August 9, 2016

Against Academic Clericalism

An Early Stage Manifesto for a Democracy of Learning
Against Academic Clericalism

I’m calling this a manifesto because my goal is to propose theses without at present justifying them. This deals especially with learning from late adolescence and beyond. In later posts I’ll expand and nuance each one.

1) Assignments should be submitted in public (published) to encourage ongoing engagement with a student’s work, allow democratic evaluation by both peers and more advanced students, promote greater accountability, and be more meaningful.

2) "Teacher” is a misnomer; “lead student” is more appropriate. “Professor” would be comical if it weren’t so clerical. Hierarchies and class distinction should be minimized and increasingly eliminated as students mature.

3) Students should not be graded by a magisterium (a teacher or professor) but by a cohort of other students, including their peers, offering ratings, reviews, and the chance for critical conversation.

4) Rigid forms of engagement suppress creativity and oppress intellectual growth. Scholarship is far from the ideal mode of learning for most students. A wider variety of forms and media should be considered legitimate for active/productive learning. For example, in the humanities, a creative work (and not only academic essay) should be an acceptable form of engagement.

5) Democratic student interest, not the interests of an administrative or professorial class, should be the driving force in academic study. This goes for themes and issues as well as the form and intent of assignments.

6) When two or more students are gathered together, dialogical engagement should be the rule, otherwise it’s a waste of social potential. In consequence: end live lectures.

The principle that underlies all these points is that there is no essential difference between learners of different levels. There are young learners, those that are more experienced, and those with vast experience. Learning experience is valuable but not the only (or even highest) value in learning. It certainly doesn’t alter the original fallibility of each of us; regardless of our title, we can be catastrophically wrong. My concern is that dominant ideas and media in learning, and the irresistible temptation of egoism inherent in academic hierarchies is undermining the creative potential of learning. Cultivating creativity is the highest possible achievement of learning, and we’re squashing it. We need an exhaustive, system-level overhaul. Let’s begin.