If you could start an institution of higher learning from scratch, what would it look like?
In our future university anyone can register. There are no admission criteria or interviews or motivation letters. Curiosity is unconditional to humanity—that we take for a fact. There would be no fees. The knowledge communities of the future are open and accessible to everyone, especially to those that high quality universities reject because of impecuniousness or birth location.
In our future university there are no deans or chancellors. Decisions are made by the entirety of its members: students and teachers. The social structure is democratic with the authentic meaning of the word.
Anyone can teach at our future university. There is no reason for the institution to limit teaching instances. Different students learn from different teachers. Let the anarchic knowledge market sort itself out. Low quality teachers will have no students to teach. High quality teachers will have lots of them. Maybe niche teachers also exist, that have very high commendations but from very few students.
In this way, we can have many teachers teaching the same course. The teaching way will be different— as already mentioned, different students learn in different ways. There is no need for our future university to package the best teacher-courses combinations because it is neither selling anything nor competing with anyone.
In addition, by removing the transaction model no one can get mad that they wasted their money or time. We just donate—feel free to receive—only if you want to.
Our future university will have no grades. Grades completely fail to be an accurate representation of someone’s knowledge level (if that’s something we want to know). Their goal is to provide extrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation does not work. By creating a new goal (getting a perfect grade) other than the essential goal (learning knowledge) success is redefined as playing it safe, not exploring harder-to-acquire new knowledge, and eventually becoming a lesser learner because of high avoidance of risk.
Having talked about learning existing knowledge, discovering new knowledge is intrinsically connected to that. The characteristic that some knowledge of a subject has already been discovered by humans is completely irrelevant to a curious being who’s eager to deeply familiarise themselves with the subject. According to many, Richard Feynman included, teaching what’s already known about a topic is crucial to discovering what’s unknown about it. Thus, researching new knowledge would also be a core part of our new university.
Most of the above has already been tried successfully through MOOCs. We want to go even further, though, and add to the mix of MOOCs what they lack—and universities have: the sense of community.
A university is a community that will follow one through their whole life. As Linus says, a university is a super-community, in the sense of being able to nurture the creation of other independent communities.
Much of our lives are now online, but this doesn’t mean that everything that once happened IRL now happens online. Certain things are hard to replicate—and feeling part of a community solely via online communication is one of those. Our new university would facilitate community nurturing in the physical world.
Even though this whole approach is against tradition there is a traditional element we want to keep: ceremonies. Ceremonies are non-spoken communication. They symbolise things, ideas, feelings, limits (beginnings and endings). They signify change and set a cycle that creates a feeling of permanence and stability.
In this text I suggest a radically inclusive, with democratic governance, without grades, school institution—quite different from the current prevailing standard. Some of these characteristics are part of an argument of criticism for the aforementioned standard while others are purely due to preference. Thus, this is not a claim of educational utopia.
Given enough iteration and adaptation, a wide variety of models can work. I believe this is one of them and I’m willing to find out. Chaitin School is this experiment. The school experiment that this text serves as its vision.