Does The College That You Attend Signify Your Excellence as a Learner?

“I go to Harvard University, so it is fair to say that I am one of the best learners in this country.” I don’t watch much television, but feeling a bit under the weather and not having the mental focus to work on much, I experienced a first, watching an old episode of MasterChef. Being the first episode, contestants were competing against one another for a spot on the show. In the segment that I watched, there were four people competing against one another. When one of the judges asked the first contestant if he had what it took to be a MasterChef, the young man replied with first sentence in this article. He argued that, because he is a student at Harvard University, it is logical to conclude that he is on of the best learners in the country.

One of the best learners in the country? Is that actually what Harvard students believe, that getting into and being successful at Harvard college signifies that you are at the top of the list when it comes to being a learner? He is one of the most privileged learners in the country. He is studying at one of most financially resourced institutions in the country. He is likely stilled at jumping through academic hoops. He likely scores well on traditional academic assessments. He clearly has confidence in his abilities, which is a key factor in learner agency and success. I could agree with any of these statements. However, suggesting that being a student at Harvard signifies being one of the best learners in this country is, to me, unfounded.

I’ve met too many unschooled people who are world-class learners to believe what he said. Plenty of employers have discovered that there are equally or more capable learners / employers from non-elite and largely unknown higher education institutions. In addition, being skilled at meeting high standards in a formal academic institution does not directly correlate to being a world-class learner when it comes to being a chef, parent, athlete, author, musician, or a thousand other roles or skills.

I’m sure that it was a harmless statement to most people who this young man-made this claim. It might even be true that most people agreed with him. Harvard is a great college and their acceptance rate clearly limits the pool of candidates who get a chance to study there. Yet, that is something qualitatively different from claiming that attending this school puts you in the category of élite learner (in the broader sense).

Being a world-class learner is something far more open and democratized. It is something that many admission offices do not miss. Close 40,000 high school students applied to Harvard in 2017, most of whom where denied admission. Yet, this source suggests that there are 20 million that were expected to attend college in 2017, the vast majority of whom did not even apply to Harvard. Maybe this young man is among the best learners in this nation, but if he is, that is not proven because he attended Harvard.

It is fine to celebrate the excellence of top academic institutions and to recognition the accomplishments of its students, but this conflation of élite college attendance and being among the best learners is not helpful in promoting access and opportunity, or in accurately representing the nature of being an “élite” learner.

Does Our World Need More Leather Apron Clubs?

I used to read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography once a year. Now I get to it every two or three years. Each time I read it, something new captures my attention. This time it was an excerpt where Franklin describes the formation and purpose of a learning community called Junto (or the Leather Apron club) in 1727. From this group emerged the idea of a shared library, later the subscription library, as well as the American Philosophical Society. Rather than getting it secondhand, I’ll let Franklin explain Junto to you, and follow it up with a few observations about the implications for life in a digital and increasingly networked world.

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which was called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory; and, to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

The first members were Joseph Breintnal, a copyer of deeds for the scriveners, a good-natur’d, friendly middle-ag’d man, a great lover of poetry, reading all he could meet with, and writing some that was tolerable; very ingenious in many little Nicknackeries, and of sensible conversation.

Thomas Godfrey, a self-taught mathematician, great in his way, and afterward inventor of what is now called Hadley’s Quadrant. But he knew little out of his way, and was not a pleasing companion; as, like most great mathematicians I have met with, he expected universal precision in everything said, or was forever denying or distinguishing upon trifles, to the disturbance of all conversation. He soon left us.

Nicholas Scull, a surveyor, afterwards surveyor-general, who lov’d books, and sometimes made a few verses.

William Parsons, bred a shoemaker, but, loving reading, had acquir’d a considerable share of mathematics, which he first studied with a view to astrology, that he afterwards laught [laughed] at it. He also became surveyor-general.

William Maugridge, a joiner, a most exquisite mechanic, and a solid, sensible man.

Hugh Meredith, Stephen Potts, and George Webb I have characteriz’d before.

Robert Grace, a young gentleman of some fortune, generous, lively, and witty; a lover of punning and of his friends.

– The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Notice the attributes of this group.

  1. It existed for “mutual improvement.”
  2. It included people from diverse occupations and experiences.
  3. Participation was not limited to people with formal education or credentials (notice the self-taught member).
  4. Each member was required to come with questions (from “any point of view”) on almost any subject (although they focused on “morality, politics, and natural philosophy”).
  5. These discussions were diverse and not limited to the official professions of the participants.
  6. The focus was a search for truth, not to win the argument.
  7. Each person was required to write an essay on a topic of personal choice and interest every three months, and read it to the group for discussion.

As I look at this list, I’m intrigued by many elements.

  • It is question-driven instead of book driven (even though books were an important part of the learning in this group). Notice how that is qualitatively distinct from most schools and classrooms.
  • This was not for a degree or credential. It is for self-improvement, with an eye toward that which also benefits society.
  • This is not about looking good, winning a debate, or earning accolades. It is about the pursuit of truth.
  • This is not driven by writings or lectures. Instead it is truly peer-to-peer learning. With that in mind, every member is expected to contribute in substantive ways.
  • It is not teacher-driven.
  • It is not about getting professional development so you are eligible for a raise or promotion.
  • It is about growth and the pursuit of truth.
  • This community empowered members to be active and engaged citizens.
  • This is a vibrant learning community.

I can’t help but think that our world and societies would be better off if they were seasoned with more learners and groups like this. Similarly, I have to think that we can leverage the connections of the digital world to build and nurture such communities.