A Dose of Democracy in the Classroom

There is not much worse than looking forward to a much-deserved weekend free of school, only to look down at your class schedule and realize that you have hundreds of pages to read before the next class meeting — only three days to get it all done.

As fellow inmates of the United States educational system for anywhere from 13 to 16 years, we all know that feeling you get when you stare at a book that you know you hate but have to read anyway.

You scan over the pages, and just when you’re about to turn one, you realize with a sinking feeling in your stomach that the last page and a half of information didn’t really sink in.

You go back and get through one sentence — maybe a paragraph, if you’re lucky — before flipping through the book for the hundredth time just to see how much more you have left to read.

You stare at that final page, but it just stares right back at you, laughing at you and the 97 pages between it and the last page you read.

The funny thing is that I never really had a problem with my class readings until this quarter. I’m sure that this is because I am taking three very reading-intensive courses at once.  All three meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I have either five days or 48 hours to read what often amounts to more than 300 pages of reading.

And to add insult to injury, it’s usually not the most gripping of stories. It’s more along the lines of “read all 250 pages of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ by next Tuesday.”  Add onto that more than 100 pages of Dostoevsky and an entire post-colonial novel and you can cue the evil laughter.

If I’m going to be spending nearly every free moment of my day reading, shouldn’t I at least be able to read something I want to read?  I understand that a large part of a college education involves stepping out of your comfort zone, and I can appreciate the impact that influential authors like Austen and Dangarembga (two that are far from my favorites) made on the world around them. But I think that if I’m paying good money for a college education, then I ought to have some say in what I learn.

This doesn’t just apply to literature majors, either. I’m sure that similar feelings are shared by students of every discipline from anthropology to Russian, from dance to literary journalism.

Imagine: What if you could have a say in what was taught in your class?  What if teachers, instead of slapping us with arbitrary syllabi and demanding complete obedience, made a set of alternative class plans and called for a vote to decide what would be taught? Albeit, this proposal is quite radical, but it doesn’t need to happen all at once. Simply assuring more diversity between class subjects and reading lists or weeding out those subjects that aren’t as “necessary” or as appealing would be a step in the right direction.

Not only would students be able to have a direct say in what they are going to be spending 10 weeks reading, studying and being lectured to, but teachers would get more direct feedback from students. This freedom may even inspire teachers to think outside the box when constructing lesson plans, and it could foster a more active participation in the learning process on the parts of both students and teachers.

As for the way things stand now, I am in no way trying to demean those teachers whose fields of interest focus on the above authors or others like them.  I am not saying that what doesn’t work for me doesn’t work for anyone else. If Jane Austen is your favorite author and you fall asleep every night with a copy of “Pride and Prejudice” under your pillow, then all the more power to you.

Personally, I do not find such authors as compelling or interesting as others, and I would like to have more freedom in choosing what I am taught. Again, I don’t believe that this desire is limited solely to myself and other English majors. I think that every scholarly discipline could benefit to some extent from the kinds of changes that I have proposed.

However, I don’t think that such changes — even if they were unanimously accepted — could take place anytime soon. Our country is still struggling, and our nation’s educational system has been hit especially hard. I’m sure that teachers today do the best they can with what they have, but it seems to me that most have neither the time nor the resources to make any drastic changes to the way we are taught.

Maybe changes like these will be implemented in the future, but until then, we’ll just have to keep our chins up and settle for wishful thinking.

Spencer Grimes is a fourth-year English major. He can be reached at sgrimes@uci.edu.