Tag Archives: democracy

What Would Dewey Do? Thoughts on Teaching and the Process of Reflection

Steve Volk, March 26, 2018
Contact: svolk@oberlin.edu

One of the most pleasurable aspects of the Faculty-Student Partnership program that CTIE has been running at Oberlin for nearly five years is sitting down every other week with the students in the program. (I will quickly add that it’s also lovely to meet with their faculty partners, although that happens less frequently.) (Information on the FSP can be found here.) Each meeting provides an opportunity to discuss how the student are supporting their faculty partners, whether providing input through their observations, reflecting with them on how the class they just observed went, or simply listening as the faculty think out loud about their plans for the next class. But, as the semester proceeds and the end is in sight, I often ask students, based on their experience in the program and thinking about their own teachers, to list the characteristics of what they consider a “good” teacher to be, as well as how they would define a “good” student.

John Dewey by Andre Koehne, 2006, Wikimedia

Over the years, the students’ views of what good teachers bring to their classrooms have remained highly consistent. Invariably (and not surprisingly) they always begin in the same place: good teachers know their subject; I mean, they really know it. Further, they almost always indicate that not only do good teachers know their subject matter inside and out, but that they are able to communicate their passionate regard for it, and in that way, their love of physics, economics, psychology or whatever they’re teaching becomes infectious. It is this passion that often attracts students to major in a field that they had never considered, let alone taken a class in, before. Geology? Anthropology? Who knew it could be so thrilling!

The third point the students always raise is that good teachers help them to feel “safe” and “welcome” in those classes. (Hold your “delicate snowflake” critiques for a moment; we’ll unpack all of this shortly.) Finally (at least in terms of our discussion here), the students in the FSP program always observe that good teachers really listen to their students, are demonstrably interested in what they have to say, and often help them say it more clearly. That these teachers are listening is also evident to the extent that they will make adjustments, both large and small, in their classes that take account to what the students were saying.

New students in the program add additional observations over the years, but these four elements always seem to be present. And it’s not too surprising; I imagine that most of you would have come up a very similar list, and many of these same points came up in the last article I wrote about sitting in on my colleagues classes during “Open Classroom Week.” But as I was mulling these points over following the last discussion with this semester’s FSP students, I thought of the way in which the practice of reflection plays into each of these points, largely since the FSP program is itself predicated on reflection, on providing a structure and a forum for faculty, in concert with their student partners, to reflect on their practice.

Dewey’s Concept of Reflection

I’ve written before about the importance of reflection, particularly metacognition and self-regulation, to student learning. Here I want to think about these student comments in light of the reflection we do as teachers (a topic I began to think about here.)

John Dewey, 1902. Wikimedia

This led me back to John Dewey, a philosopher whose work on learning (How We Think and Democracy and Education, among others) is foundational…if a bit obscure. Or, as one educational researcher put it, “any student of Dewey’s knows that an encounter with his prose can be work.” Fortunately, Carol Rodgers, the researcher in question, has written an exceptionally clear introduction to Dewey’s concept of reflection that both helps systematize his writing on the topic and makes it more accessible to the lay reader. Much of what I summarize below comes from her article, “Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking,” which appeared in the Teachers College Record in June 2002.

For Dewey, the idea of reflection is a complex process, involving making meaning out of our experiences in a systematic and disciplined way, in conjunction with others (“in community”), and in a context that values the personal and intellectual growth of oneself and others. It is an integral part of Dewey’s view of the cognitive and affective mechanisms that lead to learning, that the purpose of education itself must be central, and this he understood to be “the intellectual, moral, and emotional growth of the individual and, consequently, of democratic society.”

Reflection is a “meaning-making process,” and, to be sure, as Rodgers observes, the ability to make meaning out of experience is a quintessentially human process. Experiences are what happens to you; what one makes of that experience, the meaning that one takes from it, derives from one’s ability to link that experience to prior experiences in a systematic and disciplined way. That is learning. It would seem, then, that the process of teaching is a process of providing the (disciplinary or otherwise rigorous) means of linking experiences (things that happen, reading a book, thinking, etc.) in a purposeful way. That is what good teachers do, but they can only do this because they are subject matter experts. Still, to leave it there is to miss the second part of what Dewey suggests about “meaning making” and what, I would argue, underlies the other characteristics that students pick up on when talking about the teachers who have meant the most to their learning.

What avail it — Dewey wrote (as quoted in Rodgers) — is to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worthwhile, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?”

Dewey isn’t referencing the soul as spiritual, rather he suggests that the meanings we make are rooted in the values that we maintain. For Dewey, the primary values were those of democracy and equity, “the extent to which the interests of a group are shared by all its members [and the extent to which it] makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms…” Education, then, is not an act of transmitting information from expert to novice, nor, as many politicians keep banging on about, of seeing that the student has (just) enough skills to get a job. It is framed and giving meaning by values – and that’s what students perceive about their teachers.

This sense is reflected in the passion that they bring to their subjects, the rigor and attention they require of their students, and the fact that their classrooms are considered “welcoming” and inclusive. So let’s turn to those points.

The Welcoming Classroom

The narrative of the “coddled” student, the “delicate snowflake” who flees from difficult discussions and seeks comfort over controversy, is one that has gained ascendancy in the last few years, not just in more conservative media, but among New York Times op-ed writers and in other, liberal, venues. I don’t intend to take up that perspective here, and I’m quite sure that there are some students who fit that bill. But what the students I work with talk about when they talk about “safe” and “welcoming” spaces are classroom where, because the teachers worked so hard to make them welcoming to everyone, could more easily engage those difficult discussions.

Two points from Dewey’s approach to reflection enter the discussion here. In the first place, an experience involves an interaction between the person and the world; meanings are made of experiences, “reflection” occurs in broader contexts. As Carol Rodgers writes,

Because an experience means an interaction between oneself and the world, there is a change not only in the self but also in the environment as a result. The effect is dialectical with implications not just for the learner but for others and the world. Through interaction with the world we both change it and are changed by it.

Classrooms that are inclusive of a variety of experiences, in which all are made to feel not just welcome but that the classroom is structured with them in mind, are those open to the kinds of difficult interactions and conversations that help students change the world and be changed by it.

There are many ways in which teachers construct inclusive and equitable classrooms without  lessening the rigor of their classes. Expert teachers are often better able to do this than novices both because they simply have had more practice at it, but also because they are more at home with their subjects: having taught for some years gives one more confidence in her ability to teach the content well, attentive to its complexities and nuances. Experience also gives the teacher a greater sensitivity to class dynamics and a bit more space in which she can pay attention to interactions in the class. Beginning teachers often reflect “out,” thinking about experiences after they happen; more seasoned teachers can also reflect “in,” absorbing and changing in the midst of an experience.

Which raises the last point that students in the Faculty-Student Partnership have often commented on: those teachers who stood out for them were the ones who were best able to “listen to students.” When I asked them to explain this further, they raised a number of points. In the first place, “listening” involved teachers who showed themselves to be deeply interested in what their students had to say. Secondly, these teachers encouraged and solicited student input and comments. And, finally, the teachers actually listened, i.e., they tried to understand the student’s perspective without reshaping it by reference to their own (i.e., the teachers) set of experiences.

Dewey’s inquiry based model of democratic education

Let me put this in the context of asking questions and, once more, look to Carol Rodgers for help. We’d probably all agree with Dewey’s view that, “A question well put is half answered.” Helping students to formulate questions is “a disciplined [process] that demands that the individual continually ground his or her thinking in evidence and not overlook important data that may not fit his or her evolving ideas…” Rodgers observes that,

This is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of reflection. The question that a learner is able to formulate depends directly on the completeness and complexity of the data or description that he or she has gathered and generated. The completeness and complexity of the data are in turn made visible according to the extent of the teacher’s own ability to observe, pay attention perceive, and be open — in short, be present – to all that is happening in the classroom.

Good teachers, the students I spoke with suggested, were those who were “present” in their classrooms.


Two other aspects of Dewey’s understanding of reflection seem an appropriate way to conclude, even though they were not part of the students’ commentary. In the first place, Dewey argued for the importance of reflecting “in community.” To think without having to “express oneself to others,” is an “incomplete act.” Working in community with other teachers “allows teachers to acknowledge their interdependence in a world that scorns asking for advice and values, above all, independence for both students and teachers,” Rodgers argues.

Finally, for Dewey, reflection must include action. Reflection that does not lead to action is not responsible. So, even if action is partial or hesitant, trying out of new ideas that, themselves, will become subject to reflection, conversation, and new action, is a fundamental step in the process of reflection.

Deliberative Pedagogy: Practicing Democracy in the Classroom

Steve Volk, October 23, 2017
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Michel-Vincent Brandoin, Le magasin pittoreseque, Vol. 5 (Paris, 1837).

You don’t need me to tell you that it feels like the wheels are coming off the bus. Not to mention the windows, doors, and crankshaft. White supremacist blowhards wrap themselves in First Amendment flannels while forcing universities to cough up serious cash in security costs to defend their rights (money that, you can be sure, could have gone to more beneficial ends). Leftists at the College of William and Mary disrupt an ACLU speaker for defending the First Amendment rights of obnoxious organizations, while,  at Reed, they berate a mixed-race lesbian lecturing on Sappho, branding her as a “race traitor” for participating in a Eurocentric introductory Humanities course. Pro-Trump students at Whittier College drowned out  California Attorney General Xavier Becerra with chants of “Lock him up!” and “Build the Wall!” Meanwhile, state legislators in Wisconsin, North Carolina and six other states pass legislation silencing student activists in the name of — what else? — free speech. Faculty are placed on leave to “protect” them after exercising free speech rights on social media. And all this is taking place during the watch of a “president” who uses his free speech rights to deliver falsehoods, fabrications, and fictions that would make Charles Ponzi gasp.

Sigh. One only wishes there were some space where these complex challenges, these “wicked problems,” could be discussed, if not dispassionately, than at least with evidence, insight, and the goal of reaching greater understandings as we move to address them. Wait! There is! It’s called “the college.” But if colleges and universities have become the grinding stone on which “speech” issues are milled, to what island do we retreat in order to hold these conversations? No retreat, and no island, I’d argue, but to the classroom itself, the space where democracy should be practiced and not just studied.

Democracy and Higher Education

The connection between democracy and education, in the United States at least, has long been regarded as self-evident. Modern democracies can’t exist without a well-informed electorate, citizens who are able to separate truth from lies, humanists from hucksters. Maybe. But we also know full well that educated people are fully capable of electing hucksters and liars, and that advanced degrees don’t inoculate one from anti-democratic tendencies. (According to exit polls Trump won white men by a 63-31% margin over Clinton; among college-educated whites, he won by 61-39%.) Education can produce engineers whose applications are capable of transporting us across town in the shortest time in rush hour traffic; they can also design algorithms that, in the hands of party operatives, will shave unwanted voters from a toss-up district and pack them into a guaranteed-loss district thereby making a mockery of democratic promises of “one person one vote.”

Is education, then, irrelevant to democracy? Not at all, but, lest we give into outright cynicism, we must push harder to identify what are the crucial interactions between education and democracy that can make a difference in the direction of producing more democracy.

Tony Beltrand, L’Image, Paris, 1897.

We would do well to turn here to those who have written so persuasively about this association: John Dewey and Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and Silvia Hurtado. Instead, I’ll round up a less likely suspect, Harry Truman – or, at least, the “Commission on Higher Education” that he appointed in 1947 to study the “principle goals” for higher education. Of the three that the Commission singled out, the first was that education should serve to bring about “a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living.”

Now, there are endless ways to think about what exactly this means and how those of us in higher education can help bring about a “fuller realization of democracy.” Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, recently implored “the nation’s colleges [to] join in preparing students to become active and informed citizens,” by providing them with a curriculum in civic education. For Bok, whose thoughts on higher education I have long admired, the issue is both one of instilling students with a sense of responsibility and equipping them to perform their civic functions more effectively. (“If a democracy is to function well, citizens need to be willing to express their preferences by voting…[and to] be reasonably informed and cognizant of arguments for and against important policy questions.”) This, he continues, is best done by offering a modest core of courses in U.S. government, history, and politics, basic economics, political theory, and “Great Books.”

The American Association of Colleges & Universities’ 2012 “National Call to Action” (A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future), also urged institutions of higher learning to “reclaim and reinvest in the fundamental civic and democratic mission of schools and of all sectors within higher education.” But their call went further than Bok’s, and, to my mind, got closer to the crux of the matter.

In addition to designing curricular pathways through general education and through a student’s major or technical specialized field of study, how civic issues are taught and in what venues delineate yet another arena for enhancing civic literacy, inquiry, and collective action (p. 55, emphasis added).

To those who argue that the bus is about to hurtle off the cliff because we have failed to provide our students with a proper civics education, I would counter that you don’t learn to play the piano by reading a book about it; you don’t learn to practice democracy by taking a course on it.

George Du Maurier, Tribly, a Novel (NY: 1895)

This is not an argument against reading books on piano playing (start with Tim Page’s The Glen Gould Reader, Knopf 1984) or against taking courses that explore U.S. history or politics. I am arguing that if the link between education and democracy is to have a more consequential end than informing students how a bill gets to be a law or motivating citizens to vote (where they are as capable of electing scoundrels as saints), than what colleges need to provide is a pedagogy of democratic practice. For, in the end, it is the practice of democracy in our essential laboratories of learning, the classroom, that can best help us reroute the wayward bus.

Deliberative Pedagogy

The AAC&U’s Crucible Moment calls attention to three “civic pedagogies” that research has found to be particularly effective: (1) intergroup and deliberative dialogue, (2) service learning, and (3) collective civic problem solving. The “Article of the Week” has examined service learning (more appropriately termed community-based learning) previously. Oberlin has an outstanding set of community-based learning opportunities convened through the Bonner Center, and I would recommend anyone who is interested in serious, effective community-based learning and research to contact them.

Here, however, I want to focus on the AAC&U’s first point, addressing a specific approach known as “deliberative pedagogy.” My understanding of this pedagogy was informed by a recently published volume on the topic, Deliberative Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for Democratic Engagement (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017), edited by Timothy J. Shaffer, Nicholas V. Longo, Idit Manosevitch, and Maxine S. Thomas.

Deliberative pedagogy – the editors begin – is a democratic educational process and a way of thinking that encourages students to encounter and consider multiple perspectives, weigh trade-offs and tensions, and move toward action through informed judgment. It is simultaneously a way of teaching that is itself deliberative and a process for developing the skills, behaviors, and values that support deliberative practice. Perhaps most important, the work of deliberative pedagogy is about space-making: creating and holding space for authentic and productive dialogue, conversations that can ultimately be not only educational but also transformative (xxi).

When reading about the approach, I identified what I think are its three central theoretical and practical roots. The first derives from the tradition of deliberative theory, an approach that discards both adversarial and expert models of decision making in the context of highly complex (“wicked”) problems. Both approaches are critiqued as being “overly focused on certainty, and both clearly avoid the necessary engagement with values and value dilemmas.”  Instead, deliberative theory supports arriving at decisions through a social process of deliberation characterized by reason giving in which careful consideration of all options and their trade-offs is undertaken in a context in which all are given an equal opportunity to speak and be heard in an environment defined by the mutual respect given all participants.

Adon, “Lays of Modern Oxford” (London: Chapman and Hall, 1874).

The next two origins of the process speak quite specifically to its utility within a higher education setting. Deliberative pedagogy involves engaging students as partners in the process of learning and teaching, creating a context in which authority in the classroom is shared and in which both teachers and learners come to a deeper understanding of ways to “make our practice more engaging, effective, and rigorous” [See Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching (Jossey-Bass 2014)]. These are the principles that underpin our Faculty-Student Partnership program.  Finally, the concept of deliberative pedagogy is closely aligned with theories of “high-impact educational practices” examined by George Kuh and others. These are educational approaches that have been shown to produce significant learning in students (e.g., first-year seminars, undergraduate research, community-based learning, internships, etc.) [see, for example, Five High-Impact Practices (AAC&U 2010)].

What ties these three elements together and generates the distinctively democratic quality of deliberative pedagogy is the importance given to group communication and social interactions. The process of addressing highly complex problems can engage students in the act of investigating, deliberating, and deciding, a process whose success depends on the students ability to communicate with one another across difference and in a context where decisions often require trade-offs between competing sets of goods. As such, it is an approach that is designed to address questions that raise competing values or benefits, and not one where available evidence only points in one direction. For example, the deliberative pedagogy methodology wouldn’t be useful when addressing the question: Is climate change happening? This is a question which has largely been answered, and deliberative pedagogy is not an invitation to introduce false equivalences or to pose adversarial approaches “for the sake of argument.” Rather, the approach is ideally situated to approach complex questions where positive values can be in play, for example: How should public policy address the challenges of a changing climate?

Michael Briand put it this way in Practical Politics (University of Illinois Press 1999, p. 42):

Because the things human beings consider good are various and qualitatively distinct; because conflicts between such good things have no absolute, predetermined solution; and because to know what is best requires considering the views of others, we need to engage each other in the sort of exchange that will enable us to form sound personal and public judgments. This process of coming to a public judgment and choosing – together, as a public – is the essence of democratic politics.

Methodology: A Brief Overview

There are three stages to deliberative pedagogy (stay with me, now: don’t let their names turn on your cynicism switch): divergent thinking, working through the “groan zone,” and convergent thinking. The best step-by-step introduction to the deliberative pedagogy is in Sam Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (Jossey-Bass 2014), which is available as an E-book on OBIS or Ohio-link.)

From Sam Kaner, Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, p. 13.

  1. Divergent thinking: The process begins by having students generate a wide variety of alternatives to the proposed question (or in the selection of the question to be examined in the first place) based on research, reading, interviews, surveys, and small-scale discussions. Students are cautioned to avoid “false certainties,” practices that lead us to avoid challenges to our way of thinking (selective thinking, confirmation bias, egotism) while questioning and disputing assumptions. Divergent thinking processes require that we become aware of competing sets of values, encourage dissent and question dominant perspectives. To engage this approach in a classroom means insuring that those who are still at a more tentative stage in their reasoning process are given the space to come forward and speak, and that the process not be directed at an early point of its deliberations by those who can command attention and express more certainty in their views.


  1. Working through the “groan zone”: So, now you’ve got a bunch of different propositions, approaches, suggestions, alternatives. How do you develop a meaningful way to pick through the “messiness of multiple competing positions” without either coming to a conclusion quickly or throwing up your hands in frustration, worrying that you’ll never come to any conclusion? The process requires much more than simply setting out positions and then voting to determine the most popular. Working through a set of ideas to come to a decision point requires considering “all the potential consequences to action, whether they are positive or negative, intended or unintended… [it] requires genuine interaction and discussion across perspectives,” which takes time and is, well, messy. The process is best undertaken by framing issues in a way that can foreground central tensions and trade-offs among perspectives, developing viewpoints clearly, and providing space and time for deliberation. Consider some of the major issues dividing U.S. society today: Should there be restrictions on gun sales? What should immigration reform look like? How should free speech issues be handled in educational settings? Imagine each of these debates as they have been carried out in the public sphere (in social media, pubic meetings, on television), and then think about how you would set them up for discussion in the classroom where your goal is understanding the competing perspectives and values involved rather than scoring points.


  1. Convergent thinking: This is where the conversation begins to move towards a decision point, and it involves “clarifying, consolidating, refining, innovating, prioritizing, judging, and choosing among opinions.” You won’t be surprised to hear that this is really hard. Students (as well as instructors) can become “paralyzed by analysis.” When faced with too many choices and a desire to remain open to unexplored possibilities, the easiest action could be no action at all, no decision, stasis. Engaged in a process whose main methodology is an openness to competing values, students may be unwilling to accept that decisions emphasize the “ultimate inequality of ideas and potential actions.” But this is also where thinking about deliberative pedagogy in terms of democratic praxis can help. Democracy can be best understood as an ongoing conversation rather than, fundamentally, a way to make decisions, as John Dewey (The Quest for Certainty, 1929) argued. Engagement with civic education can encourage students to vote. Not a bad thing. Deliberative pedagogy and similar methods of democratizing the classroom can help students learn to practice democracy in their lives. Probably better in the long run.

Deliberative Pedagogy on Campus

Martín Carcasson raises some interesting perspectives about the functioning of deliberative pedagogy in liberal arts colleges in his chapter, “Deliberative Pedagogy as Critical Connective: Building Democratic Mind-Sets and Skill Sets for Addressing Wicked Problems” (pp. 3-20). Colleges, he offers, seem to be “doing a nice job of providing opportunities for divergent thinking.”  But he suggests that in many ways they aren’t, as they are often hobbled by two factors. In the first place, “dominant epistemological perspectives” usually favor the search for certainty through scientific methods. It’s not that scientific approaches don’t provide valuable input, but a recourse to “scientific certainty” can close down exploration of different value propositions before different approaches are raised. I would add that they can also sideline other epistemological approaches that retain cultural and historical value. Secondly, he suggests that what is a strength of the liberal arts approach – introducing students to a variety of disciplines, epistemologies, and ways of asking and answering questions – occurs in different classes and departments. The problem, he suggests, is that “divergent perspectives [are] often [only manifest] between classes rather than within them, leaving students disconnected and ill equipped” to understand how to evaluate competing approaches. Biologists may foreground empirical methodologies which don’t take account of the values and histories introduced by critical race theory; artists can define community in a way that frustrates economists.

Diego Rivera, Open Air School (1932), Lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

The good news is that we are beginning to develop integrative approaches to address the challenge of epistemological divergence: cluster courses, first-year seminars, community-based learning, and other pedagogical innovations that help students assess divergent values while still understanding the importance of drawing conclusions and taking action. Investigating deliberative pedagogical approaches in our classrooms, thinking about “deliberation across the curriculum,” as some have suggested, and integrating on-going community practices such as those provided by the “Dialogue Center”, add important layers to addressing the challenge of divergence.

Deliberative pedagogical practices, like other educational approaches which emphasize the creation of democratic classroom environments in which students are invited to become co-creators of their own learning, can offer some paths out of the current impasse on college campuses. The potential of these practices rests not on the belief that what is needed is a return to a time when all propositions were rigorously examined in the classroom. We know quite well who was excluded from even entering those classroom, particularly at elite universities, let alone who could participate in the discussions that took place in them during in those so-called “golden” years. Rather, the potential of deliberative pedagogy lies in its ability to create a new democratic praxis in our classes that both responds to current challenges, including the rise of intolerance and bigotry at the national level, and takes advantage of new possibilities created by increased inclusion and a deeper belief in the importance of equity for the future of higher education.




The CEMUS Project – Lessons for Oberlin?

Steven Volk, April 26, 2015

A colleague recently introduced me to CEMUS, the Center for Environment and Development Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden. CEMUS is a unique student-initiated and primarily student-run university center with the explicit ambition to contribute to a better world. Since the early 1990’s, it has offered interdisciplinary higher education and been a creative meeting place for students, researchers and teachers from Uppsala University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. The three main principles that define it are Student-Led Education, Collaboration & Partnership and Transdisciplinary Research. Interestingly, at least for us at Oberlin, its founding was at least partially inspired by a lecture given by our own David Orr in Sweden some years earlier in which he set out “six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them.”

Transcending BoundariesCEMUS published a short book about its history, principles and goals in 2011. Transcending Boundaries: How CEMUS is Changing How we Teach, Meet and Learn is available as a free download. This “Article of the Week,” is a condensed version of the chapter: “What is Education For: The History of Cemus,” by Niclas Hällström, one of the center’s student founders. The Center is centrally focused (as its name would suggest) on questions of environment and “development” (which they discuss in a very specific manner), and responds in one way to David’s challenge that the task of rethinking education must be undertaken in the context of the urgency of human survival. Further, the CEMUS project offers a number of lessons for a college, our own, as well as higher education in general, which is deliberating over its larger curricular and educational goals and the ways that students can take ownership over their education.

(NOTE: I have emphasized those parts of the text I found particularly relevant to our own process. Also note that the references to “senior faculty” would, in our context, better be read as “faculty” or anyone with a teaching or mentoring function.)

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“What is Education For: The History of Cemus,” by Niclas Hällström

The Beginnings
It is the fall of 1988. Classes are starting for Biology majors at Uppsala University. Fifty freshmen, full of expectation and a little bit nervous, are seated in the “The Svedberg Hall”; in the old, worn premises of the Chemistry Department…Finally, I am here, where all the action is supposed to be; at the center of thinking and change—the university.

My images of the university were so vivid and clear: frenetic activity and enthusiasm; continuous debates and discussions; students with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, who attend lectures beyond their fields of study according to interest rather than course plans and requirements; idealism and the power to bring about change coupled with knowledge and thoughtfulness; demonstrations, actions, and protests; the courage to challenge and change the status quo. The core of social change and the triumph of reason over the follies of the world.

Where did I get these images? I don’t know—but they were certainly very real. And thus the disappointment and frustration at the reality that confronted me was just as real. A sense of disillusionment. Was this it? Was I missing something? Where was the dedication to causes and the ability to bring about change? […] Here, every year, thousands of students appeared to flow through the system without ever having been compelled to place their education in a broader context; without having been forced to challenge themselves and their educational and career choices in relation the major issues of global survival… and the global injustices that troubled not only me, but also a growing part of the world.

An essay by David Orr, titled “What is Education For?”—originally a speech to the graduating class of 1990 at Arkansas College— crystallized our thoughts but also ignited a spark to act. It was the first of several formative and deeply inspiring factors on the road to what would become Cemus. “The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climactic stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity,” Orr stated, and concluded, “It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs.” In other words, the university is indeed a big part of the problem.

Orr continued, “My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound the problems. This is not an argument for ignorance, but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival—the issues now looming so large before us in the decade of the 1990s and beyond. It is not education that will save us, but education of a certain kind.”

[…] We must learn how to manage ourselves and our social systems. New knowledge does not automatically yield good values, and the amount of total knowledge hardly increases…An increased amount of disciplinary and reductionistic teaching and research will not provide the holistic and integrated understanding of the world that we need the most. Education should not primarily be a career tool. And finally, Western culture is not some kind of apex in world development, but is rather, in many ways, the opposite.

[…] The importance of these moments of “homecoming,” of making connections with people and thoughts that strengthen your own possibly unformulated but deep insights, but which also challenge you and stretches your imagination, should not be underestimated. In fact, that is probably a foundational element of Cemus’ origination as well as an important dimension of its pedagogical approach. The merging of dammed-up frustration and moments of constructive inspiration can yield unexpected results!

Universal History-Johannes Buno 1672-Cartographies of Time

Johannes Buno, Universal History (1672) in Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, Cartographies of Time

Yet another important point of departure: the Stanford Biologist Paul Ehrlich visits Uppsala University in 1989… His lecture is dazzling [and] the conclusion is challenging: which university will be first in the world to require an introductory, cross-disciplinary semester in matters of global survival for all students? And which university will be the first to allow—and to expect—everyone, regardless of discipline, to set aside at least 10% of their time to get involved in exactly these kinds of issues?

Imagine a lecture series, a course, an introductory semester with only lectures like this; lectures which affect you and which force you to contemplate, to converse and discuss matters over an entire week until, in the following week, an even more challenging lecturer arrives. The seed for the course Humanity and Nature was planted—and the vision of another, different university became a little bit more concrete.

A third departure point: An entire wall of empty tea cans inside the old stone house in the Observatory Garden. Facing us, the Astronomy Professor that so many people have told us we simply had to meet. Our idea: an interdisciplinary course aimed at all students, which takes on the great issues of global survival. A model for a required introductory course inspired by Ehrlich’s challenge. Over the course of one semester, we have been experimenting and thinking about a course design. […] We are encouraged [by Prof. Bengt Gustafsson] to go beyond what we thought was possible…Perhaps the foundation for a fairly uncommon model of respectful and straight-forward collaboration between young students and senior faculty is laid there in the stone house among the tea cans.

From Idea to Completed Course
We are now four students who are wandering through the hallways of the university in search of support for the course proposal. One person leads to another, and we discover that there are in fact many people who share an interest in global issues, people with similar outlooks and a desire to bring about change…The common meeting place and the critical mass seem to be lacking—and the disciplines reign, mirroring the situation that we as students are experiencing…

[…]We are impressed by the professors’ command of their own disciplines, but soon realize that nobody has the whole picture; that they, just as we, are truly grappling with the complexity of the issues. We realize that our common sense and curiosity go a long way, and that we are part of a common project of attempting to define and understand the integrated areas of environment and development, or “sustainable development.” One of the significant aspects of Cemus is exactly this breaking down of exaggerated respect for authority while at the same time making active use of the senior teachers and researchers in order to construct one’s own understanding of the whole—one’s world-view—and to do so on one’s own terms.

No.11 King St, W Toronto, Canada. Brian Carson. CC-Flickr

No.11 King St, W Toronto, Canada. Brian Carson. CC-Flickr

[…]We…finish polishing the course idea and send in the proposal to the University Board. We place a lot of emphasis on the need for an interdisciplinary approach and on the importance of the students’ own active participation and their communication and interaction across disciplines, but we remain silent on the topic of who is to run the course. A few months later, we receive notice that the Vice-Chancellor…has decided that the course will be [developed and carried out by the students] in collaboration with an interdisciplinary group of senior faculty [and] placed as an unusual, freestanding entity… floating above all departments… Developing the course was a way of reflecting on what gives real knowledge and deepened insight—and what triggers the joy of discovery and exploration.

The course development became a relieving experience and great fun—we were fully absorbed in the work and nothing seemed to limit us. We pondered and experimented with new interdisciplinary constellations; with modes of examination in which the writing of group papers across disciplines also became a continuous dialog with the lecturer; we made sure we always ate dinner with the lecturer before the evening’s lecture in order both to build relationships and to provide a context for the lecturer; and we developed detailed, ongoing course evaluations as an explicit, pedagogical tool.

In the full-time follow-up course, Humanity and Nature II we had the opportunity to experiment even further because we were no longer limited by the large lecture hall format, and the course was offered exclusively to advanced students with at least two years of study

[…]The most highly qualified and advanced education is not found in the course catalogue—it consists, rather, in having the opportunity to take own responsibility for development, coordination and teaching of a real course for other students.

We also realize at an early stage that the “meeting place” is at least as important as relevant courses. A physical center is needed not only to provide a formal base for interdisciplinary courses, but also to function as a magnet for all those individuals who, like ourselves, are in search of community, inspiration and a platform for taking action together with others. And such a center has to be genuinely interdisciplinary—it has to float above all the individual disciplines and departments so that it would not over time become distorted and shaped by the narrow conditions and interests of one particular discipline. The initial course proposal hence outlined the formation of a real, interdisciplinary center as a desired and logical next step.

Cemus is Founded
[…] In 1996, Cemus—the Center for Environment and Development Studies—is finally born…Throughout the years a fundamental principle of Cemus there has been the ambition to provide a meeting place for extracurricular activities and to actively encourage students to act on their knowledge as an integrated part of the teaching process. It should be easy to move from theoretical insights to real engagement on the basis of one’s new insights, points of view, and values—whatever they may be. In a deeper sense, Cemus should probably be regarded as a democratic project, rooted in the academic ideals of knowledge-seeking and critical thinking. It urges students to take responsibility by acting on their knowledge and conviction—through the support of other students, a building and infrastructure, and an attractive social environment…

Key Characteristics of Cemus
The Subject Area: Environment and Development
One basic principle from the very beginning was that issues of global survival should be approached in an integrated manner, where both environment and development are fundamental components; but more importantly, that the study of the very interface between these areas is the most central of all. “Environment and development” is here viewed as “one” integrated concept and not as two separate areas that are studied in parallel. Many institutions that offer courses in sustainable development have a disciplinary basis in either the area of environment or the area of development studies, and it can then easily happen that the courses get a bias towards one of these areas. The strength of Cemus is that the focus—and the curiosity—is almost always directed towards the interface and integration of environment and development.

Helen Keller and the Martha Graham Company. Photo: Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind (1954)

Helen Keller and the Martha Graham Company. Photo: Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind (1954)

The Interdisciplinary Approach
The interdisciplinary approach of Cemus has been a self-evident point of departure since the very beginning… The concept, however, is by no means unambiguous and can be used in many different ways. At the core of Cemus, I believe, there has been an urge to get to a more profound “transdisciplinary” quality, beyond the more common “multi-disciplinary” dimension, even though this is certainly quite a challenge. For some people, moreover, the ideal of a “strong” as opposed to a “weak” interdisciplinary approach is important—that is, an attempt to fundamentally re-evaluate and break new epistemological ground in relation to one’s view of knowledge and one’s understanding of the search for knowledge (and its limitations).

Critical Thinking and Disrespectfulness
“Critical thinking” is probably one of the most commonly used concepts within education and pedagogy and often used in very generalized ways that in the end devalues the concept. Yet, it is without doubt a foundational element of Cemus. This deliberate emphasis on critical thinking takes place at many different levels, with some approaches that seem to be particularly distinctive of Cemus’ courses. First, there is the often explicit ambition to explore alternative and more radical, unconventional ideas and points of view, that is, the “counterpoint” in addition to the “mainstream.” Secondly, the courses challenge students to critically question their own deep assumptions, world-views, and values, something that can make some of Cemus’ courses quite overwhelming and have a profound effect on students. Thirdly, students are encouraged to maintain a critical stance toward the pedagogical process itself and to continually provide feedback and actively influence the courses while they run (and, for some, contribute further by taking responsibility for the course as course coordinators the following year). Critical thinking is also closely connected to the culture of “disrespectfulness” (in a positive sense) for authorities, senior faculty, and researchers that permeates Cemus.

It is the student that stands at the center of the process of attaining knowledge; the lecturers pass by, and the student takes advantage of them in the pursuit to synthesize his or her own knowledge—in contrast to an educational situation where the lecturer’s agenda and the query, “What will appear on the exam?” stand in focus of the learning process.

The Focus on Active Involvement
The urge to become actively involved and engaged in the struggle for social change and a sustainable and more equitable world was the departure point for Cemus from the very beginning and is likely just as important today. A basic conviction has been the belief that if people are exposed to and inspired to think more about issues of global survival, then one will somehow change, draw conclusions, and likely also want to actively do something about those problems.

This conviction captures the idea of knowledge as an eye-opener and alarm clock. Whatever political conclusions one may draw from the knowledge one gains, and whatever form of involvement one ends up pursuing, is however something Cemus as an institution should not have any opinions about. It is of course also acceptable to choose not to act, as long as one does so with open eyes and truly stands behind one’s decision. The mission of Cemus is to facilitate and encourage as much knowledge gain, as much critical thinking, and as much reflection as possible—and to make it easier for students to act on these insights if such an urge arise.

The Pedagogical Methods
To improve teaching and pedagogical practices has, as already mentioned, been a central concern of Cemus since the very beginning. However, one may ask whether there is a distinct pedagogical approach at Cemus?… I think one can still discern several features that have distinguished teaching at Cemus through the years. One of them is the focus on norms, values, and students’ own assumptions and sense of responsibility; another is the ambition to supplement reading and theoretical discussions with practical exercises; a third is to whenever possible link theory to concrete, location-bound examples and go on field trips; a fourth is to place great emphasis on social events (scheduled coffee meetings and parties, overnight excursions and field trips); a fifth is the ambition to actively provide a sense of continuity and coherence in courses through, for example, the course coordinators’ presence at every lecture, seminar and discussion; and a sixth is provide opportunities for gaining and improving a number of skills of general importance (different kinds of writing skills, methods for problem structuring, analysis of arguments and debating techniques, communication skills, public speaking skills, and project management).

Duality at No. 664 Bay St, Brian Carson , CC-Flickr

Duality at No. 664 Bay St, Brian Carson , CC-Flickr

Students at the core—the Relation between Senior Faculty and Students
Without students as the driving force, Cemus would not be what it is. Student leadership is simply a fundamental element that must be preserved and cultivated in the best way possible. At the same time, it is important to recognize that the basic principle has always been the trustful, straightforward interaction between students and senior faculty; not the idea that students should have maximum freedom to do whatever they want. Cemus’ approach clearly demands a good dialogue between students and faculty…and who possess the ability to let go, to not micro-manage and to dare let students prove themselves and learn from their experiences. This goes for not only teachers and researchers, but also for the administrative staff of the university.

The Road Ahead and the Bigger Picture
[…] What about the university as a whole? A key incentive from the beginning was to change the entire university and its educational process in the larger sense…Can the experiences gained at Cemus somehow be converted so as to expand the debate—and moreover, can these experiences be shared and spread to universities in other parts of the world? What would be the next natural step to take? What are the great challenges of today’s students?

As the educator Myles Horton says in his inspiring autobiography, “Neutrality is just another word for accepting the status quo as universal law. Either you choose to go along with the way things are or else you reject the status quo.” How should the university be changed? What is education for? How will Cemus continue to contribute to a sustainable and just society?

Niclas Hällström actively contributed to the creation and development of Cemus and has, over the years, collaborated as course coordinator, lecturer, Board member, and work group member. After several years of work on environment and development issues, he is now in the process of building a new organization—the What Next Forum.

Page dividerCEMUS was founded within the context of a large Swedish university, but its example contains much that we at liberal arts colleges should be thinking about. How do we build transdiscipinary approaches to the greatest challenges of our time, the “wicked problems” that we face? How do we insure that it is the student who stands at the center of the process of attaining knowledge? How do we welcome students to take leadership in their own learning? How do we build “trustful and straightforward” relations between students, faculty, and staff? Can we build a lecture series which “affects you and forces you to contemplate, to converse and discuss matters over an entire week until, in the following week, an even more challenging lecturer arrives?” The answers are in our hands.