Jason Shilling Kendall: Citizen Astronomer

William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York
Hunter College

On E-Learning


We pretend there are no such things as experts.

We pretend that the personal accumulation of knowledge is irrelevant.

We pretend that a commercial solution to higher education is the correct path.

When a university puts the student experience above all, and does a true challenge to learning, demanding that reading and writing are included for every class, then advancement occurs. When a university demands that to pass a class, the knowledge has been transferred out of a book and has been put into the minds of the students without the use of any technology other than a piece of paper and a pencil, then the student thrives. When a teacher and a student look each other in the eye, and each demands excellence from the other, then the university shall be known as a great place for a student to learn.

We can pretend that the student learning process does not involve a deep, though brief, social bond between the student and teacher, but we will be wrong. No technology, no gadget, no book, no tool, nothing can replace the honest and ethical judgement of a student by an expert. This relationship between student and teacher is more important than anything else, and it is this relationship that makes a university great. When a university demands that all students demonstrate their knowledge to their teachers, their peers, their families and their community, then, and only then, does the university become a great place.

People cannot live without social bonds and ties. There are no successful human enterprises that go it alone. There are exceptional individuals, and they blaze trails for others, if they are challenged to do so. Not everyone is exceptional, but a great university puts them in touch and conversation with them.

There is such thing as authority of knowledge. We, as a society, agree that some people carry it, and others do not. The great universities place in front of eager students those whose command of facts and their interpretation is above and beyond the norm.

When a student encounters people whose life's passion is to learn a topic that is completely unknown to them, they come into contact with a kind of greatness. It is this relationship: the teacher and student, when combined with mutual respect then becomes mentor and apprentice, which then can become colleague and friend, is the great arc of learning. The arc of learning is based completely on conversation: sitting around tables in comfortable chairs, discussing an idea, playing with words, assuring precision in what we say and mean. Without this culture of discussion in the presence of an expert, and without the judgement of the expert moment-to-moment, very little learning can occur.

Perhaps someday, there shall be a hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional, quantum-entangled, lighted box that will be a perfect communicator of knowledge to the young, eager thinker. But, I doubt it. Today, there is only one path to knowledge: the student in an encounter with the expert, the authority. There is no replacement for such a rich and fulfilling exercise of the human mind and spirit.

William Paterson University Department of Physics American Astronomical Society Amateur Astronomers Association of New York Astronomical Society of the Pacific