A few thoughts on reciprocity

One of GA’s important insights is that a conversation, as an exchange of words, is analogous to other forms of exchange including market transactions. And that such exchanges function to defer violence when they include a degree of reciprocity. What makes an exchange “reciprocal”? In a conversation, that means that I am willing to hear what others say (seriously hear, take into consideration in my responses) in exchange for the same from them. In an economic transaction, that means that the transaction is accepted by both parties as mutually beneficial. In general, we can say that an exchange is reciprocal when it is freely entered into (and it can be exited at any time), and it is perceived as “fair,” or mutually beneficial. To some extent, such exchange is its own goal. But in the public sphere, say the letters section of a newspaper, people exchange words for a definite purpose, which is to convince others of one’s point of view.

In the classroom, the student exchanges money, time, and attention for specific goals: knowledge and skills which may be valuable in various ways. The teacher provides students the opportunity to learn knowledge and skills. The benefit may be economic or not. Knowledge and skills can be intrinsically valuable apart from their economic exchange value.

The ideal of “student-centered learning” is valid, in my view, because student engagement is the sine quo non of learning. As the saying goes, I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you. As Socrates demonstrated long ago, dialogue is productive of knowledge. Socrates’s “teaching” was based on his desire to learn. He asked his interlocuters to teach him. His teaching was open to learning. Socrates can be said to have invented the idea of student-centered learning. Some professors take the Socratic ideal to mean that knowledge is “constructed” and lacks any objectivity, but I’m not in that camp; although I agree that ultimately everything is up for debate, if the interlocuters make that choice. We can make more progress, however, by agreeing on some basic premises, just as Socrates established agreement on basic facts or claims, then moved on to further questions and logical consequences.

GA also tells us that all human interactions are subject to resentment, and this includes classroom interactions. People tend to generalize about their experiences with authority figures, so that resentment for teachers may reflect their experience with prior authority figures more that any particular teacher. Teachers need to remember this sometimes.

Open-ended learning is one goal of education, but there are also knowledge and skills which have been refined and tested over thousands of years, the value of which find wide acceptance in a variety of spheres, including economic. Students pay for time with a teacher because of his/her expertise in accepted knowledge and skills.

The point I want to make here is that reciprocity is relative to the goal of a particular exchange. Reciprocity in the classroom is not achieved by accepting the student’s opinions as equal to the professor’s knowledge. Reciprocity is achieved when the exchange (of student’s time, money, and attention for the learning opportunities provided by a teacher) is entered into freely and perceived as fair.

The goal of education, for students, is learning, in the form of knowledge and skills. The problem arises when the goals are not well-defined. In schools, there are a multitude of pressures for lowering the standards of knowledge. Acquiring knowledge and skills is extremely difficult, and not every student is willing to make the sacrifice. The value of the targeted knowledge and skills is not accepted by many students and, now, professors too. This situation leads to a lot of resentment and the perception of unfairness. The problem, in my view, comes down to assessing the students’ knowledge and skills. And we can’t do this without some kind of standard. Learning goals in education are generally defined very vaguely. Students often perceive the assessment of their learning as completely subjective: “the professor didn’t like my paper.” As if the grade was given on purely subjective grounds. For now, this is an insoluble problem, because professors can’t agree on what specific knowledge and skills are necessary and valuable, or what the standards should be; students, of course, follow suit. There are larger social and economic pressures which foster this situation. However, having clearly defined and transparent goals for a particular class, and applying those standards impartially, will help defer resentment. Professors can do this now, despite the larger social situation. Professors, however, need the support of colleagues and administrators in order to maintain high standards. The general trend is towards the lowering of standards, for a variety of reasons.

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