A different kind of democratization

In the democratic classroom, students and instructors learn from each other

When reading Maggie Liu’s article entitled “College admissions is no scam ­— just reflection of socioeconomic disparity” from the January 20 issue of The Tech, I got the impression that the writer, like many others before her, seems to be of the opinion that education, regardless of being superior or inferior, fundamentally shapes individuals rather than being in many respects shaped by them. College students, regardless of their prior education and social conditions can equally benefit when democracy is infused in the process of receiving and exchanging knowledge in and outside of the class rooms. Nowadays, when the issue of democracy and higher education is brought up, it usually alludes to extending social justice and providing access to higher education for those groups in society that are disadvantaged due to lingering discrimination based on color of skin or national origin, among others, or due to lack of financial means. Even though this is still an ongoing situation, institutions of higher education like Northeastern University have been taking measures to combat the issue by providing financial aid and promoting affirmative action and diversity. Ironically, these same measures are now being blamed for having lowered the standards of higher education. I, however, have a different take on having these two concepts, democracy and education. I believe they form a complementary rather than opposing or antithetical relationship.

The debate surrounding the infusion of democracy into the learning process has been around for some time even though the parameters of this evolving relationship concerning instructors, students and administration has yet to be clearly defined. The educator Paul R. Carr of Youngstown State University explains in his summer 2006 essay in Academic Exchange Quarterly, “Democracy is a highly desirable but contested concept in education. However, little is known about how current and future educators perceive, experience and relate to democracy, which could have a significant impact on how students learn about, and become involved in, civic engagement and democracy.” Apart from giving students access to the decision making process through forming students unions or being consulted concerning any development on campus that directly or indirectly impact the students population, college students nowadays are being given more say not only in terms of the education they receive, but in being an integral part of that education.

The democratization of higher education that I see taking shape has its start in redefining the relationship between instructors and students. It is no longer about someone with superior knowledge imparting it to an audience, but rather a relationship of equals who have mutual interest in sharing knowledge regardless of who is on the giving or the receiving end of that knowledge.

To put this simply, the more one teaches, the more one comes to the realization that education is fundamentally mutual. When students are given the opportunity to be engaged, the ensuing exchange becomes an outlet of intellectual energy that truly injects vitality into the issues at hand. Contrary to some educators’ views, today’s college students for the most part possess intelligence that is unique to their generation, which can be brought to the surface given the right approach and the atmosphere conducive to a more pluralistic education. Knowledge, particularly in the humanities, is not set in stone, therefore class input when given the opportunity to do so opens new horizons and consequently enriches the understanding of both students and teachers. Students’ participation in my case has been a vehicle for gaining further insight and consequently leads to a deeper understanding of the subjects being examined.

I would like to conclude with a saying by the well known Victorian author Thomas Carlyle that I believe may help lay the foundation for the democratization of imparting and receiving knowledge: “Every man is my superior, in that I may learn from him.” To which the equally well known New England philosopher of transcendentalism Ralph Waldo Emerson aptly added, “And every man is my inferior in that he may learn from me.”

Dr. Fathi El-Shihibi is a faculty member in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Northeastern University.