Teaching in and as a society

Professor Geo Quinot is clear that academic institutions should increase collaboration in teaching and learning in order to tackle complex social problems.

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

The age-old saying, “it takes a village to raise a child”, has been attributed to various African cultures and was made internationally popular by Hillary Rodham Clinton as the title of her 1996 book, It Takes a Village: and Other Lessons Children Teach Us. In my view, it can just as easily be applied to the university context. At its core, the proverb brings home the fundamental role that collaboration plays in developing young minds. As such, one would think that it would be an easy fit as a leitmotif for (higher) education. Unfortunately, this is not the case at many universities today. Rather than collaboration, university education is today characterised by competition. The traditional liberal conception of the university and the more recent increased neoliberalising of higher education, evident in the sharp rise in managerialism that any university lecturer experiences on a daily basis today, have cemented a highly individualistic and with it, competitive, paradigm of teaching and learning in higher education.

In my view, such an approach to teaching and learning is not a good fit for universities wanting to prepare graduates to tackle the pressing issues of our time – issues that are increasingly of the wicked kind: think of climate change, poverty, increasing levels of inequality, energy crises, global pandemics etc. The challenges that today’s graduates will face are unique, complex social problems with many interdependent factors that are themselves symptoms of other problems, that are ill-defined, with no way of knowing that a response is final or how to test a response and no solution, only ways of managing the problem with each response having significant implications. That is, truly wicked problems. It will be highly naïve, and in some ways quite dangerous, to think that we can deliver graduates that will make meaningful contributions to society in the future based on highly individualistic and competitive approaches. What the major challenges facing us today call for is thought leaders that are comfortable and able to move across and beyond the strict confines of narrow disciplinary contexts and individual effort. Their paradigm should be to draw on a vast range of fields and expertise in collaboration with others, doing the same, in order to formulate responses that can match the complexity of the challenges at hand.

The need for such a collaborative approach is, however, not only of an instrumental nature. We do not only need to adopt a collaborative approach to teaching and learning in order to produce graduates that can adequately serve society’s interests in future. We also need to adopt a more collaborative approach in order to reinstate a more humane focus in higher education. As Kathleen Lynch (2010:55) has accurately noted, the neoliberal approach to higher education that has prioritised individualism and competition has produced among students (and lecturers) ‘a deep alienation in the experience of constantly living to perform, particularly when the performance is experienced as being of questionable educational and scholarly worth’. We thus need to embrace a collaborative approach in order to foster society through teaching and learning.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

All of this is not to suggest that there is no need for competition and a focus on the individual. Individual thought and competition of ideas remain important characteristics of a critical attitude, which is in my view essential for a healthy, democratic and prosperous society. But a healthy competition of ideas need not be equated with the marketplace of ideas as epitomised by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s remarks a century ago in the US Supreme Court case of Abrams v. United States (250 U.S. 616 (1919)), where he spoke of free speech in terms of the “free trade in ideas”, stating that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market”. This equation of a competition of ideas with the marketplace of ideas carries a particular ideological slant, which need not be accepted in order to endorse the notion of a competition of ideas. As Sparrow and Goodin (2001:45) have persuasively shown, alternative metaphors, such as their “garden of ideas”, may provide a conception of the competition of ideas that is not market-based. Their conception recognises the importance of the competition of ideas within a contextual setting that simultaneously recognises the importance of the interdependence and interaction of various dimensions of the ecosystem within which ideas flourish or wither. Their metaphor is thus one that comfortably accommodates both competition and collaboration.

The point is simply that we must shift our focus in teaching and learning towards greater collaboration. In Nel Noddings’ (2012:777) words, “in the 21st century … recognition of our global interdependence and a commitment to cooperation must replace the 20th-century emphasis on competition”.

A more collaborative approach to higher education requires us to critically engage with a number of characteristics of teaching and learning that are typical at universities today. Consider the typical approach to curriculum for example. I am not sure that studying a distinct field within a distinct module within a distinct predefined programme by an individual student from entry to exit can necessarily deliver the type of collaborative learning that I have in mind. I think we will achieve greater collaborative success if we were to adopt a more flexible and fluid curriculum design. This should allow for much greater freedom for students to move between disciplines and combine learning from vastly different areas around their own interests rather than a rigid, predefined set of courses that we consider essential for them to master in order to pursue a career we have predefined.

Another area to consider is that of outcomes. Our paradigm of outcomes as the drivers of teaching-learning practice today is highly individualistic – it is aimed at describing what the individual student is capable of, mostly in isolation from the social context within which the learning is placed. We should critically engage with our formulation of outcomes to pursue more collaborative aims as the desired results of teaching and learning. Transferring (some of) the control over what the learning outcomes of a particular course of study should be to the learner, with reference to insights from care ethics regarding the need to respond to the real developmental or education needs of the learners as opposed to assumed needs (Noddings, 2012: 771) and with reference to functionings within Sen’s (1999:75) capabilities approach, may be fruitful starting points in shifting outcomes in a more collaborative direction.

If universities are going to continue being important institutions in society in the 21st century, they will have to ensure that their teaching-learning endeavours are anchored within their societies. This requires a conceptualisation of higher education teaching and learning as both reflecting and modelling society. We must teach both in and as a society.

Prof. Geo Quinot

Department of Public Law, STELLENBOSCH UNIVERSITY &

Clinton, H.R. (1996) It Takes a Village: and Other Lessons Children Teach Us (New York: Simon & Schuster).

Lynch, K. (2010) Carelessness: A Hidden Doxa of Higher Education, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 9:1, 54–67.

Noddings, N. (2012) The caring relation in teaching, Oxford Review of Education, 38:6, 771-781.

Sen, A. (1999) Development as Freedom (Oxford: OUP).

Sparrow, R. & Goodin, R.E. (2001) The competition of ideas: Market or garden?, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 4:2, 45-58.

by Laylaa Motola
Meme by Laylaa Motola

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