year, always a freshman or sophomore course. I tell my students about my hearing aids. They generally speak up. When they don't, I ask them to repeat what they've said or, like hearing impaired people in general, I guess at what they're saying. But I'm listening to them, intently so, even when I'm not hearing them.

And I really don't have a clue about their hearing -- even though a huge percentage of what we call "teaching" presumes an understanding, first, of the human voice. Moreover, we live in an age of loud sounds and undiagnosed hearing impairment. Sometimes I think students like text messages because then they don't have to listen to something. (They can save listening time for their music, likely one of the causes of hearing difficulties.)

We need amplification in all classrooms for all students. Not hearing everything may be the cause of what appears to be boredom, listlessness, stupidity, or incomprehension. Words well heard are hard to ignore, otherwise people would never yell at one another. Struggling to hear compounds the struggle to understand.

I doubt if anyone would be pleased if the words they write on a board or project in a PowerPoint slide for students were so indistinct that only students with the eyes of a hawk could read all of them.

And if the point to be understood through the human voice is the least bit complicated, requiring, say, the use of a complex sentence or two and perhaps even the hoped-for enlightenment of a metaphor (heaven forbid the use of a word unfamiliar to your students), then hearing is mandatory. It should be written into the course syllabus: "In this course you must also hear everything that is said."

I've never seen that sentence in a syllabus. Maybe that's because some federal law would then require that everything said in the class be capable of being heard. That'd be fine with me. And all of education would be better off -- especially if the voices of both the teacher and the students in a classroom were amplified. Students might still have some excuses for not understanding something. But they would have heard it loud and clear -- and, most likely, would have remained more alert and attentive. And understood more.