What’s wrong with giving students what they want?

Student-centred learning puts education at risk. This was the provocative claim made by Gert Biesta in his keynote address entitled “Does society get the university it deserves?” at the 5th International Academic Identities conference at the University of Sydney last fortnight.

Biesta argued that the shift from teaching to learning – putting students in the centre – is a mistake. He cited Roberts’ “The Impulse Society” to ask: “What’s wrong with giving students what they want? ”

Plenty, according to Biesta.

University education should not be measured in terms of satisfaction. It is not the individual pursuit of quick, self-serving reward. It is not about giving students what they want. Like the impulse society, Biesta suggested, such a model of education promotes infantile ways of being in the world. Instead, Biesta believes in focussing on teaching and being taught. Being taught, he said, is an encounter with something outside the self. Ideally, teaching questions desires, interrupts identities and transcends individual sense-making.

He ended by asking: can university be a place where we learn to live as grown-ups in a world that wants to keep us young?

Written by Dr Agnes Bosanquet,  FOHS Senior Teaching Fellow




2 thoughts on “What’s wrong with giving students what they want?”

  1. Thank you for sharing it, Agnes.
    I didn’t attend the conference, and didn’t heard Gert’s talk, but it seems very problematic to me to equate student voice/opinion with seeking “quick, self-serving reward”. Such a view is somewhat disrespectful to students. While it may be true that some students are only interested in finding shortcuts and getting a degree, it would be wrong to assume that it is the position of all students.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Olga. I don’t think anything Gert said was disrespectful to students; on the contrary, in fact. Gert’s point was about a larger societal emphasis on getting what we want, and how this manifests in universities. He suggested that “satisfaction” is the wrong measure for the quality of an education. Education is not intended to make you happy or give you what you want. And this opens up the question: what is higher education for? What do students need?

    A simple analogy for Gert’s argument is politics. With an upcoming election, politicians make lots of promises to make people happy and give them what they want. But perhaps this is the wrong way of seeing the role of a government? Perhaps what we want has come to mean short-term individual rewards (tax breaks, rebates etc) rather than things that contribute to long-term, collective good?

    Whatever your political persuasion, or views about the purpose of higher education, Gert’s ideas are a great opportunity for reflection and discussion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.