Little Boxes

There's an exercise we do on the first-year honors seminar each year while reading Emerson.  In his 1839 "American Scholar" address at Harvard, Emerson called for a new kind of intellectual, one whose primary influences would be direct contact with nature, the mind of the past and an active and engaged life.  The aim for these new American brawniacs would be to undertake "daring sallies of the spirit" that would lift all of humanity with fresh, original thinking.

So each spring I ask my students how we might construct a university for such people.  I have them get into groups and brainstorm ideas for Man-Thinking University, an institution dedicated to turning out non-comformist original thinkers.  Most years the students come up with interesting ideas.  Man-Thinking U would be located in a pristine natural setting.  The first few months would be spent building one's living quarters.  Students would even devise the curriculum, select their own projects and there would be no grades.  The students themselves would determine when they were ready to leave. 

This year's batch of honors students didn't seem to grasp the nature of this exercise.  They kept saying there had to be grades and testing.  Otherwise no one would hire the graduates.  My simple exercise in re-imagining the educational system just bombed.  They didn 't get it and couldn't imagine any way to learn other than rank, rate and graduate.  Education was some expert evaluator checking off a series of little boxes.

So the next day I walked into class and handed out a slip of paper on which I had written the following: "I have lost my voice.  You will just have to conduct the discussion of this essay on your own today.  Take turns leading the group and be sure to involve everyone."

For forty minutes they discussed the text on their own.  Everyone participated.  Then with 10 minutes left in class I miraculously recovered my voice and asked them to evaluate their efforts.  How well did they do?  What would have made the discussion better?  What would happen if they chose what to read next and assessed their own efforts at understanding it?  Could they do it without an evaluator?  Could they do it without an expert?   In fact, what would happen if they started determining what was important and what they wanted to know?  

One or two of them finally began to grasp the Emersonian notion of the self-directed learner.  One said, "I wouldn't mind going to college at a place like that."  Another even came up with a university motto:  At Man-Thinking U, the slogan isn't "think outside the box.  It's "Dude, there is no box."

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