Mr. Reinharz, tear down this wall

I’ve been doing some thinking on the role of a University. Our conception of what it should be is very different from what it is in reality, at Brandeis but also most everywhere else. Professor Michael Wesch, a Cultural Anthropologist at Kansas State University put it very nicely a while ago:

Some time ago we started taking our walls too seriously – not just the walls of our classrooms, but also the metaphorical walls that we have constructed around our “subjects,” “disciplines,” and “courses.” McLuhan’s statement about the bewildered child confronting “the education establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns, subjects, and schedules” still holds true in most classrooms today. The walls have become so prominent that they are even reflected in our language, so that today there is something called “the real world” which is foreign and set apart from our schools. When somebody asks a question that seems irrelevant to this real world, we say that it is “merely academic.”

Not surprisingly, our students struggle to find meaning and significance inside these walls. They tune out of class, and log on to Facebook.

A true University should embrace learning, not teaching. A true University should view knowledge as a journey, not a scarce parcel. A true University should build a culture of the possibly of discovery through discussion at all times of day and night.

Instead we fidget in our chairs for three hours a day, spend hours dumbly thumbing through books in the library, and spend the rest of our time in a whirlwind of activity, trying to keep up with mounting piles of work, but also plunging headfirst into the elaborate civil society we’ve created to bring meaning, purpose, wholesomeness to fill the emptiness in our lives that our classes carve out.

Mr. Reinharz, please tear down this wall.

What is a University? What should it be? I’m not asking you to describe Brandeis or similar institutions. Instead, what are the aspirations, hopes, contradictions, negations, paradoxes, stereotypes and associations with this concept? A University is not a college, the beer-soaked playground of the idle bourgeois, one long sex romp for the future staid suits of tomorrow. (In reality, perhaps it is, but we have entered the land of myths and symbolism).

I close my eyes and let my mind wander. The word University evokes vague echoes of Plato’s academy, no? A grass and marble oasis of idyll, with students, their features wavering between long-bearded be-toga’d elders and excitable, sandy-haired fast-talking youngsters. These students might be tweed-jacketed, their brows furrowed too deeply for those so young, opening tomes in a rich velvet tomb of a room. Perhaps two women are striding to some unknown destination, the Pakistani explaining her understanding of the intricacies of physics to her Kansas friend. A rich tableau of images bubble and dissolve in a warm bath of emotions in the mind. Timelessness, Pursuit of Knowledge, Comraderie, Dedication, Wholesomeness. All these concepts rush past my mind and double back to make sure they left their mark.

And yet, something is missing, is it not? Where are the professors? Where are these Socratic guides in this journey of intellectual discovery? A holistic concept of the University is intricately tied with those modern-day sages. They could be sitting down in a circle on a lawn with their students, leading them on a nature hike, arranging tours to local institutions of interests. They could be narrating the story of how a train stays on its tracks, or the first time they took a girl to a dance, while sharing a barbecue’d kebab with their pupils.

A true University should embrace learning, not teaching. A true University should view knowledge as a journey, not a scarce parcel. A true University should build a culture of the possibly of discovery through discussion at all times of day and night.

The “modern” University observes an archaic ritual, barely changed since those times when books were scarce and princes and monks paid to have a scholar read one aloud for hours a day. Michael Wesch, cultural anthropologist, explains the classroom:

I arrived early, finding 493 empty numbered chairs sitting mindlessly fixated on the front of the room. A 600 square foot screen stared back at them. Hundreds of students would soon fill the chairs, but the carefully designed sound-absorbing walls and ceiling, along with state of the art embedded speakers, ensured that there would only be one person in this room to be heard. That person would be me, pacing around somewhere near stage-left, ducking intermittently behind a small podium housing a computer with a wireless gyromouse that will grant me control of some 786,432 points of light on that massive screen.

The room is nothing less than a state of the art information dump, a physical manifestation of the all too pervasive yet narrow and naïve assumption that to learn is simply to acquire information, built for teachers to effectively carry out the relatively simple task of conveying information. Its sheer size, layout, and technology are testaments to the efficiency and expediency with which we can now provide students with their required credit hours.

Professor Wesch had his students produce a video on their experiences in the classroom:

It is strange, it is not? This take on a University is very different than the collective assumptions, stereotypes, and aspirations we have for what it could be. Perhaps this dream of what a University could be, should be, is a lie. Perhaps we are nostalgically clinging to a past that never was. Perhaps. However, the present is untenable. A generation of students and a generation of teachers are bound by a love of learning, but everyone can sense that the current model of schooling deadens the spirit and slows the mind of teacher and student alike.


7 thoughts on “Mr. Reinharz, tear down this wall”

  1. In response to Dev, I just wanted to say that Tom King is the greatest person at Brandeis. 🙂 But actually he’s wonderful, pedagogically speaking. He lectures a bit, but he knows his material and is one of the few professors who give any mind to literary theory (that’s my own personal issue though), but there’s also lots of discussion, AND he requires active student learning through semester-long independent research projects, which are also COLLABORATIVE because students work in groups. He is the way of the future, guys. 🙂 (Just kidding, kind of. But he’s the best prof I’ve had so far).

    And I definitely agree with Dev about sequencing. University of Chicago was my top choice for four years, but I never even applied out of fear of “the core.” What’s significant, is that what I remember about the core, it was science and math heavy; such an emphasis betrays that a “core, liberal arts education” is a construct–think about how sciences always receive infinite more funding than humanities, and humanities students are met with a gasp of “what are you going to do with THAT degree?”

    In fact, on the interdisciplinary side, the best teacher I had in high school turned honors English into “Humanities” classes–we learned art, philosophy, history, AND literature in our three years with her. Significantly, it was the only class I ever took in high school that taught me to “think critically,” in part due to its interdisciplinary nature. Your mileage may vary, though, as my high school coexisted in the boondocks of the horrible land of Illinois (horrible, in that our education funding is NOTORIOUSLY bad; I think we’re at the bottom of the national list). I’m sure someone from Winnetka or Bethesda might have had a different experience.

    There’s other issues with primary and secondary education. I think gifted education, which obviously applies to most of us Brandeis students, is very underfunded, and in times of crisis, it’s one of the first budget items to go. Fine arts programs are often cut as well. Critical, creative thinking is just not financially endorsed, even if some teachers (like my English teacher) do foster inquiry and contemplation. I’m not an expert, BUT my mother is the president of our school board, and we’ve had referendums it seems every other year.

  2. I agree with everyone who’s said that the problem is much more in K-12 than in the university–especially our university. I asked a friend from University of Chicago recently about zir requirements, and ze went off on this whole long list of sequences–science sequences, arts sequences, one required course after another–and after that, we have it pretty good. We’re not told we have to take three science classes in a certain order; we have to take one at some point in our education. We have discussion based classes, at least some of them–look at Professor Better or Professor King, for example. Both are interdisciplinary and based on the options of the both professor and student. Didn’t we just have a big argument about making certain departments into programs because of their interdisciplinary nature?

    Contrast this to high school. You have to take everything in sequence–biology before chemistry, English 10 before English 11. There is none of this choosing what you learn when you learn it. There is no saying “maybe I haven’t read Hamlet yet, but that doesn’t mean I can’t understand and analyze Jane Eyre.” I learned in my Sociology of Education class freshman year that elementary and high school education is really teaching you to be good citizens–behave yourself, do as your teacher tells you, your success is in the hands of people higher than you–not so much the actual subject matter. (Do you remember anything they taught you in US History class?) Shouldn’t this concern us more than the state of universities, especially since success in these lower schools is a prerequisite for even attending a university?

  3. Oh I definitely agree; “the system” (to use a heavily loaded word) would not accommodate any broad restructuring of education unless we change it itself, but professors do have individual agency (without, you know, recruiting students to CPUSA and staging invasions of Jehuda’s office or what have you). In fact, my English teacher in high school always told us about one of her professors, who would try to “enact” the literature–i.e. nature hikes when reading Thoreau, etc. Still, just because one professor decides to do so, doesn’t place any imperative on other profs.

    And I definitely agree with interaction between profs and students; sitting in a lecture hall provides no real “intellectual work” on behalf of the student. I suppose I’d support a greater AMOUNT of education–lecture still, in addition to discussion, in addition to one-on-one professor interaction. I think professors are, for many undergrads, a widely underused resource. Most of the best experiences I’ve had with professors have been one-on-one conversations; unfortunately things like “office hours” seem to be largely ignored by many students.

  4. Victoria: I agree with you that professors aren’t nearly autonomous, and that significant, lasting change at the university level requires broad economic changes as well. But I’d like to harp on two points:

    1) Radical restructuring of education does require broader social change, but I don’t want to dismiss how individual efforts can work to those ends. Professors have a responsibility, not just to teach about social problems and contradictions, but to actively so something about them, and goad their students into doing the same. This has to be done in a way that’s both respectful of student rights (i.e. no indoctrination) yet not so neutered that progressivism becomes a mere slogan or posture (i.e. certain sociology professors). It’s a fine line to walk, but it’s absolutely essential to bridging the divide between the academy and the ‘real world’.

    2) Related to that: a real understanding of ‘independent learning’ goes quite a bit beyond lecture vs. seminar, or assigned work vs. individual research. Although those can be useful barometers for the independence of one’s education, the most vital component of a good education is student engagement – that is, how deeply one is committed to what goes on in the classroom, and how powerfully this affects life outside.

    To bring these together, I think this is what Sahar was aiming for in his point about the university fostering discussion – that there needs to be a fundamentally re-imagined dialogue and intercourse between stored experience/knowledge (represented by the faculty) and living experience/action (represented by students). That is to say, we need some old-fashioned ass-whuppin’ Marxian praxis up in this piece!

  5. The word “bourgeois” immediately rubbed me the wrong way. Like it or not, most of our Brandeis peers are middle class or upper middle class, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing (the proletarian revolution will begin with the intellectuals, a la Gramsci, etc. etc.). However, one could argue that the notion of “liberal arts” is extremely bourgeois. This is the contradiction; “learning for the sake of learning” seems to contradict the capitalist devotion to useful production, which assumes anything but a technical education deducts from the surplus value (yay, crude economism). But still; we’re very fortunate we can spend four years discussing Edmund Burke and Friedrich Nietzsche; most people aren’t.

    But more importantly, the foundation of the university is its donors. It’s a business. You can’t have a radical restructuring of education unless you have a radical restructuring of the economic base (again, yay crude economism). Professors have a lot less freedom than you might think.

    Also, I’m not in favor of a pure Socratic seminar-style of teaching for undergrads. Professors are there to lecture because they are a valuable resources; it’s not just what they’ve learned after 10 years of schooling, it’s how they’ve learned to approach problems. The way we’ve currently been brought up as far as education goes, we aren’t taught to be good discussion participants (there’s a reason most students won’t get into “real” seminars until grad school; you have to “prove yourself worthy” so to speak). So I’ll agree with Jon here, a restructuring of higher education demands a restructuring of K-12. Also, I think the “independent learning” that you’ve alluded to–reading books out of class, as well as paper-writing, etc.–is extremely beneficial. It allows you to think of your own ideas, without simply repeating classmates ideas (as you might in a discussion). Of course, different professors encourage different levels of independent research; some people might just rehash current scholarship and the professor’s lectures in the paper. Still, there’s a reason to make honors you have to do a thesis, and not simply take an upper-level seminar. For those interested in graduate school, independent initiative is the backbone.

    That’s not to say I discourage discussion, as I’m an English major and that’s what the bulk of my education has been. But, lecture is still helpful, and moreover, so is independent work (not that you’ve argued against this in your article; I’m simply delineating what I support).

  6. Although I totally agree that the University structure is more focused on schooling, the inculcation of discipline, than on learning as an experience of growth and transformation, I find it odd that you confine this to the college level. If anything, the educational structure for grade school is much more oppressive – the amount of time within one’s control is drastically reduced, and individual preference in subject matter or learning style is practically nil. This is much more damaging because our early learning years are so rigidly controlled, to the point where independent thinking is truly inconceivable. This sets up a generation not only to misconceive of what education and learning really consist of, it also prepares them for a managed society, a managed work environment, a managed life.

    This is not to say that universities don’t need to be restructured, and can even be a front for change in the wider society. But focusing too closely on what we can do within the ivory tower leads to navel-gazing and complacency.

  7. If your problem is with the wall between “the acedemic” and the “real world” then we are going to have to start to look at other places and not our lovely university. While I agree with you that our University should embrace the idea that discussion is always open, and that what we learn is intimately related to how we live. But don’t look at Reinharz to do this, this is a problem for the student and faculty, and perhaps mostly culture in general. Insulating one’s everyday beliefs from ones “educated” beliefs is an old practice, not one invented by the University. We need to change as a community and that cannot be made to happen top-down. Also don’t be such a cynic, firstly beer soaked parties are part of college, and the only reason you wouldn’t believe this to be the case is that very insulation you are decrying. College-University, whatever, is a timing for learning and growth and the one of the ways one grows is socially; this comes from the parties and the coffees, the late late late night walks, and the drugs. They are teach, hell everything teachings, its just as students (and this term can be applied to anything), as students we have to start listening.

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