I found this book when I needed it the most, toward the end of a very tiring academic semester. After months of trying new methods of teaching and mostly failing. I found in the book another person for whom education is an issue. A problem. A question. A quest. That, in and of itself, was remedy for my heart and soul. It was refreshing to read Wallis’s words after innumerable interactions I had with colleagues that repeated sentiments of this kind:
- Don’t expect much from the students
- That’s normal, and it’s getting worse every year!
- We would be lucky to have 1 or 2 good students in a class
- Don’t get stuck on teaching
- Get it done and return to the real work (writing & publishing)
There is a character, whom we meet in For Education, called x-professor. I can imagine all the above sentiments being expressed by him.
What is the goal of education? What is the problem of education? And what is the source of my discontent?
The goal of education, at least in social sciences and humanities, is not the transmission of information. It is, instead, the cultivation of forms of life that are prepared for learning and acting within personal, social, and political contexts. The goal of education is the bringing out of self-governed, self-directed participants-in-life who recognize themselves as agents of change.
An educator should understand that a particular mode of teaching and learning, whether or not we recognize it, fits within and reinforces certain modes of ethical and political life. If a mode of “education” reinforces the students’ status as inferior, ignorant, and passive, then the students are practicing and preparing for further participation in relationships that recognize them as inferior, ignorant, and passive. If we wish to prepare them for participating in relationships in which they are active, esteemed, reflective, and responsible, then we should reinforce those modes of participation in the classroom, in their role as students.
Without practicing their agency and freedom, when some of the students’ later become teachers, it is likely that the change in their role would be akin to a switching to a guard role in the Stanford Prison Experiment. The form of the hierarchy would remain intact. The new teachers would simply cross over to the other side.
I sense my failure as I get a sense that what I and the students do in the classroom, and what I and the students undergo in the classroom, don’t bring out agents of change. A few students who already embody such a form of participation demonstrate it in the class and in their essays. One or two students try it for the first time. The rest of the class, the overwhelming majority, are unmoved. “We have never had this type of class before,” they tell me. I hear the voice of x-professor channeled through them.
After reading For Education I realized that I have been on the right track, but that I haven’t taken my approach far enough.
My Current Method
I don’t use exams. I evaluate students, instead, based on 4 essays (~500 words each) they write throughout a semester, and 1 presentation (~10 min). Essays are about any topic that catches their attention and interest during the lectures or during reading course material. Presentations are based on the idea that students teach each other one book during the semester. Each student selects a chapter they like and takes responsibility for teaching the rest of the class about (parts of) that chapter. Students don’t have to attend every lecture, if they don’t find class attendance useful.
When faced with an unusual amount of freedom, which they aren’t used to, most students (don’t) take advantage of it by doing as little as possible. They write their essays last-minute, quickly, with as little thought as possible. They repeat ideas they read or hear elsewhere. In short, they act from a powerless position, trying to be cunning, trying to get away with not doing any work. The role and relationship I am offering to them is foreign, suspicious, and unusual. Why should they trust it? Why should they trust their own wish to engage with it?
I must consider my class in the context of other classes. Each student is taking around 5 courses at the same time. If one course is relatively undemanding, it just opens room for other 4 courses. If one course doesn’t reinforce hierarchical organization, then they just have more efforts left to participate in the remaining 4 hierarchies.
Possible Ways Forward
It is probably a mistake to reduce the demand of coursework, but the demand has to be combined with freedom. What if instead of one book, I offer the students a list of 20 or 50 books to choose from. What if instead of having to teach their classmates about one chapter, each student teaches the rest about an entire book? What if each person compiles their own list of articles to read (compiling a “book” from a set of articles)? What if they use the four essays throughout the semester to report their progress in learning, expressing not only what they have learned, but what they are struggling with, their doubts, possible ways of applying/extending what they are learning, their plans and strategies for further learning?
It is not enough, in other words, to offer students unstructured freedom. Their freedom has to be balanced with a meaningful challenge, which invites effort (because it is not easy), exploration (because it is open-ended), trial-and-error (because they choose the subordinate tasks), and social-interactive (because they share with each other their progress and test their understanding through attempts at communication).
Wallis’s book isn’t (just) a book in the philosophy of education. It is a book about being human. It’s a book about learning to be human in the concrete here-and-now. It’s a book about bracketing out the world outside of the classroom. At least for a time. In prefiguring the world we wish to live in, we attempt to create a microcosm that reflects our values. A microcosm that allows for the expression and development of our values. As such, we practice and embody the motto everything is in everything.
In the classroom, we can practice bracketing out the world as it is now. By ignoring the “practical” life (the apparent impossibility of change) outside of the classroom, we allow ourselves to see and to reach for what is within our grasp (the possibility of change), namely our actions in the classroom.
For Education is a book for (a gift to) you if you want to be an educator. It’s a book for you if you care about being a good educator. I should read it again. And I should think and talk about it again. With colleagues and students. I am thankful to Glenn Wallis for writing it. For embodying and prefiguring his ideals of education in this book.