Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Best College in the Country

It's odd that we rank schools. What, exactly, does it mean to be "the best college," or the best preschool, for that matter? Does it mean students have higher standardized test scores, or the school has a larger endowment? Does it mean a school is more selective? Does it mean students graduate more prepared to work in high-paying fields?

Earlier today I read an interesting set of sixteen negative theses about a particularly fine college. It describes what the faculty are not, and what the school does not do. Why? Because this particular college does things a little differently. You can probably guess what college it is, but I'm going to operate under the pretense of suspense and not tell you. Here's the list, with my comments or further quotation sprinkled in when appropriate:

1) We (the faculty) receive no compensation.

Instead the faculty receives a stipend. Sufficient to make a living and to educate their own children, but not the kind of salaries commanded by many Professors - especially those who moonlight as corporate board members.

2) We deliver no to commodity to our students.

It's fashionable these days to speak of education as a business. Students are "end users" or "consumers" who pay the University for a degree, which is itself a commodity for use in the job market. A college opposing this notion is non unheard-of. Many liberal arts colleges would sustain that they do not commoditize education.

3) We do not prepare students to make a living.

"We do help them to examine and shape their lives," the text continues.

4) We produce no assessable outcome.

"The shaping of a soul is a simply immeasurable event." Again the text. Assessment is one of the biggest problems in modern education. All the things you can assess are, generally, not worth assessing, and all the things you really want to assess, you can't.

5) We are not an academic institution; we are, instead, a community of learning.

6) We have no administration.

Imagine having your dean, or the President of your school, for a class. Imagine running a college - not a small charter school - on by consensus.

7) We are not Professors, and perhaps not even teachers.

From elsewhere in the piece, but an awesome quotation: "We are devoted teachers who doubt whether teaching is possible." The contention is, essentially, that learning is more important than teaching (or education, you could say... And no, I didn't plan that).

8) We are neither intellectuals nor scholars.

What is more important, questions or results? In a research-driven academia it's easy to get wrapped up in career-advancement and publishing and so on. A faculty not concerned with these issues is a faculty devoted to its students instead of itself.

9) We are not selective, at least not in intention.

If the primary outcomes are impossible to assess, why should the preparation of the student entering a school matter? The assessments we use are, largely, economic ones. The primary differentiating factor on SAT performance is not quality of education, but quality of checkbook. What are elite institutions really looking for when they seek high-scoring students?

10) We are not a participatory democracy; instead we live by a polity.

11) We have no hierarchy.

12) We are intrinsically non-political.

These go together, and are radical, so much so that they challenge politics as-such. "To the radicals we might say: you don't begin to know what radical is; we are the ones who go to the roots."

13) We are not our students' companions.

14) We are not a writing, but a speaking school.

Writing is important, without a doubt, but conversation - unrecorded dialogue - is more vivid, more dynamic, and - because it is more flawed - more real.

15) We are not an experimental college.

16) We have no method.

These last two are particularly interesting to me, because many people look at St. John's (yep, you guessed it!) and see something strange and experimental. They see a methodology that is ingrained. In reality, it is as far from experimental a college as you can find. The program changes, to be sure, but reading good books and having conversations is not really a subject of experimentation, and it certainly isn't a "method" in the proper sense. Each student learns his own way, each tutor her own.

The title of the piece is St. John's Educational Policy for a "Living Community" by Eva Brann (who many of you will recognize as an Annapolis tutor and former Dean). It was a regular internal report from the Dean to the faculty in 1991, but unlike most - and fortunately for us - it was published.

There are probably a lot of bones to pick here, and I'm sure there has been - and is - internal controversy at St. John's over this kind of document. If I were a student there, I think I would be a bit more sensitive to the potentially jarring conclusions Brann makes, and a bit more reserved in my support. But from the perspective of a student at a research University, Brann is absolutely right. I won't pretend that I don't love Stanford, and that it isn't giving me things St. John's never could. However, I also won't pretend that St. John's isn't what a community of learning is supposed to be, in some quintessential way. It's no accident places like the University of Chicago, Reed College, Whitman College, and many others have borrowed from the St. John's 'Great Books' model.

It's all well and good to puff up my undergraduate institution, but I only do so to highlight some of the things that I have heard about education and learning, and to reflect upon the lessons that St. John's understands without needing research. That learning happens when you read good books and talk about them with intelligent people is inevitable, of course, but it's not the whole story. We try to complicate learning all the time, we try to ascribe it to external pressures and good (or bad) teaching, and good (or bad) policy. Learning starts and ends with a student, and the will to learn.

To Brann's theses I would add one, though perhaps it is captured by the notion that teachers cannot teach. It is this: We do not impose a false desire to learn upon our students (nor do we tolerate one). Instead their motivation is their own. Without that, no school can function, and with it, no school can fail. It is a necessary and sufficient cause for education.*

* To use a little Aristotle that, to my surprise, remains quite common parlance. Of course, the more sophisticated among us - or at least the more latinized - prefer "sine qua non" to "necessary cause." And can you blame them?

Yes, you can.

There are many excellent colleges and universities in the country, and I'm not so big-headed to think that the one I like best is actually the best one. I reject the notion of "best," anyway, because that's not the point of education. There's a reason St. John's opts out of the US News and World Report rankings, and that's a fundamental opposition to the premise.

So what's really the point here? Well, to share with you a nice little article I found about my college. Heaven knows there aren't very many, probably because the bit about assessing changes in the soul is true (and who does research on souls?). And yet, isn't that what education - especially high school education - is about? There are times when I suspect that innovative approaches to education forget to look backwards, and that education technology forgets the most important education technology of all: the book.

No comments:

Post a Comment