Thinking Inside the Box

By Steve Eskow
Editor, Hybrid vs. Virtual Issues

In the United States the box is often 20′ by 30′, 600 square feet. It is furnished with 30 tablet arm chairs that encourage the sitting students to write. In front of the box there may be a lectern, which encourages the standing instructor to say things which the students can write.

There are other boxes in the building. One is called the “lecture hall.” The “campus” is a collection of such boxes, boxes of different sizes and configurations which allow and encourage variations in the kind of speaking and writing that goes on within them.

Some of the boxes have the new communication technologies. It is the dream of innovating teachers and administrators and educational agencies that these new tools can “blend” with the old tools of talk and books and thus transform education.

Winston Churchill spoke of the impact of buildings – of the boxes – on the human character and disposition at least twice. The first time, in a speech before the English Architectural Association in 1924, he said: “There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.”

In 1943, after the Second World War had leveled many of the buildings that had shaped the English character and action, he asked that the Parliament building, destroyed by bombs, be rebuilt exactly as before. On that occasion he said:

“We shape our buildings and afterwards our building shape us.”

“Dispositions,” said Pierre Bourdieu, “. . . are revealed and fulfilled only in appropriate circumstances and in the relationship with a situation. They may therefore always remain in a virtual state, like a soldier’s courage in the absence of war. Each of them can manifest itself in different, even opposite, practices, depending on the situation.”

Or: the student who dozes in the lecture hall may come awake in a different milieu: a different “situation.”

“I cannot conclude,” says Bourdieu, “. . . without mentioning the most important but most invisible property of that place [the university] . . . namely scholastic enclosure. . . . Much has been said in celebration of it, about the privilege of that enclosed world, set apart from the vicissitudes of the real world . . . totally cut off from the adjacent communities. . . . This separate existence, together with the studious atmosphere, withdrawn from the hubbub of the world, helps to isolate professors and students from current events and from politics. . . . The effects of scholastic enclosure . . . inevitably favors an intellectualocentric distance from the world.”

Our students, then, who behave one way inside the “scholastic enclosure” may not reveal or develop other “dispositions” unless the settings of education change.

It is the buildings that now enclose instruction that are the boxes within which we must think.

Can we leave them?

2 Responses

  1. Steve poses an excellent question so well that it makes me rethink my own ideas about classrooms and campuses. I think back to my days as an undergraduate student at Caltech. Impossible quantities of knowledge were heaped on us daily. Incredible mental gymnastics were expected of us regularly. They offered no summer school because of their view that it would take three months to digest reasonably well the nine months of learning they threw at us.

    I love the new ideas of learning outside of a campus and of student-centered learning. Still, I think back to those days and what it would have been like to attempt the learning demanded of us without the “scholastic enclosure” and “distance from the world.” I’m not certain that I would have made it. I went on to graduate school in New York City, where I received my “worldly” education, and a good one it turned out to be as I roamed the streets of Manhattan and met every different sort of people. It wasn’t too late to learn.

    It’s not as though I was completely isolated from the events of the world as an undergraduate, I simply was not immersed in them — except for a senior class requiring reading the New York Times Week in Review each week.

    Is it wrong to focus on knowledge essential to your future and leave alone the names of various political leaders until you’ve mastered your craft? I walked into the Columbia University Chemistry Department armed with learning good enough to see me through my first year and to get grades that my fellow graduate students had to work hard to equal. I was able, as a result, to explore New York City and immerse myself in “the hubbub of the world.”

    Steve poses that great question at the end, “Can we leave them?” Of course we can. Should we? If we do, how shall we do it so that future students can have the benefits I had from a partial isolation from the “hubbub?” As young people, we have a lot of learning and maturing to do before we can make sense of the world’s hubbub. Will the new education of the future allow us to?

    • Harry, you ask:

      “Is it wrong to focus on knowledge essential to your future and leave alone the names of various political leaders until you’ve mastered your craft? ”

      Let’s look at the craft of politics and how it’s mastered.

      Here’s what John Henry Newman,the great theorist of liberal education, had to say on the subject:

      :”I cannot but think that statesmanship…is learned, not by books, but in certain centres of education..
      Parliament puts a clever man au courant with politics and affairs of state in a way surprising to himself…Words have a meaning now, and ideas a reality, such as they had not before…the Houses of Parliament and the atmosphere around them are a sort of University of politics…We cannot be without virtual Universities; a metropolis is such…”

      Now: you can lecture on Parliament–or Congress–in the lecture hall. I think you’ll agree that the experience is not the same.

      Bringing Parliament to the campus “de-situates” it and by necessity transforms the living experience into something else.

      The computer creates a new set of possibilities for bringing together experience–first hand encounter with Parliament or Congress–and book learning and dialogue and formal learning, organized and “disciplined” by an academic.

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