Columbia’s Report: A Failure of the Educational Machine

By April 7, 2005

Reading Columbia’s report, what struck me was the utter state of confusion of all parties involved who had no idea how to handle any “problems” that arose between individuals in the campus community. In a very sad state of affairs, the report does not even mention what should be the first thing a person does when he or she has a problem with someone else: go talk to the person. Yes, I know, this is a radical idea. I mean, how could you even think of talking to that person who just offended you? Obviously, if the person has the nerve to say something offensive to you in the first place, he or she can’t possibly want to hear your criticism. Instead, you should go file a grievance with someone who isn’t a part of the class and didn’t witness the incident. Surely, that person will know exactly what to do!

The report’s emphasis on “grievance procedures” indirectly hides the lack of critical human dialogue in the educational environment. The report demonstrates how Columbia—indeed, many of our country’s educational institutions—imposes hierarchies of power upon its administrators, faculty, and students to the point where all of them, especially students, are left powerless to transform the institution into a place of real human-to-human interaction and learning. Instead of talking directly to each other as conscious human beings, students and faculty are told that “concerns” are to be reported to others who are expected to fix the problem from the outside, just as one would report to a manufacturer about a defect in one of its products that needs to be repaired or a child would tattle-tell on a sibling instead of learning how to resolve the issue with the other individual without a parent’s intervention. Unfortunately, students (and even faculty) do not learn to be independent and actively engaged critical thinkers through this paternalistic system of simply providing a “sympathetic hearing and appropriate university response” for every issue, concern, or offense that ever arises during their student careers.

Let’s look at those hierarchies of power and authority. Some of the faculty members involved hold multiple hats here, but generally speaking, administrators sit at the top of this hierarchy and are responsible for reminding professors of their “freedoms” and “corresponding responsibilities”—as they have done in this report. Professors are told that the university has a “normative expectation” for a professor to maintain a “civil and tolerant learning environment” in his or her classroom. Professors are therefore portrayed as the primary individuals here who are “teaching” and fulfilling the students’ “entitle[ment] to an atmosphere conducive to learning and to even-handed treatment in all aspects of the teacher-student relationship.” The report acknowledges that graduate students have a strange double-reality of being both a “teacher” and a “student.” Finally, undergraduate students appear to sit at the bottom of the hierarchy with a “lesser but no less real responsibility to preserve classroom civility.”

This “top-down” approach to managing the educational environment seems to undermine the purpose of education entirely. In particular, the purpose of the university is described as one whereby students are essentially “banks” in which professors deposit their knowledge. After a student collects the various deposits from professors, he or she would then be able to “debate” and “test” the professors’ ideas. Somehow, the process of learning only involves a transfer of knowledge from professor to student, and the method of that transfer and the environment for that transfer is portrayed as the primarily the professor’s freedom and responsibility. The report says:

The faculty’s right to decide what to teach, and in what manner, is the premise upon which the university is built. It guarantees that in the pursuit of knowledge officers of instruction may explore novel and unpopular ideas; they may express views which give offense to some who hear them. Free inquiry requires nothing less, and the purpose of a university education is in part to introduce students to novel and unsettling ideas and to the process of debating and testing their adequacy.

Apparently, Columbia believes the university exists to allow “officers of instruction” to undertake the “pursuit of knowledge” and “free inquiry.” Students, on the other hand, are only the ones “introduced” to the ideas of the “officers of instruction.” They are to think of the knowledge being transferred to them as “entitlements” from their professors rather than to think of the learning process as one in which they are directly, actively, and responsibly involved. What happened to the student empowerment and voice in this educational process? Apparently, their 18+ years of life experience do not provide them the same “freedom” as that of professors to “explore novel and unpopular ideas”—in the students’ case, by challenging professors and each other in the process of learning, building knowledge, and seeking truth.

The report also says:

In an academic environment, charges of ‘intimidation’ are particularly difficult to adjudicate because the term itself is very capacious. Some students feel intimidated by a professor’s brilliance or rhetorical skill. Some choose not to speak in class for fear of being unable to match the instructor in the give and take of intellectual debate. Moreover, the conditions that one student finds intimidating are precisely those that motivate others to public argument, whatever the potential embarrassment. By contrast, instances in which a student is ridiculed, threatened or silenced for holding certain views contrary or inimical to those of the instructor constitute serious breaches of academic norms. They are distinct from the expression of uncongenial views, or the strong reactions such views can provoke, and from rhetorically combative but respectful modes of classroom interaction.

With full recognition, therefore, of the complexity of the task, we have attempted to discern which, if any, among the issues brought before us, has constituted a serious failure of pedagogical responsibility.

Whose pedagogical responsibility is the committee talking about? Students need to feel responsible for their own learning—both engaging in building knowledge with professors and fellow students and the management of the classroom environment—and not leave the education process as a “responsibility” of their professor. Professors are human beings who make mistakes, and who are also learning from their students. They are not factory machines that produce output for students to passively consume. And the classroom environment is one in which every participant has a role and every participant impacts what is being learned.

An article in The Columbia Spectator that discusses the report stated yesterday that:

…although it was a handful of undergraduates who initiated the debate—first by lodging complaints about certain MEALAC professors, and then, when they received little formal response from the University, by working with an outside group to create the film Columbia Unbecoming—the controversy in many ways now sits squarely on the Columbia faculty.

Again, we see that the general conclusion of this controversy is that Columbia’s faculty really needs to shape up and be more aware of “grievance procedures.” Come on, people! How about the students in the film and the MEALAC professors finally just sit down together and talk to each other face to face, human being to human being? (Especially since Columbia doesn’t seem to want anyone else to hear from the students. See David’s post.)

Schools: Columbia University