What would universities look like if they ran on egalitarian, rather than elitist, principles?
Even though I’m a teacher, I haven’t read much pedagogical scholarship (make of that what you will). But this is something I’ve thought about a lot, so here are my ideas for an egalitarian university.
1) All courses are pass-fail where passing is defined by the acquisition of a specifically defined set of skills. Passing means you can do something, failing means you can’t do it yet.
2) The standards for success are made known to every student at the start of the course so that they know what they are aiming for and can judge their own progress as they go along.
3) There is no penalty for failure; you can re-take the same course as often as you like until you pass.
4) Classes are small enough that instructors can tailor their teaching to the needs of individual students, at least somewhat.
5) There are support services for students with more specific, less common learning needs, including students whose social or cultural backgrounds hasn’t given them the cultural capital they need for university learning.
6) The content of courses is presented in a de-mystified way. The skills that you need to have to succeed in the course are made obvious so that you’re unlikely to take a course you’re not prepared for, and so that if you fail because you lack those skills you can backtrack and acquire the prerequisite skills in another course instead of blaming yourself for being “stupid”.
7) There are no differential grades other than pass and fail, and the content of courses is defined in a narrow enough way that the distinction between ‘doing well’ and ‘doing badly’ in a course has very little meaning.
8) Instructors refrain from ever essentializing students’ accomplishments. There is no such thing as a ‘good student’ or a ‘bad student’, as such. Instead, a student’s qualities can always be disaggregated and concretized: you are highly motivated or not; this material comes easily to you or not; you have strong skills in this area or not; etc. Instead of telling students “you’re very smart” instructors tell them “you’ve learned to do this very well” or, better yet, “yes, you’ve learned to do this. Good work. Now here’s another thing you can learn if you want …”. Students get positive affirmation but (a) this affirmation is linked to things they have done, not to who they are; and (b) this affirmation isn’t comparative in a competitive way.
9) The university does nothing to foster hierarchy among the students, or among instructors and other university staff. Accomplishment brings its own rewards, and if those rewards aren’t sufficient then we have a problem whose solution is not to be found in creating status hierarchies.
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Let’s start start by getting rid of the concept of ‘talent’. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the ‘talent myth’, and it’s a good phrase, but I’d like to use it a bit differently than he does.
A myth, according to Roland Barthes, is a story or a representation of a situation that obscures the historical process which actually produced that situation. The talent myth says that some students get better grades than others because some are more talented than others — that is, some students just innately have more ability than others, regardless of their life experiences or the resources available to them.
Let’s assume instead that people’s differing performance on standardized academic evaluations is primarily a result of how much time a person has engaged in optimal learning – that is, in learning that is right at the edge of their ability in some way. A person learns the most when they are challenged but not overwhelmed: asked to do tasks that they haven’t done before but that are an extension of skills they already have.
(I think this process is affected somewhat by deeply embedded dispositions – not innate, but not easily modifiable either – but not nearly so much as the talent myth would have us believe.)
If we understand that the best learning takes place in this ‘zone’ of optimal challenge, and that time spent in this zone makes the biggest difference to how much one learns, then time spent in this zone becomes a resource, and the challenge of egalitarian education is to distribute this resource so that everyone gets as much of it as they need and nobody is getting more of it than they need at someone else’s expense.
Clearly, this is difficult. For one thing, in a room full of students with different life histories, precisely what constitutes an optimal learning challenge will vary quite a bit. In a perfect world one would tailor the curriculum to each individual student so that each student was constantly ‘in the zone’. But this could take more resources than we have available.
There’s also a problem involved in deciding how much learning everyone “needs”. The way things are set up now, there is no upper limit on how much skill a person needs; no matter how “high” one goes, there is always competition for limited rewards. Education is a tournament, or a set of tournaments. In a tournament, there have to be winners and losers. So to make education properly egalitarian, democratic, inclusive, we have to replace its tournament structure with something else.
I think that in general the way to do this could be changing the end-goal of education away from learning to compete in the tournament of learning, and towards learning specific skills useful for performing specific tasks. Can you conduct research according to a particular standard of scientific rigour? Can you design a comfortable, energy-efficient, inexpensive house? Can you read, analyze, and write about literature, or music, or art, or philosophical ideas? Can you crunch numbers? Can you apply standard therapeutic techniques to a broken bone, or to a patient with depression? And so on. Not: what do you know? Definitely not: how smart are you? But, what can you do?
To some extent this is what universities already do, of course. You learn skills at university. But I think that at present the process of learning skills is buried underneath the process of selecting for the people who are best at winning learning-tournaments, which is why the best students often struggle to adjust to the demands of productive work outside the university.
I also think that for learning to be egalitarian, it has as much as possible to be intrinsically motivated. People learn best when they are motivated by personal satisfaction in the learning process, and less well when they are motivated by extrinsic factors like a desire for approval or a fear of not getting a job. Fear of failure is very bad for learning. So, the penalties for failure should be as small as possible. And the reward for success should be: you get to go on doing this thing you’ve been successful at. If that’s not enough, then you may want to find something else to do.
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Of course, all of this strains against the social hierarchies of the wider society, especially the capitalist labour market. Ultimately, for education to become egalitarian, society as a whole will have to become egalitarian.
But for society to become egalitarian, its institutions have to be transformed towards egalitarian forms. Just as importantly, people’s habits, their intuitive sense of who they are and how they relate to each other, has to change. What we experience as possible has to change.
So even without a socialist revolution on the horizon just yet, I think it’s worthwhile to make changes where we can. I work in a university, so I’ve written about universities.