The Liberal Arts Mission – Where and When Does Learning Take Place?

Before I begin, I want to thank my friend and author Jim Palmer for mulling over these ideas with me. I learn so much from our interactions. There is an open space waiting for us — let’s meet there.


I Have a Question: Where and when does “learning” actually take place for young adults in the college classroom? Can it actually be measured by acquiring a set of core skills and practices? Or is it an a-ha moment defined by the learner? Is it core knowledge that must be “learned” that can be tested? And is thatreal learning to a student in the 21st century today? Or is that a pitfall of consumer-driven learning? 

I am not sure I have the answers but I know one thing: If you asked a professor versus a student “where and when does learning happen,” you’d get two completely different sets of answers…and a lot more questions about what a higher education means to a student as an emerging adult today. By adult, I mean, someone empowered to create worlds of their own design, with mentors and people whom they mentor; who are ready, willing and able to embrace and be empowered by any communication, eye to eye with the remarkable complexity and oneness of humanity; who are well, i.e., willing to participate wherever they are mentally, physically, spiritually, psychically in a classroom and in their society, and willing to participate NOW not four years or more later. What if a student was engaged as if an active, engaged and empowered adult from the start.


That is not how most students show up in my classroom but it is how I engage them from the start. And this is perhaps speaks to the crux of my concern with higher education today. I don’t think most faculty even ask the adults that enter our classroom where and when learning happens for them? And students surely discuss outside of class but are rarely given any authority to discuss it in class with the so-called adults. But this would require thinking not thoughting not only from the students but from the teachers-as-adults. 

I think our scientific, analytical, and academic “thoughting” (all from the past and rarely engaging those unique souls who enter our classroom in collaborative thinking) has fouled our approach to discovering learning. If we think that “learning” is something “real” that we should be able to measure it in time and space, where and when does the act or action that we call “learning” actually take place for students-as-adults?


This begs the question who gets to define “where and when learning happens” and how can the definer be sure it has happened for a student, for another human being, for a student as an adult rather than a child (in loco parentis)? Poet Antonio Porchia once said “I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received.” An even larger inquiry here is who is classroom learning for? Who is the benefactor? The teacher? The student? Each and every student? The family and networks of that student? Their community? They future boss? Or the society that they live in as a whole? I say the notion of individual learning is costing us greatly and its time for a shift in how we think about learning itself and who defines it. 

When students act like what is most important is addressing the teacher or showing off what they learned for me as the instructor, I always share this: Why do need even need to gather in a room together if it is not about learning about people right here in the room not the books? I say there are 600 years of knowledge in a room of 30 students each with forms of knowledge that cannot be replicated in a book and I have 48 of them. The book is not the knowledge, we are. The book is a representation of the author’s knowledge.

So I create environments for failure more so than creating the experience of learning as I was taught in my undergraduate through Ph.D. studies. The learning is actually on them to determine as adults. What would it be like to create an environment where the truth can be told about learning. 

We, ALL OF US — EACH AND EVERY ONE, both professors and students are not honoring the liberal arts mission statement that says: “we are committed to producing great citizens, future professionals, and great human beings.” We sure aren’t concerned with testing this. Here’s a test. You can always tell what you are committed to by the results you produce. It would be more accurate to say “we are committed to producing great citizens, future professionals and great human beings as long as you make the grade, don’t speak out in class, and don’t hijack the professor’s lesson plan or schedule.”  We are by no means committed to each and every student being great citizens and human beings. Check the results.

40-50% of 18 million young adults currently attending over 6500 institutions of higher education in the U.S. dropout. Perhaps we should begin to honor our word in the matter. Otherwise, this perhaps more than any other factor leads to replicating racisms and sexisms and training young adults to honor the status quo–the way people in existing positions of power do things and not having a say about it until after class is over–all in the name of education. 

Last week, the theme in my introduction to anthropology course was “Language”. As usual  students took the online quiz before Tuesday’s class. I have a 95% completion rate when I allow them to take the quiz as often as they like but I also engage them in what kind of learning they are operating in in the process. I ask them to notice if they just memorize the correct corresponding letter they got wrong when they take the quiz again or are they actually creating their own system of noticing their failures and learning from them.

Asking students to evaluate their own approach to learning is essential to empowering learners for life not just for the five-minute university where your education is measured by what you remember not only five years from now but five minutes after the final exam.

I am interested in who each and every student in my classroom measures themselves to be at the start of a class, when an a-ha moment gets them, and at the end of a class and many points in between. I don’t give exams, but i do ask them to assess their own learning in a final reflective essay. Can they answer these questions, esp. in an anthropology course or a racism course, in ways they themselves find enriching or meaningful:

  • How have I grown as a human being? as a citizen? as a professional honoring my future now?
  • How has this experience expanded my view of the world?
  • How do I understand my culture–my learned ways of thinking, feeling, believing and behaving–in new ways?
  • Have I gotten something that aids what matters to me in the process? In other words, has this been of value and has what matters to me been honored in the process?
  • What conversation, topic or person in our classroom made a difference for you and why?
Too often our final exams and projects are about outputting something for the professor to evaluate. I always make my final assignment a reflective paper answering questions like those above. 


I began doing this reflective paper when my non-linear style of teaching was being judged by a typical question on student evaluations: “Was the course or course instructor organized?” This is a tricky question when you work off of students’ conversations to excavate new knowledge, new conversations, new actions that challenge the status quo in thought and deed. Having students focus on themselves and not on my delivery changed everything for them and for me. I started to really appreciate the value of the environment I create for students-as-adults rather than kids doing what they are told when Sila, a student who never talked in my classroom, wrote: “I’ve been an addict since I was 15 and this class gave me back my voice. I prepared for discussions by reading the New York Times. I had a breakthough in finding my voice in this class.” She did above average work in the course but she never talked. How would I have ever known what she had gotten without the essay? 

So it gives me absolute pleasure and wonder when I read this comment on the Facebook page of my Racism course the other day. It was a comment from a brilliant freshman whom I had engaged with at our last meeting Thursday, March 5th in ways that seemingly confronted her publicly and also invited her to explore other ways of being than being “smart.” Her comment read:

When I leave this classroom, I feel empowered to be unadulteratedly me -I hadn’t realized that the one aspect of me that I’d readily forsaked was the one thing that might result in my liberation from intellectual constraints!

This act marked the beginning of learning for her…and for me last week. Thank you, Kimberly and the class for whom without their listening none of it would have been possible!! Ah, to not knowing!

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong.” — Richard Feynman

PS. I am experimenting with not worrying about getting it all right but committing to publishing thoughts anyway. Takes courage but it keeps me blogging.

Kyra D. Gaunt, Ph.D.
2009 TED Fellow
Associate Professor at Baruch College-CUNY
Voicing “the unspoken” through song, scholarship and social media

5 thoughts on “The Liberal Arts Mission – Where and When Does Learning Take Place?

  1. Dr. Gaunt!

    I’ve been following you for at least 2 years online and I love all that you share on education. You are definitely a devoted professor who seeks not only to challenge your students to have individual thoughts but to be skilled leaders of the future. Do you realize the impact you are making to the world? I commend you on your tireless efforts to stimulate individual thinkers. I wish that I had the opportunity to have you as a professor when I was in college. I know though one day you may allow me to be a fly in the wall in one of your classes to experience your brilliance. [hint] You rock, Professor Gaunt!

    P.S. I wish my law school professors had the same approach as you do in the classroom although the teaching style is different. However, you actually teach whereas law school professors are not taught to teach. There aren’t any courses or training that law school professors go through. There are a few law school professors though who do use your approach which makes some of the classes very enjoyable. But that’s RARE! I hope law school academics would listen to what you have to offer. It would make a huge difference for some of those who are eager to learn. Bless you!

  2. tried to send you a twitter, but I’m told you don’t follow me, so I can’t.

    Wanted to make sure my validation post worked. Guess the fact that I am now following you says that it did… I guess. For all my techno-savey, I’m still a novice at this twitter world. Maybe because, as you can see from this, 140 characters doesn’t work that well for me!

    This essay, and something from the symposium have given me much to think about and to reexamine regarding my historical interpretation at the burial ground.

    As often as I introduce Sankofa, I need to put more emphasis on eliciting the consequence, for my visitor, of “looking back to inform the future.” Will always ask, from here on out, just how their visit, my tour, has helped them to inform their future.

    I really need to think deeply about your methodology and how it applies to presenting the burial ground story. Perhaps when you come for my tour, we can discuss that. I am, by nature, of a lecturing style, and need to work much harder at using your “how do we build on what you bring” approach. It applies, as well, I think to elementary school children as it does to young adults. Much to consider!


    Look forward to seeing you at the burial ground.


  3. Thank you Pofessor! yuo are the best! I recommend your teaching strategy because I hate memorising1

    • Thanks Nkuleleko! Appreciate your feedback…and don’t forget to spell-check your online communication. It matters and people are watching! It undercuts your credibility and your credibility matters even as a commenter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s