An argument for the isolated classroom

Over the last several years, there have been many efforts to open up the classroom, through open resources, connections across schools and countries, and open teaching. Much openness has been enabled by web technologies. There is also a push, particularly among educators whose work I respect the most,  to try to create more inclusive spaces, by acknowledging and even adopting alternative perspectives. A laudable effort to make both pedagogy and content more inclusive, the fervor with which such programs are adopted is beginning to unnerve me. Empowering students to learn does not necessarily mean active engagement with the trends of the day.

studyingI would like to instead argue for the classroom as a place apart from the world and its angst, its frenzy, its push for social justice or conservative tradition. All of those, and much more, should be discussed, of course, in an academic way. There’s a reason the word “academic” sometimes means “not directly applicable”. Whether it’s one-on-one tutorials at university, or monks studying in cloisters, or Virginia Woolf’s own room, there has always been a necessity to isolate oneself somewhat in order to think. I would like the classroom to be a place where one can think.

In the learning environments we create, whether in a classroom or online, we should strive for neutral space, not full expression of multiple levels of identity politics, social agendas, and group think. Despite the enthusiasm for crowd-sourcing knowledge, for the belief that people in groups are smarter than individuals, the experience of learning through exposure to ideas remains deeply personal. We all bring to that experience our own dreams, ambitions, personality, socio-economic status, career challenges, social inequalities and identity. If they dominate our thought process instead of inform our learning, then what’s taken in cannot change the mind, or change the person. And the point of education should be to create an educated person, not just stuff that person’s mind with facts nor affirm his/her pre-existing perspective or prejudices.

We cannot expect people to take their griefs, fears, and resentments and “check them at the door”. But we can create environments where the focus is on the work, whatever the academic discipline. We can best ensure that all students, regardless of their politic views, social resentments, or economic challenges, can speak by pushing no other agenda than free speech and respect. We can question material, question biases of all kinds within the outpourings of the human mind, only through establishing a neutral ground on which to examine them.

Drawing by Radio

First in what I hope will be a series on distance education before 1990.


Originally from Dr Chris Mullen’s website, this is undated. WIBO was in Indiana from 1927 to 1933, broadcasting for Chicago, when it was renamed, so this could be quite early.

[Update: And it was. After contacting Dr Mullen, who told me it was probably a feature from Popular Mechanics (which later became the foundation of an artwork by one of his colleagues), I found it in Google Books. I’m always telling my students citation is important: Popular Mechanics, December 1932, p. 918.]