who gets the knowledge?

25 February 2009

This week I read an article about a professor who has recently retired from Columbia University, which sits in the middle of Harlem.  This particular professor approached teaching from the perspective of Plato’s “street philosophy” (as he calls it) and the more modern term, “community of learning.”  He felt that any educational institution should be an interactive part of the community, and as such, he welcomed the neighbourhood residents into his classroom anytime they wanted.  Without registration or fees, and much to the chagrin of the university administration.  He involved these folks in the class discussions, and he started a community forum in which they were able to further their exchange of ideas.

I’m greatly inspired by this educator and those like him, because the biggest thing I took away from my own experiences as an adult learner was that my take on things matters.  My window on the world is valid, and unless my ideas and interpretations get “out there” they won’t become a part of the community/world dialogue.

The story reminded me of a lady that used to ride her bike around Windsor around the time I was attending the University of Windsor which, similarly, resides in one of the city’s “have not” neighbourhoods – the notorious “west end.”   I’m not sure what her particular ‘situation’ was – she didn’t really appear destitute, but she was always riding on that bike with its large front basket, like those designed for newspaper carriers.  And she was always looking for all she was worth like she had somewhere to be, toting around numerous plastic shopping bags full of who knows what in that giant square basket.

One year, the bike riding lady took to sitting in on some of my English classes.  She would sit right in the front row and pull out a handful of loose leaf paper from a plastic shopping bag and spend the whole class taking notes.  One day she sat beside me and a couple of times I looked over at her notes to see what they said.  Her light and measured scrawl left bits and crumbs of the professor’s lecture, as if she were just catching words as he released them and getting the ones she managed to secure down on the page.  Each line of the loose leaf was filled to capacity, and then she would turn the page over.  At the time I thought she was probably only taking notes to make herself blend in, and I thought that was too bad because she would probably get much more out of the experience if she just sat and listened, rather than trying to hide by taking notes that didn’t say anything.

One time at the start of a new semester, she arrived on the first day and this time she asked the professor if she could sit in.  Maybe this time she thought if she had his blessing, she could just sit and listen.  But he said no.  He said the seats were limited, and they had to be reserved for paying students.  I’d venture to say that a good percentage of the payers for those classroom seats were probably mommies and daddies whose little darlings would cease to populate those seats after a week or two in favour of a sleep-in or something else more fun than an English class.  Given that, I couldn’t understand what possible harm she could be in the classroom.  At least she wanted to be there; and even if it was just to keep warm, it sure beat lots of other places she might otherwise find to keep warm.

Whatever his reasons, this professor certainly seemed to reinforce the notion that university (i.e. knowledge) is for the paying elite, not meant to accommodate the likes of the community in which it sits.

Today I’m wondering what this lady might have got out of the class if she were encouraged to not only sit there, but to listen and to offer her own take on the literature in the discussions.  More importantly, I wonder what the students, even the professor, might have learned from her window on the world.

Read the article here.