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by Diana Senechal

Nearby Cunégonde Middle School started a pilot program with the Pangloss model of self-decided learning. “We can’t wait until these students grow up and come to our college,” said President Mandrakis. “These students will have so much to teach us!”

Shenandoah, VA—In a groundbreaking initiative, Pangloss University has eliminated all formal distinctions between teacher and student and has revised the curriculum accordingly. “Hic omnes per vitam discipuli sunt” (“Here everyone is a lifelong learner”) reads its new motto. Teachers receive a tuition discount for assisting fellow learners, but they are no longer required to possess superior knowledge. Instead, their main duty is to struggle along with those they help.

“For centuries, we have been at the hands of an expensive illusion,” declared President Victoria Mandrakis in a press statement. “We have propped up so-called scholars with tenure and other benefits, under the assumption that students would gain from their knowledge. We now know that such a setup does more harm than good.” It is true, she conceded, that some people know a great deal about Wordsworth or quasars. But what really makes a difference for students, she said, is to have someone who wants to find out about these things. “Unlike some institutions,” she explained, “we’re not eliminating teaching. We’re just integrating it with the genuine learning process.”

Instead of having students take courses, Pangloss now teams each Junior Learner™ (JL) with a Learning Partner™ (LP). Each LP may work with a maximum of four JLs, for maximum personalization of efforts. Together, the JL and LP create “inquiry questions,” outline an “inquiry investigation plan” (typically involving Google searches), and complete the “inquiry investigation.” At the end of the investigation, the JL and LP grade each other and themselves, with the help of a common rubric.

“It’s such a thrill,” said LP Terri Negodyai. “I have no dissertation, and here I am, teaching at a big, fancy university.” Each day bring surprises. Last Wednesday, she helped a JL find out about icebergs in Antarctica; the next day, she and a JL looked up the etymology of “daffodil.” “I get to learn all sorts of new things,” she said, “and the great thing is, no one expects me to know them. Learning is OK!”

Why have LPs at all, if they don’t know more than the JLs? “It’s all about the motivation,” said Mandrakis in a phone interview. “The JLs need someone to get them excited and keep them going. So the LPs usually wake them up in the morning and have breakfast with them, virtually or in person. They say a few Pangloss learning mottos to set the tone for the day.” She welcomed us to visit a cafeteria in the morning to get a taste of the routine.

We entered an dining hall with mahogany walls and lofty ceilings. The younger students were gulping down waffles and conversing with slightly older lifelong learners, the LPs. “This is going to be a good learning day,” one dutiful student uttered. “We’re in this together,” his partner replied. “What you learn, I learn, too.”

Former professors at Pangloss have generally resisted this trend. “I am not a beginner with Milton,” snapped Samson Burke, purportedly a distant relative of Edmund Burke (who, according to students, was someone or other; they’d look him up later). “I’ll be damned if I’m going to pretend I’m a beginner—but then, I’m damned anyway.” As soon as he stopped the clocks and cut off the phone line in his old office, he’d be on his way, he said. He had already boxed up the books, which no one would notice gone.

Other professors reported having an epiphany. “It came to me one night,” said a famous physicist and current Pangloss learner, “that I have been alienating my students with this high-level research and instruction. I could go on doing it and alienate them still more, or I could change my ways.” He began leading mini-group inquiries based on a principle of camaraderie. “We’re three weeks into it, and still on gravity,” he said, “but gravity’s a big one. And it’s fun to drop eggs from the science tower and talk about why they fall.”