Student vs. College

I was talking with a friend today about the depersonalization of the college experience that Palmer decries in his book and he replied that I was forgetting about the perspective of the organization. Organizations exist to perpetuate their existence. Business is an organization that survives on the basis of its ability to make money. Colleges have a business model built around a product that students purchase for various personal, social, and economic reasons. Unfortunately, this product often looks less like learning and more like a competition to earn a piece of paper bearing the brand reptuation (name) of some university that others will accept as proof of the students’ ability to function within a specific field.

Actually, the degree probably has less to do with the students ability to function within that field as it does with the college confirming (perhaps through the process of accreditation) that its teachers have exposed the students to a certain set of information about the field. The reason why colleges focus on exposure to a specific information set is that this allows for “efficient” teaching. One professor can share a standardized set of information with a room full of 50 others who may or may not connect with that information in any way. This is also the power of books: a single idea can be shared with a large number of people without additional effort by the author. Efficiency and standardization is the best way for the educational organization to make the money it needs to stay in operation and perhaps be extremely profitable.

Although Palmer spent some time exploring the idea of a “sacred” subject that students can gather around to explore, this was not the emphasis of his idea in the book “Courage to Teach.” The “subject-centered classroom” he describes is not one that requires students to be exposed to all aspects of a subject. Rather, his subject-centered classroom is one in which students learn how to relate to the subject on a personal level.

Students need to personalize the information. They need to engage with it, interact with it, and do so within the context of relationships with themselves and with others. “We honor both the discipline and our students by teaching them how to think like historians or biologists or literary critics rather than merely how to lip-sync the conclusions others have reached (Palmer, p. 126). In this phrase, Palmer outlined the other end of yet another paradox. Students need to know certain things about the subject, but more importantly, they need to know how to be in relationship with that subject.

Their understanding needs to go beyond understanding particularities of concepts to “…the underlying dynamics of any concept” within that discipline (p. 134). Such an understanding allows students to progress from simply knowing the things people in this field know, to being capable of doing the things people in this field do. Perhaps this means they will “…use their knowledge to become creators of new concepts” (p. 134).

– From Jenson, K. (2015) “Review of Courage to Teach”

Although this looks alot more like learning – and a lot more exciting, from the perspective of college administrators, it also looks a lot more expensive! Perhaps one of our roles as educators will be discover or create a new process of education that allows students to participate in the individualized encounter with a great subject. Because of the economics of educational organizations, Palmer argues that a transition to this kind of learning experience will probably not come from an organizational level, but from an individual level when people like us become passionate about making sure that our students get the chance to learn!

Personalization of education comes only with the sacrifice of efficiency, but if students are to be educated, perhaps this is a necessary expense. Have any of you encountered this kind of conflict between the organization and the experience of learning you would like to provide for your students?

Palmer, P., J. (2007). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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