From The Dispossessed
, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Excerpt via +Kartik Agaram
Shevek ended his career as a tourist with relief. The new term was opening at Ieu Eun; now he could settle down to live, and work, in Paradise, instead of merely looking at it from outside.
He took on two seminars and an open lecture course. No teaching was requested of him, but he had asked if he could teach, and the administrators had arranged the seminars. The open class was neither his idea nor theirs. A delegation of students came and asked him to give it. He consented at once. This was how courses were organized in Anarresti learning centers: by student demand, or on the teacher’s initiative, or by students and teachers together. When he found that the administrators were upset, he laughed. “Do they expect students not to be anarchists?” he said. “What else can the young be? When you are on the bottom, you must organize from the bottom up!” He had no intention of being administered out of the course—he had fought this kind of battle before—and because he communicated his firmness to the students, they held firm. To avoid unpleasant publicity, the Rectors of the University gave in, and Shevek began his course to a first-day audience of two thousand. Attendance soon dropped. He stuck to physics, never going off into the personal or the political, and it was physics on a pretty advanced level. But several hundred students continued to come. Some came out of mere curiosity, to see the man from the Moon; others were drawn by Shevek’s personality, by the glimpses of the man and the libertarian which they could catch from his words even when they could not follow his mathematics. And a surprising number of them were capable of following both the philosophy and the mathematics.
They were superbly trained, these students. Their minds were fine, keen, ready. When they weren’t working, they rested. They were not blunted and distracted by a dozen other obligations. They never fell asleep in class because they were tired from having worked on rotational duty the day before. Their society maintained them in complete freedom from want, distractions, and cares.
What they were free to do, however, was another question. It appeared to Shevek that their freedom from obligation was in exact proportion to their lack of freedom of initiative.
He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand. At first he refused to give any tests or grades, but this upset the University administrators so badly that, not wishing to be discourteous to his hosts, he gave in. He asked his students to write a paper on any problem in physics that interested them, and told them that he would give them all the highest mark, so that the bureaucrats would have something to write on their forms and lists. To his surprise a good many students came to him to complain. They wanted him to set the problems, to ask the right questions; they did not want to think about questions, but to write down the answers they had learned. And some of them objected strongly to his giving everyone the same mark. How could the diligent students be distinguished from the dull ones? What was the good in working hard? If no competitive distinctions were to be made, one might as well do nothing.
“Well, of course,” Shevek said, troubled. “If you do not want to do the work, you should not do it.”
The boys went away unappeased, but polite. They were pleasant boys, with frank and civil manners. Shevek’s readings in Urrasti history led him to decide that they were, in fact, though the word was seldom used these days, aristocrats. In feudal times the aristocracy had sent their sons to university, conferring superiority on the institution. Nowadays it was the other way round: the university conferred superiority on the man. They told Shevek with pride that the competition for scholarships to Ieu Eun was stiffer every year, proving the essential democracy of the institution. He said, “You put another lock on the door and call it democracy.”