Classroom democracy doesn’t work
As a child, I was a fussy eater. I don’t mean that I stubbornly refused the spoon or the fork at first but eventually could be coaxed into eating. I mean that from age two to three, I ate only fried rice from the Chinese place across from my parent’s apartment. I mean that my folks actually worried that my willful malnutrition would attract the attention of Child Protective Services. Whatever they served me, I wanted the opposite. My father would sit across from me at the breakfast table, nervously watching as I completely ignored the food in front of me. “If you don’t eat your Lucky Charms, a policeman is going to come and take us to jail,” he’d tell me. “You ever see a man get shived in the eye? It’s gonna be your fault, boy.”
Finally, my mother gave up. “Alright, buster,” she said, “you wanna live off ham-friend rice and gummi worms? Be my guest.” She put three Chinese take-out boxes and a five-pound bag of rainbow-colored invertebrates on the table. She slammed the fridge door shut. Maybe it was a hare-brained last-ditch effort in reverse psychology. Maybe she just stopped caring. She left me to it. “Bon appétit,” she said over her shoulder.
I finished most of the fried rice and got about a third of the way deep into the bag of gummi worms before I threw up. The puke was brightly colored. The whole scene was like if Linda Blair from “The Exorcist” were hosting an electric van full of hippies in her stomach.
Today, I am anything but a fussy eater. In fact, the range of my palate is so varied that I have a hard time maintaining my girlish figure.
Looking back, I think I was on a hunger strike and I didn’t know it. I was keeping my mouth shut in protest until my totalitarian mother and father ceded the lion’s share of the mealtime decision-making power. I wanted an equal say in the process of selecting our family grub. I wanted democracy.
But it turns out I wasn’t ready for a democracy. I didn’t have the experience. I didn’t have even the most basic expertise. I certainly didn’t have the maturity requisite to foresee very predictable outcomes, to connect actions with consequences.
I wanted democracy. What I got was a bad case of nausea and a brownish vomit stain on my Winnie The Pooh pajamas.
Recently, I sat in on a freshman level course. The professor spoke passionately for democracy in the classroom and against the traditional method of disseminating information, from a teacher’s mouth to a student’s ears. The professor wanted to give us the power. Whatever we wanted to learn, we’d tell him. Whatever we felt would be the best form of exam, that’s how we’d be examined.
So we spent ten minutes at the end of class debating what kind of homework we would do. I actually heard people say things like “I’m not so big into having quizzes on the reading, so can we not do those?”
I was very tempted to raise my hand and make an observation about insane people running asylums. And how we shouldn’t let that happen.
Democracy in the classroom absolutely can work – on a senior level or in graduate school. In many of those situations, professors aren’t so much instructing a student on the basics of a subject, but guiding them through their own work. Overseeing, if you will. By that point, a student has proved that he or she has what it takes to dictate the course of their remaining education.
But democracy cannot thrive in a freshman-level course. This is primarily due to the fact that someone in an entry-level course, for the most part, is not going to possess the basis of knowledge that’s requisite in any subject before you go learning all willy-nilly on your own.
Put it this way: I’m in a woodworking course right now. It’s my first time ever being in a shop. Before I just start attempting to build a bookshelf, I need to know the introductory principles of working with wood. I need to know how to work the various table saws. I need to know the standard safety precautions. Once I know those, I can work on my own projects at my own pace. But not before. Do you wanna know what would happen if a woodworking professor gave his students free reign from the outset? He’d have a pile of severed fingers at his feet and a bunch of furniture that falls apart at the slightest touch.
Not every class is held in a wood shop. Not knowing the elementary tenants of Marxist theory before you start applying it to a text in a literature class doesn’t imply the same level of physical danger. But you’re still in danger of proceeding ignorantly through the rest of your courses. And not every student is disciplined enough to contribute to their own syllabus. Human nature dictates that most people will do the least amount of work possible in order to obtain their degree.
That’s part of why we pay professors – experts in their field – to teach us what they know. If a university were to function as a laissez faire, come-and-go-as-you-please free for all, people wouldn’t pay tuition and come to school. They’d educate themselves at the public library and just submit a reading list instead of a diploma to a prospective employer.
Classroom democracy can work – when the students have proved they are mature enough to handle it. If a teacher is being legitimately difficult in an unnecessary way, or if the material proves so complex that even the brightest of students is having a hard time, that is the time to speak out and more actively directing the course. When the students have proved that they know the preliminary material and have proved that they can work on their own, then it is time to be egalitarian, rather than authoritative.
But until that time, I need a totalitarian dictator teaching me algebra equations and outlining theories for me. For now, I need a Kim Jong-Il of quizzes, a Hitler of homework. I need an Idi Amin Dada of daily readings. Otherwise, we don’t get democracy. We get the worst kind of ill-informed anarchy.
So, professors – tell me something I don’t know.
John-Ross Boyce – Opinions Editor