A modest proposal for postgraduate education

I just came across a fascinating passage from a lecture given by Carl Rogers, founder of person centered therapy, about the personal and intellectual biography which led him to his life’s work. In it he describes an experience as a graduate student at a seminary which had a profound impact on the direction of his life, as well as that of others:

Knowing universities and graduate schools as I do know – knowing their rules and their rigidities – I am truly astonished at one very significant experience at Union. A group of us felt that ideas were being fed to us, whereas we wished primarily to explore our own questions and doubts, and find out where they led. We petitioned the administration that we be allowed to setup a seminar for credit, a seminar with no instructor, where the curriculum would be composed of our own questions. The seminary was understandably perplexed by this, but they granted our petition! The only restriction was that in the interests of the institution a young instructor was to sit in on the seminar, but would take no part in it unless we wished him to be active.

I suppose it is unnecessary to add that this seminar was deeply satisfying and clarifying. I feel that it moved me a long way towards a philosophy of life which was my own. The majority of the members of that group, in thinking their way through the questions they had raised, thought themselves right out of religious work. I was one. I felt that questions as to the meaning of life, and the possibility of the constructive improvement of life for individuals, would probably always interest me, but I could not work in a field where I would be required to believe to believe in some specified religious doctrine. My beliefs had already changed tremendously, and might continue to change. It seemed to me that it would be a horrible thing to have to profess a set of beliefs, in order to remain in one’s profession. I wanted to find a field in which I could be sure my freedom of thought would not be limited.

Carl R. Rogers – On Becoming A Person: A therapist’s view of Psychotherapy – page 8

So, I wish to suggest, could this ever be a standard part of postgraduate education? Is it feasible to have such a seminar credited as part of a postgraduate qualification, given the need for modularity and standardised assessment in the present system of Higher Education? Even if it isn’t, should we be doing this anyway? Perhaps entry to the seminar could be conditional on high performance in more traditionally designed modules? I would have loved this as an MA student (and indeed still would in the final year of my PhD) and, thinking back on my masters experiences in two departments, I could imagine a number of academics – who clearly really enjoyed postgraduate teaching when, perhaps, they enjoyed undergraduate teaching less – also enjoying it and being incredibly effective hands-off facilitators.

I’m intrigued to see if others are as inspired by the passage above as I am – perhaps in part it’s because I’m fascinated by Rogers and only just found out about this aspect of his early history – so would appreciate any comments either on the blog or on Twitter. Likewise, does anyone have any ideas about how to make this happen? As I approach what will (hopefully) be my last two academics terms as a postgraduate student, I’m seriously considering approaching my department to see if there’s any way to arrange something like this for MA students and PhD students in the summer term. All input appreciated.

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