The University's Failure | Learning Models | The Authority Complex | Imperialism | Healthy Learning Groups

III. The Authority Complex


The Failure of the University

        To put the matter simply, the university does not equip us with the tools to begin to solve the critical social problems of our time. It does not produce the knowledge we need: designed to serve corporate power, its sociology and political science have not informed us usefully. It does not instill the skills we need: its graduates, taken all together, do not know how to control their government in a way that ensures the satisfaction of their needs within a healthy society. Indeed, few of them seem to have the sense that government is a thing to be controlled.

        I don't mean to say that the university produces no useful knowledge and skills. But an historical judgment is clearly being made upon our educational system: too little, too slow.

What Is the University's Function?

        Many good people, even some who recognize that we are flirting with genocide at home and abroad, still feel that the university should not serve as a tool to make the tools to solve our society's problems. They do not reply directly to the fact that our society has no other institution that fills this function. But they argue that the university's basic purpose is quite different: to preserve and transmit the intellectual heritage of our culture, and to train new workers in those vineyards. If you want results, go somewhere else.

        Unfortunately, that ideal of the university was formed in an earlier, ivy era, when higher education served narrowly to train a narrow elite in a narrow spectrum of skills. Now it is the morning after a night of change in the Groves of Academe, and we are suffering from a cultural hangover. Suddenly America has become a technological culture deep into an experiment in universal liberal higher education. In this new time the university is a new institution, whose nature is hidden under the rhetorical cloak of an old purpose.

        Those who try from scratch to analyze its present function find that it trains people in the skills a technological culture finds most immediately useful under a capitalist economy. Since the educational system is the society's central socializing mechanism, the university also functions as the last main segment of this mechanism, imparting a crucial conditioning to those it processes.

        Beyond this, there is little useful discussion of what the university's function ought to be, or might be; of whether it serves its present functions well, or should serve them quite differently. We do not know what the institution is good for. All we know is that almost all of the young of the culture's main class spend a crucial part of their development within its context, and that, if education is the process that gives people the ability to meet their individual and social needs, then our education is not only inadequate, but disastrously so.

The University Fails on the Personal Level Too

        On the personal level the disaster is more diffuse and less dramatic than on the social level, but no less massive. If you take our literature seriously as a barometer to the inner weathers of America, you will read that we mostly lead lives of uncertain frustration, vaguely and powerfully unsatisfied, not knowing why or how to go about changing. All the other guides to our condition, from the literature of social psychology through divorce statistics to the Reader's Digest tests, confirm this. This is your secret nightmare, if you are young, this sense of emptiness -- and with good reason, for those instruments measure truly.

        Is it appropriate, in a serious discussion of the function of the university, to include the topics of 2 a.m. bull sessions in the dorm? It sure is. For the university is an institution that embraces and penetrates our entire lives for a period, and so it has many aspects. Outside the classroom, but still in school, we speak and try to learn about the matters that are most important to us in our full personhood. Later, looking back on that constant delicate web of conversation, which forms what we might call our nighttime university, we recognize its importance and place it more accurately as part of our university education.

        The tragedy is that we carry on that conversation so badly -- though we seldom realize this, having few standards of comparison. We rarely connect this dimly-grasped failure with our powerful sense of unsatisfaction. Nor do we realize how strongly the conversation of the nighttime university is influenced by what goes on in the daytime university. All that is clear is that the university's failure to provide us with the tools to meet our needs is much the same on the personal as on the social level. We have little sense of control over ourselves or our contexts; and we are not much good at talking with ourselves or each other. And all this is another sort of death.

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Two Models of Learning

        Against this background, I want to talk about learning: what it is, why we're not very good at it, and how to begin getting better. I want to talk at the same time about social change. So let me suggest a useful way of thinking about the connection between these two.

Learning and Social Change

        How do we measure learning? By changes in behavior. Whether we are declining Spanish verbs or creating a nonviolent society, this seems to be a useful description. And if we extend this to say that we are what we do, then changed behavior is equivalent to changed identity. So it makes sense to speak of learning, behavioral change, and identity change as alternate names for the same human process.

         These terms are interchangeable on the social level also. To say that a society, or an institution, learns is to say that its sub-institutions and processes behave differently; which is to say, in turn, that its identity changes, since this identity lies in the actions of its parts upon its persons. When this change is great enough, it is called a revolution. Later I will indicate a sense in which all learning, both personal and social, is revolutionary, and draw from this some conclusions about how to go about helping people and societies to learn.

Conjugate Levels of Learning

        For the moment, I am concerned with the intimate connection between the two levels of learning, the individual and the social. Its importance is clear. We who numb ourselves to inner lives which we cannot control are also we who cannot feel the foreign flesh that chars beneath our napalm, or the pain that swells to riot bursting in our black ghettos.

        The connection lies in the fact that the "individual" and the "social" are merely different perspectives on a single human complex. They are not separate but conjugate, in the sense that each prepares the shape of the other and carries this shape within itself. (The "personal" and the "cultural," the "private" and the "public" are parallel pairs of conjugate perspectives.) It makes sense, then, to say that individual learning and social change are two faces of a single coin. And it is not surprising that the skills of the learner are essentially the skills of the society that is able to learn; that the problems involved in changing private behavior mirror those involved in changing public behavior; or that the processes whereby individuals and cultures reconstruct their identities are closely similar.

        Given all this, I think there is power in talking abstractly about the skills of learning and the problems of building change-environments. And I hope it will not seem disconcerting if the talk flashes back and forth between the personal and social levels of learning, or between different descriptions of the process of change. For it is all one thing.

The Skills of Autonomous Learning (1)

        What is a good learner? It seems useful to think of him as someone with a certain set of skills. He knows how to formulate problems. He can identify the relevant resources, of information or whatever, that are available in his environment. He is able to choose or create procedures and to evaluate his results. Beyond this, there is a set of higher skills, which we might call "meta-skills." Stated very loosely, they include the ability to know what he wants (or needs) to learn; the ability to see clearly the process of his learning; and the ability to interact with others to help learn these meta-skills. Out of all this, he is able to create useful knowledge. Let us call him an autonomous learner, for he directs himself.

        These skills and meta-skills are somehow natural: little children are wizards at accomplishing useful learning. And if older children and their institutions were as skilled, we would be less involved with death than we are. The problem, I think, is that we construct environments that stunt and warp the development of these skills.

Authority-Centered Learning

        Consider the university. By its very nature, it forms an environment that inhibits the development of autonomous learners. For teaching, in higher education, is generally taken to mean a particular way of conveying information that is already known. It is based on the assumption that the student must have a certain quantity of knowledge before he can question what is known or create new knowledge. (His arrival at graduate status is usually accepted as minimum preparation.) And so the creation of knowledge, usually conceived of as either "research" or "scholarship, " becomes an expert's job. The teacher's task is to transmit it: the student's task is to learn it.

         In this model of education, problems are identified for the student by authorities ("experts") who also define and supply problem-solving approaches. Relevant information is labeled as such by authorities: and methods and results are evaluated by them, in comparison with known solutions.

        This model was more or less suited to the university's hallowed nominal purpose, the transmission of the culture's intellectual heritage. It served (and still somewhat serves) to train scholars in the ordering, preservation, and presentation of established knowledge.

        The university's present main function is quite different; but this model of education still persists. It trains people in the styles of technical expertise and prepares them for pre-established social and technical roles. The man educated in this model makes himself useful in immediate, limited, and necessary ways. He is prepared to deal with problems whose nature is well defined, which can be approached from within already-formalized disciplines or styles of thought. And training in this model generates a particular notion of the nature of useful change: it is conceived of as a linear. continuous advance within the existing organizations of knowledge, technology, and society. It is explicitly not revolutionary.

        Surely well-defined problems must be dealt with, and linear advance should be effected whenever it is appropriate. And surely any notion of education must include some version of expertise, which is to say some development of the indispensable sense of what it is to "know in depth." But the authority-centered model at best equips its products to function well within the bounds of a discipline of some sort. The trouble is that all real human problems are transdisciplinary. Even designing a building requires the integration of a whole spectrum of skills, of which structural engineering is perhaps the least important. And the increasing unlivability of our cities testifies to how poorly we accomplish even this.

Its Failures

        Authority-centered education is not particularly well suited to the university's present function of servicing a technological society. Not only are its products unable to cope well with the problems such a society generates -- the inner problems, the social problems, the foreign problems -- they are also less and less well prepared for those social and technical roles for which university education supposedly is designed.

        There are two reasons for the growing failure of the authority-centered learning system to satisfy even its own goals. One is that the kinds of work it trains for are becoming more and more trans-disciplinary. The other is that the nature of the society's jobs and roles is changing fundamentally. The increasing rapidity of social, technological, and intellectual change means that the traditional notion of a job as involving the application of fixed kinds of knowledge to fixed problems is becoming unreasonable. (This is reflected in a limited but striking way in some fields of engineering, in which a graduate's knowledge is outmoded within five years, unless he undergoes an almost continuous retraining.) Similarly, the social and personal roles people play are no longer fixed, defining rigid adulthoods, but are becoming fluid, in ever-more-rapid transformation.

Autonomous Learning Is Better

        Taken together, these trends suggest an appropriate set of skills: those of the learner who must constantly be redefining and re-creating his competence to deal with problems that cannot be isolated from the social environment in such a way as to become targets for expertise attacks. He must develop information and resources from the entire social environment. He must define the problems themselves and generate relevant approaches to them. He is concerned not with verifying established truths, but with a social process involving people's attitudes, irreconcilably conflicting information, and a search for imperfect but viable solutions with action consequences. Hence, he must be able to establish his own criteria for success.

        These skills are necessary not only to solve social problems, but also to direct personal learning as a continuous process of change to satisfy one's individual goals and needs. They are, in short, the skills of the autonomous learner. Ironically, they are precisely the skills that are inhibited by authority-centered learning, and by the system of education based on this model. So it makes sense to look at the pervasiveness of authority-centered learning before turning to the question of how we create healthy learning and change.

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The Authority Complex

        How to create limits to the expression of energy is always a problem. Ideally, the limits are flexibly generated from within, allowing the energy as much freedom as possible. More generally, they are imposed from without. We have a particular style of doing this here in America, which I call the Authority Complex.

In the University

        It is visible throughout the university and forms one of the great unities of college life. Advisers police permissible study lists. Dorm mothers police permissible hours and clothing and sex. Deans police permissible political activity. Professors police permissible readings and methods of learning. In each case, the justification is, "for your own good"; and the effect is to inhibit autonomous adulthood. One consequence is that people in college look, think, and act alarmingly alike. If the measure of the existence of freedom is a rich diversity of behavior, it would seem that the Authority Complex inhibits freedom as well.

In Our Government

        The Authority Complex permeates our culture. That we call Korea and Vietnam "police actions" and have proudly named ourselves "Policemen to the World" is not just a coincidence of phrasing. Nor is it surprising that our main response to the crescendoing black problem is to beef up police forces with men and equipment. I am choosing only the most immediate and dramatic examples, but everywhere the Authority Complex is busy setting limits on other people's energies. Again it is "for their own good." Being exploited and ruled by dictators is better than being Communist; the government will solve the "black problem," give it time and don't listen to the militants.

        Here again, the Authority Complex enforces a narrow range of behavior. Governments must not change outside the narrow spectrum of what we consider politically permissible, or they will be toppled by the CIA or bombers. Negroes will act like proper niggers, or be shot in the stomach like Huey Newton or jailed like LeRoi Jones. And here again, the other side of the coin is freedom. It is no accident that most of the world sees America as setting itself against a black liberation struggle at home and against struggles for national liberation at scores of places across the globe. Freedom and the Kindly Kop seem somehow incompatible.

Mixed with Punishment and with Children

        Some people will draw back at this point: not, I hope, because I display my political sympathies, but because I may seem overhasty in confusing the notions of Authority and Cop. Please come back, we are all in this together. We inhabit a culture that at all its levels has the matter of authority frightfully mixed up with punishment and reward; and that everywhere covers this structural mess with a pastel paint job of good intentions. Benevolently the dean reprimands, the dorm mother locks in, and the professor, inescapably the living arm of the machine of grades and degrees, casts shadows of stronger punishments indeed with every gesture. And, of course, the ghettos and Vietnam, with their different flames, are living Hells, in the sense of being places where sin is punished while Heaven is promised.

        We seem unable to construct social or educational authority not embedded in a punitive framework. Our motto might well be, "Eat your carrots like a good boy, or Papa spank." For the Authority Complex extends to the deepest and most intimate levels. As children trying to create identities -- which is to say, learning to set limits on the expression of our energies -- we generally find parental authority expressed in a style that coerces rather than evokes appropriate behavior from us. With parenthood as with government, this coercion is mostly slow and undramatic. The structure and dispensation of punishments and rewards to children is almost entirely unconscious and unseen, carried out in the subtle language of gesture and inflection. Spankings are the rare Vietnams of the cultural imperialism that dominates the world of the nuclear family.

        The true motives of the family, like those of our foreign policy, are not simply benevolent. In each the Authority Complex operates in the interests of Power, to preserve and transmit an established order.

Confronting Freedom and in Bed

        One index to the Authority Complex's pervasiveness is the thirty-year controversy over Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care. The book's important feature is that it suggests, however partially, a way to help a child learn to develop self-directed behavior, and thus firmly breaks with the basic American model of child-rearing. (This break is extended much more radically in A. S. Neill's book Summerhill.)

        Lately, critics have been laying all sorts of unwanted social babies on Spock's doorstep, claiming that his book and its odd notions are responsible for hippies, lawlessness, sit-ins, pacifism, and civil disorders. And I think this is true, at least in a partial sense. For the 20 million copies of Spock that were consumed in the raising of those still under thirty have surely helped to shape our somewhat different notion of freedom.

        Freedom is the tonic in the chord of change our young generations sound. Our visible motion and change -- in educational reform, in political action, in the domain of private behavior -- is all toward increased freedom. What is astounding is the consistency of the response this motion draws. At Berkeley during the FSM, when we thought we were fighting for political rights and to affirm a new community, the campus administration kept saying: It's a problem of Authority. The radical Right declares that rock music breaks down our obedience to Authority. Narcotics officers, the President, grammar school teachers, and bewildered parents of twelve-year-old teenyboppers are chanting in a growing frantic chorus: The kids ain't got any respect. And they are right. For in America, Authority, given its common style, becomes increasingly incapable of commanding respect from the young for any reason save the fear on which it is ultimately based.

        The age at which this conflict surfaces grows steadily younger. Its arenas become more varied and more intimate. The problems of freedom and learning characteristically associated with the Authority Complex dominate the parent-child relationship in our culture, despite recent modest shifts of social behavior. And the Authority Complex thrusts its stick into the bed as well as into the cradle. Its peculiar pattern of fixed roles embedded in a punitive framework, garlanded by confusions of good will and destructive self-interest, seems to characterize our marriages as well, which, like private minor universities, are heavy with unmet human needs and mute pain.

Like, Everywhere

        A human culture is a single and consistent entity. The personal and the social, the individual and the public -- each bears all the others' imprints; they fit together. So: Papa Cop, meet Teacher Cop. World Cop, meet Lover Cop. You are the same image and process in different clothing. The Authority Complex is only one of our culture's key metaphors, but it is strong and deeply entrenched. And as far as learning and social change go, it is surely the most important.

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Imperialism as a Guide to How
the Authority Complex Inhibits Healthy Learning

        We can understand the workings of the Authority Complex at home and in school by considering its operation on the largest social scale. Here it appears as an imperialism exercised over underdeveloped countries with rich natural resources. Clearly, the skills needed for self-directed learning in these countries are severely crippled. They do not define their own problems: they are told, for example, that their need is to earn a degree in anticommunism. They do not choose and develop their own resources: we kept Cuba a monocrop sugar economy for decades, while her peasants waited like unread books to be used for her good. They do not formulate their own procedures: our foreign aid comes accompanied by lesson plans and teaching assistants generated in American universities. And certainly they do not evaluate their own results: the CIA and the Seventh Fleet are merely the crudest of our grading systems.

Characteristics of the Authority Complex

        Several features characterize our stance as Teacher-to-the-World. Our authority is imposed, not because of its genuine relevance and usefulness to the needs of those we exploit, but because we choose to impose it as an extension of what we see as our role and our needs. It is coercive, backed up by punitive force. It displays itself in hierarchical, top-down structures of power, which are imitated throughout its domain: we are top dog, and that we wind up supporting dictators or juntas in many of the countries we exploit is no coincidence. Always it controls change to preserve the status-quo of power relationships. Always it is accompanied by a cultural imperialism, which is to say that our impact extends to all levels of the exploited society. Slowly the pressure, not so much of our presence as of the way we exert it, begins to affect social structure and entertainments, educational systems and marriage, to press them into our image. (Japan is a fair example.)

It Stunts the Autonomous Learning Skills

        There are two important things to say about the way our style of authority in the international arena inhibits social change. The first is that it stunts the development of autonomous learning skills by pre-empting them itself rather than leaving them to the learner. The second is best expressed by a classical characterization of imperialism. A nation imposes an order on another nation for the sake of its own interests. These interests are not limited to expressing its own ordering principles (in the case of capitalist. imperialism, according to Fortune magazine, these are the need for expansion and the thirst for profit and other forms of power); they also, and more importantly, include the preservation of its ordering principles. To be blunt about it: America feels that if she does not shape the world after her own image, it will not only shape itself, and thus constrict her expression, but her own nature will have to change in response. The survival of an order is at stake.

It Imposes Order for Its Own Sake

        To impose order for the sake of preserving that very order is the deepest motive of the Authority Complex, and the one most actively hostile to the natural development of order in the system imposed upon. The Authority Complex always somehow comes on defensive, as if it had something to lose. Every high school teacher I know complains that he or she spends a major portion of energy simply maintaining the role of teacher as authority figure, rather than helping the students meet their needs. (This expenditure shows up less obviously in upper-middle-class schools, because kids there are trained to respond to displays of expertise rather than to shouts as authority symbols.) The parallel in the case of black and white poor people is clear. Though the OEO programs were designed to include "maximum feasible participation of the poor," in fact almost all have been completely controlled by local governments, with no representation of those affected. Why? Because to share control would have resulted in new power bases developing among the poor; and the local power structures would have changed as a result. The most poignant example, however, is probably that of the pot laws. Millions of kids all over the country know that there's nothing wrong with pot. So the key argument remaining to Responsible Citizens who have read enough to realize this is, that kids should not smoke it anyway, because to smoke it breeds disrespect for the Law. Dig that: obey the order simply for the sake of preserving it!

It Paralyzes the Meta-Skills of Learning

        Colonial imperialism offers one last insight into the mechanics of how the Authority Complex snarls healthy learning. The imposition of an external order for the sake of maintaining that order is actively hostile to the development of new orders or identities, not simply because the learning skills are pre-empted, but because the meta-skills of change become violently distorted.

        Recall them. They include being able to find out what you need or want to become or learn, and being sensitive to your natural and personal process of learning or change. But when a country's goals are formed largely by the vision of another country, and when its own development and consciousness are artificially distorted to ensure service to this vision, healthy thought about "where next?" and "how?" becomes impossible. The strongest response to these questions tends to be, "not there!" and "not that way!" Most of the energy that would be devoted to them is absorbed in a paralyzed and paralyzing stand-off. It is a sad fact that exploitation does not generate an efficient opposition.

        Let me leave you to fill in the parallel with the student taking his objective-choice final exam in the Zoology I requirement, while I go on to the third meta-skill of learning: being able to interact with others to help learn what your learning is and what you want to learn. Though I speak of this process as a conversation, the key conversation of learning, it is not limited to words, on either the social or personal levels.

It Arbitrarily Limits the Conversation

        It is not generally realized that Socrates, who knew a lot about learning, was an anti-imperialist. But he was, for he laid down one strong precept: Follow the conversation where it leads. Even his own pupil Plato betrayed him, by those dialogues that were not only beautiful and well-intentioned but also rigged. This says something about how hard you have to work to keep a healthy learning scene going.

        Follow the conversation about process and goals where it leads. Here at last we come to the critical problem with the Authority Complex: Its presence in a learning environment hopelessly scrambles the conversation on which the health of the learning so intimately and totally depends. In the terms of colonial imperialism, to impose an external order (for the sake of preserving it) means that the social conversation going on in the subject nation is fatally and arbitrarily limited. It proceeds in a closed universe of possibility. whose boundaries are dictated not by the conversation's internal logics but by the requirement that the structure and power relationships of the present Authority be preserved. Thus it is everywhere blocked by artificial and arbitrary limits and cannot proceed freely.

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A Model of a Healthy Learning Group (2)

        The name of the new game we are trying to learn to play is "freedom." We are in desperate need of new ways and new institutions to guide our behavior: individually and socially, we need desperately to learn.

        Yet our culture's central failure is its inability to help its people and itself learn how to learn. This failure is rooted so deeply and broadly in the culture's identity that to remedy it will involve no less than passing on to another culture. Rather than learn to change our culture, we must change our culture to learn. It is a bootstrap operation; I do not know if it is possible. All I know is that some people are trying to learn how to begin, and trying to define a science of beginning.

        So begin with the notion of the self-directed learner, who is able to change his behavior to meet his needs and thus has learned how to learn. What he does is create knowledge: he creates knowledge appropriate to his context.

Authority-Centered Learning Again

        Our current model of education views knowledge as something that has an existence apart from its learner or knower. I think this is not knowledge, but data, and I mean this of matters as diverse as Democracy and the Tychonoff Product Theorem of mathematics. Each must in some essential sense be re-created from raw materials before it becomes useful knowledge in the knower.

        But given our current notion of knowledge, our model of education is knowledge-centered, in the sense that it assigns roles to its participants on the basis of their relation to this knowledge. The expert makes it, the teacher owns and transmits it, the pupil absorbs it. In any given learning group, these roles are assigned relative permanence. Given his expertise, his bankroll of knowledge of a certain subject, the teacher becomes the authority figure of a class, and all authority becomes permanently vested in him. We call this "role-defined authority"; and it does bad things to autonomous learning, partly because it almost always turns out to evoke the Authority Complex.

        This is true even when the "teacher" is not embedded in a system of tests and grades and similar punishments. We know only one way of relating to authority in this culture, and our expectations tend to create a punitive framework, whether or not authority has a whip in its hand. (This is one of the main stumbling blocks in creating groups with more flexible patterns of authority.) Considering teachers and students generally, it seems to me that the least part of the punishment/reward framework running through their relationship, in class and out, is expressed formally, as in graded tests. Most occurs in a generally wordless dialogue of approval, reproof, glance, and gesture, in which both parties participate equally. I was simply amazed, in the experimental program in which I taught, at seeing what happened to kids I normally would have considered to be cardboard C students. When they couldn't find someone to play that game with them and help them reassure themselves that they were C students, they gave up the role and became significantly more independent and creative.

A Field Theory of Learning

        Suppose we start, instead, with the behavioral view of knowledge as that which a learner creates, and learning as the evolution of appropriate responses in a context. Then it seems more useful to configure the roles of expert-teacher-pupil back into a single field situation and try to understand what does and should go on in the field in which the learner is embedded. To begin with, the field clearly must be viewed from his perspective. And from this perspective, for someone simply to hang knowledge up in the air, as by a lecture, and expect the learner to incorporate it into his personal patterns of thought and behavior seems unrealistic and inefficient. Is this to define teaching? For the learner, the "teacher,” or rather, the "leader," instead becomes whoever or whatever acts on his environment, the field situation, so as to draw him into new and appropriate behavior.

        Two things are important about the idea of a learning field. All the elements of the field are seen as being active -- each contributes to producing a change-inducing (or -retarding) climate or field. And each is necessarily changed by any change in the field, including those it initiates. This seems both a more accurate and a more worthy model than the current one, in which change is largely thought of as the result of action-at-a-distance, originating from a static central source, which does not change in the process (the teacher, the administration, the departmental structure).

        This model is more useful for making change than the current one, which regards students as neutral, irrelevant, or even hostile elements as far as producing a learning field goes. In the present system, by far the largest single teaching resource in the daytime university -- the students themselves  -- goes almost completely unutilized. And when students are used, it is with the explicit title of "apprentice teacher," or “teaching assistant,” as if they had somehow to become a different species to be able to share their knowledge.

        It is worthwhile to view the dynamics of institutional change in terms of field theory. Here again, in the university, students are traditionally viewed as neutral, irrelevant, or hostile to the process of change: like colonials in an imperialist empire, or niggers in the fields and ghettos. As in these places, in the university too this view is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain as revolt and repression proceed.

        But students are, in fact, active agents of change. There are precious few schools where significant change is underway, and at most of these the students have initiated it. In the institutional landscape and the classroom, we are having to think anew about agents of change.

A New Style of Leadership/Authority

        Field theory helps us conceive a fundamental shift in the pattern of authority or in the style of leadership, if we think of authority as being vested at each moment in whoever is the active agent of change in a group's learning field.

        In a group context, learning displays itself in the ability to go on: to use an awareness of the group and individual styles of learning and of the emerging nature of a problem, to produce an appropriate behavior -- which in turn changes the group's learning field. The leaner, in going on consciously, shapes the direction of the group's development. Alternately put. the learner -- rather than the teacher -- is the group's leader. Thus the central problem in the design of learning groups becomes that of good leadership.

The Problems with a Familiar Style

        This requires a different notion of leadership from the one that forms the basis of contemporary teaching. Authority-centered learning models generate static and comprehensive rather than flexible and partial styles of leadership. A teacher's expertise in a knowledge area expands into a permanent and overall authority/leadership role for the whole learning context.

        Acceptance of leadership by role, rather than by appropriateness or quality, is bad training in itself. It stunts development of the skill of deciding how to use possible leadership resources and limits the options open in any working situation. Second, role-leadership is coupled with Yin paralysis, the permanent passive-and-receptive quality in the follower or pupil role, which directly conflicts with the active and aggressive attitude that is a crucial component of self-directed behavior change. Finally, such static handling of leadership seems to be coupled with serious problems of student motivation. The model "solves" this by bringing in a punishment/reward system to motivate learning, which bears no intrinsic relation to this punitive framework.

Qualities of a New Style

        Conversation is a flow of energies. In authority-centered learning, much of the authority's energy is devoted to establishing and preserving control: and most of the learner's energy is absorbed in dealing with or against the Authority Complex. In a free learning group, energy goes instead to developing a different style of authority. Freeing-authority is shared, democratic and flexible, rather than fixed in hierarchical roles. Its self-interest is always clear; its power is by example rather than by coercion: and it empowers rather than weakens those exposed to it. Its function is to help individuals and the group to discover and generate identities that satisfy their needs. It frees conversation to continually generate its own limits, from within.

        Usually the function of guiding a group's development, however badly, is called "teaching." But "teaching" and "learning" are alternate and interdependent descriptions of a single human process. And so learning, in our sense of leading, involves not only the creation of knowledge in the learner, but also the conjugate part of this process: the communication of thought and behavior to others in ways that enables it to be useful to them.

        Since in this model the creation and exposition of knowledge are inseparably intertwined, within the group education takes the form of a discourse. The group's process is a conversation, which moves wherever appropriate (remember what the Authority Complex does to that?). And if the conversation is at all successful, there is no need to bring in artificial exercises designed to test whether the learners have "mastered" certain information. For it is impossible for the learner to go on from the material if he does not have it at his disposal. The going on -- following the conversation where it leads -- is itself the test. It is being constantly conducted in the striving for a conversation that will involve each participant and develop his ability to lead the group. For this reason, the group's conversation will be constantly concerned not only with information about the problem being approached, but also with information about the patterns of learning and interaction and difficulty present in the group. And the most evident difference between this and the standard model is the new balance. We talk hardly at all about such matters in a normal class. But don't think we don't feel we need to. The single most persistent phenomenon you find in experiments in higher education -- within or without university walls -- is their turning inward upon themselves to become conversations about the nature of the learning process and group interaction. This emphasis is impossible in authority-centered learning, for to deal well with difficulties in process involves challenging the structure and control of the Authority Complex.

        Since the goal of each member is to be able to take on the group's leadership when appropriate, he wants to develop the ability not only to learn and present information, ordering principles, and basic assumptions, but also to facilitate the learning process for others by clarifying problems, unblocking difficulties, and so on. Clearly, this demands attention to a wider spectrum of skills than those usually involved in the roles of teacher and student. It requires a sense of the individual learning patterns of the group's members and a deep sensitivity to group dynamics, which is to say, to all the concerns that arise when you think how intimately we impinge upon each other in a group where people are changing. In fact, the spectrum of skills involved in this model is broad enough to suggest that good learning makes possible creative and appropriate action both within one's work and simultaneously upon the quality of one's life.

        In such a learning group, the ability to assume leadership is expanded by watching others lead, or, alternately, learning is catalyzed by watching others learn. This suggests that the best resource people arc advanced students who are capable of re-creating learning experiences they have only recently experienced; or even people skilled in this style of facilitating learning but not expert in the specific material being studied. It also suggests that the best way to help others learn may be by displaying the raw chunks of one's developing understanding, with all their sloppy edges dangling and all the ego-danger this involves. (People who have spent a long time actively playing Authority Complex roles generally find this quite difficult to do.) This model also assumes that the group is sensitive enough to its processes to discover what's hanging it up, and open enough to change dysfunctional behavior. The reward for this is a healthy conversation about learning, which can develop naturally once the meta-skills are freed by unscrambling the authority problem.

How to Make Them and Why They're Reasonable

        A learning group organized in this style begins as a set of students who have some idea of what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. They may decide to recruit more learners to fill out the group and, if needed, people to serve temporarily or permanently as knowledge resources -- for example, technical experts or group-process specialists. In any case, some core of people prepared by previous learning takes the lead at first, say by beginning to present the ordering principles of a body of knowledge. They direct their leadership and the group's work so as to invite the active participation of the others in affecting the directions of inquiry and study, and in providing additional knowledge, old and new.

        Two factors encourage a response to this invitation. First, the fact that the work is self-chosen is a powerful internal motivation; so is the opportunity to be genuinely instrumental in shaping the curriculum. This model takes seriously the notion that people will choose to learn what they are enabled to choose to learn. Second, each participant begins with a beachhead of leadership, which he can then expand, to provide the necessary fracturing of the initial core authority. For he is the authority at least on his own position in the learning field: on the state of his learning, on the group's ability to satisfy his needs, and on his ability to elicit appropriate behavior changes for others. And this authority becomes significant in a group centrally concerned with mutual participation in a field of mutual interaction, where it then provides a common denominator of leadership.

A Piece of Theory That Spins Around Love

        This brings us to the last essential element of this model, and I state it strongly: What you need is love. You just can't learn with people you don't care enough about to feel for in some essential way, like for them being who they are. This is a kind of caring that is not dramatic but that is indispensable. We are not very good at it, and it needs to be worked hard at to create the atmosphere of trust on which the successful functioning of a learning group largely depends.

        For it is critical that each member be perceived and perceive himself as learning and responsive, rather than as the player of a stereotyped role which rigidly limits the conversation of his growth, prisoning him in a closed universe of possibility. His exposure to good examples of behavior change, learning, on the part of others in the group may lead him to feel that the rules governing his behavior and the group's behavior have been expanded. That is to say, he may indeed have had his mind blown by an example, and his self-limiting set of expectations shaken. But there must still be an atmosphere of trust in the group for him then to be able to make a statement, a guess, a touch, or an attempt in the open space that that shaken fence of expectation may have left him.

        For the act of learning is always doubled by some genuine risk of genuine failure, even in mathematics, just as it is always a therapeutic attempt, in the sense of trying to satisfy a need. The act of learning is also always an act of freedom, in the sense of an attempt to move freely in an unstructured space, creating one's own structure and behavior. And you cannot move freely when you're hung up in satisfying other people's expectations. or when you feel you have something to lose. What is needed is a modicum of trust based on a willingness to let people be who they are, in order that they may be able to take genuine risks in a search for learning. There ain't much of that in the standard classroom. Maybe we can do better.




(1)   For a more thorough treatment of this model, see Roger Harrison and R. L. Hopkins. "The Design of Cross-Cultural Training: An Alternative to the University Model," Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 3, 1967. 431-460.

(2)   Much of this model is taken from a paper by Cynthia Nixon drawing on the thought of the organizers of the San Francisco State Experimental College. circa late 1966.


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