An Educational Expedition - Part 2
As with any expedition, it is of utmost importance that those travelling return home safely. It doesn’t always happen, but luckily for us, in the first part of our journey, we didn’t actually travel anywhere (well I don’t know about you, but I didn’t travel, let alone five hundred years back in time). However, there is something else that must make it home safely; the knowledge found during the expedition. And sadly, that too, doesn’t always happen. Sometimes because it is too delicious, as was the case with the giant tortoise (all giant tortoises brought on board to transport to Europe were eaten before they arrived. Odd side note: Charles Darwin tried riding the tortoises).
Sometimes, though, the knowledge doesn’t come back because we forgot it. Hopefully, you’ve not forgotten part 1 of this journey, in which we went all over the world (imaginary and otherwise) in an attempt to learn what great education should be like. Now, in part 2, I want to take you back home. Back to Groningen. Back to our very own UCG. And as we’re arriving back here, we’ll determine whether our very own study represents the core of great education.
In the first part of our journey I mentioned that the two pillars of our education have been revised recently. These two pillars are UCG’s Vision and UCG’s Teaching and Exam Regulations (‘TER’). Being a member of the Programme Committee at UCG, I have taken part in the revision of these documents. As such, I’ve been privileged to have a say in the navigational course that UCG is taking. Does this mean that your education has been laid out by me and a few others? No, fortunately not. We’re still studying at a Liberal Arts and Science programme, which means that you still have control over your own studies. In fact, even if you’d study a different programme, you’d still have at least some control.
There are of course certain things that have been laid out. Some according to UCG’s vision, some according to the RUG’s vision, some according to laws, and some according to none of the above. The question, then, is whether that which has been laid out is anything like what I envision great education to be. Is UCG (anywhere near) great education?
The backbone of UCG
Rule #1: Be boundlessly curious
A lot can be said about LAS programmes. But whatever you say about it, fact is the programme is a bit odd. An interdisciplinary programme, often one in which you get to choose what you study. How does that work? Well, it differs from university to university.
At our university, the backbone of our programme is a core of about 80 credits, a minor of 30 and a major of about 70. We cannot really deviate from this much, so you could argue that rule 1 (Be boundlessly curious), 2 (Don’t waste time studying useless things) and 4 (Travel without a map) are all being broken. The programme structure limits curiosity by limiting course choices; it might force you to take useless courses; and it definitely gives you a map to travel with. This critique seems short sighted, however.
For one, the useless courses you must take can be very useful (if they’re taught properly). And curiosity? I want you to think about that for a second. How much is a structure (like this) limiting your curiosity? Do you feel free to explore your interests? With certainty, I can tell you that most of my curiosity happens outside my programme, not in it. Yes, the minor allows us to explore some of our other interests, but I believe it would be great if there was more freedom there.
There is a flipside, though. The structure of the programme isn’t there just to be pretty. It guides students and gives credibility to the programme as a whole. LAS programmes are (both jokingly and seriously) said to be worth little to nothing due to its liberal nature. While I don’t agree with this critique and am of the opposite opinion, it is a valid concern. Imagine a buildings construction as liberal as our degree. At what point wouldn’t you want to reside in the building? The more liberal the structure, the less the structure’s worth. UCG’s structure might limit some curiosity, but contrasting that to having an unstable degree, I’d say it’s a fair trade-off.
What we’re taught to do
Rule #2: Don’t waste time studying useless things
Many schools and universities claim they don’t want to teach students to recite textbook definitions on exams. Like any respectable study programme, UCG is of the same opinion: “Studying at UCG is about creating enduring and meaningful experiences rather than memorising - and forgetting – facts,” our faculty states on their website.
To what degree does UCG walk her talk, though? From Social Science students at UCG I hear worrying messages. Studying for days, remembering who did what experiment, or tirelessly studying statistical equations to then copy them on the exam seems fairly useless. In neuroscience and anatomy courses students are asked to blindly memorise names for each part of the human body. The importance of these things is to understand them, how they work, what they do. Not to recite them! To effectively apply knowledge you can’t get away with root memorization. You need insight. But as long as UCG (or any other program for that matter) lets students ace exams without understanding, or rather, as long as UCG teaches and tests us not on understanding or insight, but on memorisation, then they’re but another programme that teaches students to do really well...on exams.
Questions and answers
Rule #3: Have robust knowledge
Don’t get me wrong here. It’s not all bad. UCG doesn’t only teach us memorisation, nor does UCG kill all curiosity. In fact, we’re given about 2800 hours (100 ECTS) which we can allocate at will. We can choose our own courses and are thus able —to some degree— to explore according to our curiosities and interests. Besides, with our small classes, we can at least somewhat freely follow our interests in course materials. Perhaps this even makes us understand the material much better than a large classroom ever could. It is largely up to us, the students, to do this, but it is also the teachers’ job to facilitate the atmosphere and space for that. I believe this doesn’t happen enough at UCG.
A great way to stimulate these two things (curiosity and understanding) is by asking questions. Jacob Collier, a young and brilliant musician, once shared the following anecdote: His mother, like himself, is a musician and has perfect pitch. When she would be walking down the street with a young Jacob, she would be able to hear in which key the church bells were ringing or what note a car horn would be. Wanting to teach Jacob an interest in music, she used to ask him “what note do you think this is?”
I believe this is a simple, but brilliant question. The great thing about it is that it doesn’t matter whether the answer to it is wrong or right. All little Jacob had to say was what he thought it was. The point is that he started thinking about it. This works not just for musical notes, but for anything else as well. By asking what you think something is, or how you think it might work is a great way to learn, because it takes away the fear of being wrong —you can’t be wrong if you answer according to what you think. It enables the enjoyment of discovering how the world works.
Teachers (and students as well) have the wonderful opportunity to apply such a method to encourage students to think about a subject thoroughly. Not simply, say, ask what school of philosophy John Stuart Mill is part of (something you can look up in 5 seconds), which is a typical example of breaking rule 2. Instead, ask why we think he might be of that school. Even if you don’t know the correct answer, you can still make an educated guess, which allows for a much more interesting and thoughtful answer than just providing a textbook answer. This encourages us to follow both rule 1 and 3; to be curious and to create thorough understanding.
Rule #4: Travel without a map
Projects. A selling point which UCG is particularly proud of: “Projects are a special type of course in which students are curiosity-driven scholars.” To my ears, this sounds lovely. But how true is this? In our first year, projects are largely guided. We get specific tasks about specific topics to work out. Curiosity is not encouraged, and the map is largely laid out for us, clearly breaking rule 1 and 4.
In year two there is a shift. Students are largely let free, with merely a vague topic or task to guide them. “Write me an essay about a topic within experimental philosophy,” for instance. I like this. And I think we should all like this, because it follows precisely rule 1 and 4. We get to be curious and the map is taken out of our hands. And not only that, it also implies the second rule of not wasting your time.
If you’re free to do what you want, why waste the time given?
Some of us don’t share the same sentiment. The past few weeks, since we started the projects, I have heard quite some people complaining about the freedom they were given. ‘This project isn’t organised at all, we’re not even told what to deliver.’ ‘There is no direction that this project is going in, I have no idea what we’re doing.’ And this one I heard just last week, which I found hilarious but concerning (and I swear I’m not joking): ‘If only they would give me a step-by-step plan on how to do this, then I’d love this project.’
People panic and as a result get afraid. Seth Godin put it well: “People want to be told what to do because they are afraid (petrified) of figuring it out for themselves.” And that’s natural. But I think we need to stop complaining and fight that urge for instructions. Be brave and get over it. Start enjoying the wondrous freedom of exploring a topic yourself. Be inquisitive. And if you need to learn a new skill in the process, learn it! It’s not like there’s always going to be a teacher around to tell you what to do, so you might as well get used to it now and take this opportunity to explore and screw up in a safe environment. If your idea turns out to be worthless, then at least now your livelihood won’t depend on it. Travel without the map! Be curious!
Home sweet home?
Let’s summarise. UCG still has things to improve. That doesn’t make it a bad programme, not at all. However, each of the core values of great education as I laid them out are being broken —at least in some way— at UCG. This is enough reason to try and improve.
Now, returning to the very beginning of our journey. The reason I started it with Plato’s metaphor of a ship’s captain is that education also needs a course to sail on. You might now say to yourself: ‘a captain and a course aren’t the same thing’ and you’d be right to say that. It would be stupid to say they are. Then why do I equate them? (Am I stupid?) Plato’s search for a ruler (like all political philosophers’) is not so much about the ruler herself, but more so about the course she sets us on. Political philosophers don’t care about the ruler because all they want is a system that provides the best course of action. The ruler is merely one of the tools to achieve that. Whether that is a Philosopher King, a Machiavellian ruler, or your run-of-the-mill King is somewhat irrelevant. At the end of the day, the course is what matters.
As students at UCG we have the freedom to design our own curriculum. We get to determine the structure of it (to such a degree that quality is assured, and the accreditation committees will still allow us to call it a bachelor’s degree). We get to decide what courses we pick, and as a cherry on the cake, in many of our classes and projects we get to decide the direction we take. This, more than at other programmes, puts us in the position where we should ask the question: ‘What and how do I want to learn? What is most useful for me and the people around me? What goals do I have?’ So, to end this small journey we embarked upon, I want to ask you this: As captain of your own ship —the ship of your education—, what is the course you will take? How will you shape your own education?