Blog Post

Interplanetary Pedagogy

One of my favorite sci-fi authors is Ursula LeGuin. She so effortlessly stands outside the terrestrial by imagining fundamentally different, but coherent and plausible worlds, cultures, and peoples. In The Dispossessed, Shevek, a physicist from Anarres, part of a binary planetary system, travels to Urras, his planets twina world defined by property, wealth, class, nation-states, and hierarchy: all things abolished and abhorred on his anarchist, revolutionary planet. He teaches at a state-run university during his stay on this foreign world that LeGuin obviously intends as a mirror to our Earth:

He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand. At first he refused to give any tests or grades, but this upset the University administrators so badly that, not wishing to be discourteous to his hosts, he gave in. He asked his students to write a paper on any problem in physics that interested them, and told them that he would give them all the highest mark, so that the bureaucrats would have something to write on their forms and lists. To his surprise a good many students came to him to complain. They wanted him to set the problems, to ask the right questions; they did not want to think about questions, but to write down the answers they had learned. And some of them objected strongly to his giving everyone the same mark. How could the diligent students be distinguished from the dull ones? What was the good in working hard? If no competitive distinctions were to be made, one might as well do nothing.

Well, of course, Shevek said, troubled. If you do not want to do the work, you should not do it.

They went away unappeased, but polite. They were pleasant boys, with frank and civil manners. Sheveks readings in Urrasti history led him to decide that they were, in fact, though the word was seldom used these days, aristocrats. In feudal times the aristocracy had sent their sons to university, conferring superiority on the institution. Nowadays it was the other way round: the university conferred superiority on the man. They told Shevek with pride that the competition for scholarships to Ieu Eun was stiffer every year, proving the essential democracy of the institution. He said, You put another lock on the door and call it democracy. He liked his polite, intelligent students, but he felt no great warmth towards any of them. They were planning careers as academic or industrial scientists, and what they learned from him was to them a means to that end, success in their careers. They either had, or denied the importance of, anything else he might have offered them. (pp. 126-27)

Examinations and grades are, as LeGuin makes profoundly clear, expressions of hierarchy, intellectual aristocracy, and certification. They promote business, trade, and moneynot learning, collaboration, and curiosity. Though the tie between assessment systems and social structures is not on the surface, many people virulently attack the ideas and people who try to change something as seemingly innocuous as how one grades. Imagine the apoplexy that would result from a refusal to give grades at all. Still, if learning is the goal, shouldnt teachers constantly seek better tools to encourage and recognize that learning?

The indignant and frightened responses to experiments in grading like the ones Cathy Davidson promotes ( cannot arise from only a passionate investment in the methods one uses to teach. Nobody gets angry about what types of pencils and brushes an artist chooses. Yet even the suggestion that everyone in a small class might learn enough, be engaged, curious, and motivated enough to earn an A invokes remarkable anxiety in a large portion of the population. Clearly, they feel something more than effective  teaching is as stake, even if what that is remains unstated and unacknowledged.

Learning arises only from internal motivation; and weak motivation indeed are grades alone. Without the exhilaration of curiosity satisfied and cyclically renewed and failed experimentation (we gain little from success), learning rarely happens.  Perhaps memorization of some few facts, forgotten months later, a pale shadow of new knowledge, understanding, skills, or interests. But we as a society remain  committed to tests, to the conferral of worth through grades and degrees. If, in fact, we intend to certify workers, then such hierarchizing methods make sense. If we want, instead, to learnnot just use the word learning as a patina justifying and beautifying uglier reasons like profit and prestigethen we need to teach, to grade, and to learn like alien anarchists.


No comments