Last semester, I was responsible for more than one existential crisis, I fear.
If you’ve followed this blog for any period of time, you know that I don’t only enjoy confusing my students, I feel that it’s essential to their education. I believe that disorientation requires re-orientation and that is what learning is all about. My post about the Bernard Malamud story “Angel Levine” should explain what I mean.
Another essential element in the alchemy of education is, of course, curiosity. In fact let’s call it Curiosity, with a capital C. It where education begins (and possibly ends).
The crises I set in motion were related to an assignment I gave my freshmen. I asked them, in short, to be curious about their surroundings. I assigned a paper in which students were to write about their own campus. It is their temporary home after all, so I thought it was appropriate that they thoughtfully consider what the experience means. They were to choose a single place on campus, and it could have been any place, to analyze. I wanted them to consider the location of their chosen space and its prominent features.
My hope was that they would pause at particular spot and observe, noticing how the space functions. Who has access to it? What pragmatic goals does it serve? And most importantly, what kind of person is the space supposed to create? This is the question that caused all the ruckus.
The difficulty was simply that my students had never considered that spaces might be supposed to do anything. To many of them, places are strictly constructed to walk over or sit in. My asking them to find meaning in their built environment was paramount to Jesus asking the Rich Young Ruler to sell all his possessions.
My students’ difficulty with the assignment (and thus me) is not unique. For so many people, it’s unnatural to think with any depth about how places shape our desires and conceptions of ourselves. To me, this is apparent in the mad rush toward online learning and things that are, for some reason, called “MOOCS” (no, Bubble Boy, not the Moors). My good friend Danielle Nielsen is currently writing about her experiences with these things at her excellent blog http://dnielsen2.blogspot.com/. I wish her all the luck in the world and am enjoying reading her updates.
Education as Baptism
The idea behind this distance-learning initiative suggests, whether intentionally or not, that education is as simple as the transference of information. It denies the possibility that education might instead be a special immersion in a specific environment to create and expand a student’s experience. I use the term “baptism” loosely, but I think it works as a metaphor for what I’m getting at. Just as the devotee is submerged (in some traditions) and emerges a new person, the student immerses him or herself in their chosen institution, an act which will ideally change them for the better. Becoming is, therefore, a spiritual experience.
In the act of destroying the physical campus, the movement toward distance in education destroys this spiritual aspect of higher learning as well. And, ironically, the e-learning philosophy bears remarkable similarity to my students view of campus space. Both physical space and education itself are simply landscapes to be traversed, not experiences to be savored.
Jeff Selingo recently defended the campus experience in an insightful article that I hope you will take the time to read. His sentiments echo my own. I fear that in the rush to provide information to students, we are too willing to ignore their humanity. What is passing for education is really merely credentialing for industrial purposes. Education is something different than that.
Education, like humanity itself, is about becoming. This means that it’s every bit as spiritual a process as it is technical. It therefore extends beyond the information transmitted in the classroom and out into the campus space. Yes, we learn who we might be by studying the facts of George Washington’s life, but we are also offered visions of our potential selves by the spaces in which we abide. Take City College of New York, for instance:
This magnificent campus was built to educate New York’s poor and decidedly un-privileged (Bernard Malamud is one prominent example out of many). In fact, it was so much thought of as a place for the children of the city’s Jewish immigrants that CCNY was jokingly said to stand for Circumcised Citizens of New York.
Yet take some time to experience the details of its buildings and plazas. This is a campus space that values its students and their potential. Notice the promise the design offers the working-class student. The Gothic design immerses the urbanite in an educational tradition that extends through the ages, forcing them out of their immediate environment, backwards through history. By walking these halls and sitting in this plaza, students are placed in virtual conversation with the best that’s been thought and said. Great architecture is access to something currently out of reach, and this campus grants that access.
Also, note the prominence of the windows. Their size and sheer number certainly bring light into CCNY’s classrooms, but they also narrow the distance between the learning going on inside the classroom and the experiences of life outside. It’s as if students are encouraged to understand that the things they learn in these rooms are meant to be permanent and portable. This empowers education and suggests that there is a future to be forged outside these walls. It screams “Be Something Great.”
I have only emphasized architecture in this reflection, but the social is equally vital in the college experience as Selingo articulates in his article. Human beings are social by nature, for better or worse. By occupying physical spaces with other people, networks are possible. Long-lasting, meaningful friendships can be forged. Mentoring that passes down a tradition of wisdom is available. Education can be, at its best, deeply and broadly imagined. Students can be encouraged to become in a way that distance-learning simply cannot replicate.
Or I suppose that efficient, cost-effective, and icy cubicles will work just as well.
I’d love your opinions about this, so please share them either here or, even better, on the Arnoldian Project Facebook page (link is to the left of the page). Do your experiences match my mushy idealism? How much hot air am I full of?