Eliana Kessler calls for a critical look at what education can and should be in universities of today.
Before leaving for my Erasmus year abroad in Lyon, I would often worry about how I would make friends, speak French confidently, find accommodation etc. The usual worries that any new student is bound to have towards those first few weeks of university. The one thing I did not consider was the actual element of studying; not once did I think about going to class or writing notes, let alone exams. Then it suddenly hits me that I am studying at a different university in a different country in a different language. Oi vey.
Initially, I was really impressed with the variety of activities that my French university offers to their students – free art classes, reduced theatre & opera tickets, €36 annual membership for all sport teams and gym lessons. All this for a meagre €170 in annual tuition fees. But then I went to class and was shocked by how uninspiring the education is; three-hour lectures with no break, where the professor simply talks at you. Three hours of sitting still, being quiet and monotonously taking notes; a strange mixture of intensity and boredom. It is obvious that this passive approach to learning exacerbates students’ boredom and demotivation; most lessons begin energetically with students eagerly ready to listen and take notes, yet by the second hour most are either on their phones, talking to their friends, or sleeping. This passivity deadens any inspiration, turning almost any subject into a drawn-out chore. A two-hour seminar at UCL with a five-minute break feels like a dream to me now.
However, I am not arguing that the UK has a better way of delivering education. I can only talk from personal experience, of course, but I cannot count the number of UCL lectures or seminars which have been so unequivocally and awkwardly silent, with students lacking the courage or motivation to have any input in the discussion despite their intelligence. This lack of participation again leads to a similarly deadened feeling, an educational passivity resembling that which I have experienced here in France. Both systems seem to be failing in education; the word itself desperately needs to be scrutinised.
During the summer, I read Tara Westover’s “Educated”, an autobiographical narrative of her life growing up in a radical survivalist Mormon family in rural Idaho. Lacking any formal education, Tara began to teach herself, leading her on a long journey which results in her obtaining a PhD from Cambridge university. During an interview with David Runciman on Talking Politics, Tara expresses her own experience of education as a “living, vital, quite dangerous thing”, arguing that it “should feel like a gamble, should feel like a terrible risk because that is what it is”. She talks of education in terms of “calamity” because fundamentally, knowledge leads to power and power leads to change. I believe this is a wonderful description of what education should be. We should not be sitting passively taking notes on subjects that disinterest us. Instead, we should be constantly on the cusp of change, both scared and excited to engage with difficult and complex questions.
I want to emphasise the word ‘scared’, because education should question and challenge our own self-constructed beliefs, we need to encounter difference of opinion and difficult debate, for to knock us down only makes us stronger. Students need to reach out to those they don’t agree with rather than simply ridicule or ignore them. It can be as simple as asking someone in class to explain and justify their contrasting point of view, or approaching a Christian missionary on Tottenham Court Road and listening to their story. It could mean going to a talk by someone whose ideas you fundamentally oppose, listening to what they have to say rather than stubbornly blocking out their voice altogether. We should neither be too afraid nor too self-assured to encounter an Other. Listening and rationally encountering a different opinion is a powerful skill and too often neglected.
Having experienced this excessively passive learning in France, I desperately want to immerse myself in a challenging intellectual space, where my core beliefs could be shaken and/or strengthened. We need to change universities from degree conveyor belts or educational bubbles into rational but challenging spaces of debate.