These observations are based on a 1985 essay by Alvaro d'Ors, Professor of Roman Law and Librarian at the University of Navarra, Spain ("The Professor", translated and published in The Intercollegiate Review, Spring 1999, pp. 30-38). They are offered in the hope that students who choose to attend Cornell College may learn to appreciate what it means to be a learner, or that being a student is not the acquisition of a credential that will lead to greater opportunities of employment.
It is often thought by those outside the system of education, and even by some students within the system itself, that education is a passive activity. The professor explains, clarifies and pronounces that which is true, and the student absorbs the professor's wisdom, regurgitating the acquired knowledge during the examinations. The better the student is able to reproduce the professor's ideas, the higher the grade. After absorbing enough information, the student earns a credential or academic degree. On this theory of education as an alimentary process, students take a risk if they disagree with the professor or even if they introduce their own opinions.
Professor d'Ors, and I, disagree. We distinguish between the role of the teacher
and the role of the learner. The teacher has authority, but no power*, while
the student has power, but no authority. That is, the student needs to recognize
that professors have the authority of being an expert in the field or fields
that they teach; indeed, that is why professors are paid to teach, and students
pay to learn.
The professor, on the other hand, must recognize that students have the power to decide what they wish to learn. No one can force a student to attend Cornell College or any other institution of higher education, and students at Cornell College can not be forced to take a subject that they do not wish to take. Once students choose a major field, however, or even a particular course, they subject themselves to the expertise of the professor, who determines what material will be covered in the major or in the course. At Cornell, the BSS and BPHIL degrees exemplify that commitment (The BA degree, which most Cornell students pursue, and which does have distribution requirements, is, under this view, the inferior degree suitable only for those students who do not yet know that which they want to know. But this is a subversive idea).
Both Professor d'Ors and I would argue, however, that having presented themselves
to the teacher for learning, students need to have the proper attitude towards
and the proper expectations of their teachers:
The activity in an intellectual relationship, as the one between teachers and learners, manifests itself in the respective forms of language which are the answer and the question; the answer is the form of expression of the teacher, and is initiated by the question, which is the form of expression of the learner, for it is a general principle that "he who can, asks, and he who knows, answers"; that is to say, in the university, the student asks and the professor answers. (p. 33)
Asking the correct question is difficult.
The task of students is twofold, first, to learn that their proper function
is to be asking questions. Too often in class, American students, even Cornell
students, just sit there and wait to be instructed, on the assumption that a
student is a consumer of the product, education, and needs to be entertained,
interested, and cajoled into learning. Second, and more difficult, students
need to learn how to formulate concrete questions. As students become better
informed, they should acquire the skill of formulating more precise and more
One asks, obviously, what one does not yet know; but only he who knows something is capable of asking about what he does not know. He who knows nothing begins by ignoring what he does not know; and he can ask nothing concretely about the science he is supposed to learn. (p. 33)
The task of the professor is different from the task of the student. This approach to education imposes three functions upon a professor: objectivity, humility, and the "consciousness of intermediacy (mediatez)" (p. 34).
Objectivity means that the professor has knowledge, has a critical attitude towards his or her knowledge, questioning that which they themselves have been taught, and keeps up with his or her field. That is, professors are constantly formulating questions of themselves. The good professor is also a life-long student. Finally, the professor conveys that knowledge with as much veracity as possible, not deliberately presenting a biased, subjective version of the discipline, but attempting to give all sides of the issues.
Humility follows from this. Not even the most renowned expert can know everything
in a field, or in a speciality within that field, that there is to know. The
professor does not convey Truth, but merely a considered opinion, and students
should engage themselves with the professor's opinions, for questioning what
the professor says is a good step towards formulating concrete questions. A
second aspect of humility, which I realize with every passing year to be more
and more true, as a teacher of language with forty years' experience, is that
the professor must develop the capacity to repeat the same material with energy
and enthusiasm, as if the material were as new to the professor as it is to
the student. As Kierkegaard said:
"He who does not know how to repeat is an esthete. He who repeats without enthusiasm is a philistine**. Only he who knows how to repeat, with continuously renewed enthusiasm, is a man". (Quoted from a lecture of d"Ors, Learning and Heroism, on p. 36) Or a teacher. Teachers have to repeat themselves, for they deal with subjects that have a firmly established basis, that are, in the German term, a Wissenschaft.
By the consciousness of intermediacy, d"Ors is pointing to the difficulty of communication, especially communication between teacher and learner. The teacher can only attempt to explain material. What the student makes of that explanation, how well the material has been understood, is not always clear to the professor, as the professor finds out when the quizzes come back with a class average way below normal. The professor can explain, the professor can remind the student of important points, but only through interaction with the student can the professor discover how much has been communicated or miscommunicated. In other words, the professor cannot really teach anything.
The professor can only "place the student in the path" (p. 38). The professor does not turn on the "light", the professor only indicates where the light switch is to be found. The learning must be done by students, whether in a course, in a degree program, or in all the remaining years of their lives after graduation.
* Professors have power insofar as they help to administer and manage the institution, but not in their capacity as teachers.
** By "philistine" Kierkegaard means a person without a spiritual
dimension who is concerned exclusively with daily concerns.