While committees gather and processes unfold across our campuses, many of us who are eager to practice what we’ve preached over the past year are asking: Can we, students and teachers at the UvA, democratize our classrooms, and should we? Can there really be such a thing as bottom-up higher education? After all, the university is founded on and perpetuates a certain hierarchy of knowledge. Even those staff members who celebrate the synergy between teaching and research do so from a standpoint of superiority over students. It struck me in thinking about this that most of what we have been fighting for recently has little direct impact on the classroom, even if it may have obvious implications on the way resources are shared and how the university is run generally.
For while students can certainly vote with their feet about class themes and degree programs, the classroom experience is mostly top-down. However relaxed and friendly class atmosphere may be, teachers determine topics, hand out assignments, write exams, register grades, and enforce mores. (Yes, the latter may be regularly discussed and even shaped by joint committees of students and faculty; but in class the teacher is the boss.) Teachers make the rules, students stray from them at their peril. None of this is to imply that teachers are smarter or better than students, but rather that their experience and practice puts them in a position to impart at least some practical wisdom, help build skills, etc. That is their job.
Of course, students teach teachers quite a lot. But that is often an indirect consequence of the classroom experience (questions that expose one’s ignorance or encourage one to look at things differently) or part of the teacher’s preparation for a class. Perhaps the most direct and explicit way in which students enlighten teachers is through writing original final papers, designing new experiments, and reinventing tools. Yet most students probably approach their subjects initially with a desire to understand more about a topic rather than make a contribution to the field.
So does it make sense to talk about rebalancing the situation? Is this even what students want? And even if they do, how do we continue to pursue traditional and new degree programs without greatly limiting the knowledge they are supposed to impart? In other words, must a broader civic education undermine higher education as it is broadly understood and practiced today?
I offer these preliminary thoughts to begin a debate and have accordingly invited several colleagues and students to share their thoughts. Please add your voice to this discussion by posting a response, sharing the link, or local debates.