The freedom to learn

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In this post, Dr Medhat Khattar, Deputy Programme Director of the MSc Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (CMID), reflects on what the expression ‘freedom to learn’ means in today’s university…

When the phrase the freedom to learn came to my mind, it did so like most things that come to one’s mind, expected but unpredictable: expected by virtue of its grounds in logic, yet unpredictable insofar ideas remain ambiguous until they have taken up a linguistic form. But a Google search quickly revealed that freedom to learn in education-speak was apparently coined by the late American clinical psychologist Carl R. Rogers (1902-1987) as the title of a book which I am yet to read.

But originality is over-rated, and what matters is, of course, what one means by the term ‘freedom to learn’. Underlying the concept is the belief that learning is not something that one does to another, but that it is an activity that one undertakes willingly for themselves. Any alternative interpretation of the concept that does not recognise the learner as a free agent quickly runs aground. Learning by rote is not learning but proselytization or indoctrination of a kind. And, although indoctrination is unavoidable when bringing up children or those who are not in possession of a will, there is a futility about it in higher education regardless of the form it can take.

But, in our everyday lecturing practice, we may not be adequately self-aware of the tendency to practice indoctrination rather than facilitating the freedom to learn. For example, conflating authority in the classroom with authority over learning (probably one of the most difficult ambiguities to address in the mind of the teacher) can get in the way of the freedom to learn. Authority in the classroom is something which is necessary for the sake of abiding by rules and regulations, and for the maintaining of an orderly environment. But authority over what others should or should not learn – which is better described as authority over knowledge – has become a problematic conception in the information age, if not dangerous when taken to extreme.

There is a need to regularly evaluate the nature of lecturing and the role of the lecture in university. At some point in the past, the lecturer was the gateway to knowledge. But this is no longer the case. Quality and informative online lectures and notes on just about all subjects of academic interest are now accessible to university students. The opportunity to re-define the nature, purpose and frequency of formal university lectures is an opportunity to understand learning afresh: something which students do, and teachers facilitate.

There is nothing new in the above. But at this point in the calendar, when many of us are contemplating a new iteration of the academic year in a few weeks, a re-statement of the conception of students as free agents capable of self-directed learning, and the conception of the teachers as facilitators of learning feels timely. And since it takes a free person to recognise another as free as themselves, this is a good point too in the calendar for teachers to reflect on their own conceptions about learning, teaching, freedom and, of course, what knowledge truly means.

Medhat Khattar

Dr Medhat Khattar is Deputy Programme Director of the MSc Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (CMID). When not teaching microbiology, Medhat explores what political theory has to offer. He holds an MA in political philosophy (York), and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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