Symbols in the Classroom

Lund, Sweden

September 14, 2010

Lund, Sweden

Europe has been shaken recently by debates about the presence of religious symbols in schools. In Italy crucifixes now have to be removed from the walls of classrooms in public schools. Since 2004, in France students are not allowed to wear the burka, a veil that completely covers the face of a woman, in the classroom and President Sarkozy would like to extend this law to all public spaces. Besides the obvious political relevance of such debates it is interesting to think about the way in which schools are implicitly perceived as arenas of symbolic communication. Schools, universities, and classrooms of all kinds, are elements in the transmission of a culturally coded message about values, about ideals and about power relations that are yet to be thoroughly analyzed.

One example of such an analysis is the book School, in which Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor discuss how the design of the school building can convey a message about how the students are expected to behave. The architecture of schools has changed with the times, reflecting the preoccupations of each specific period with either gender, class or other politically relevant issue such as religion or the environment. Alison Lurie also takes up the issue of classroom design in her review in the New York Review of Books, pointing out that no teaching milieu is without its message.

Stimulated by such reading, I began to look critically at the rooms in which I teach, trying to decode their symbolic significance. The lecture room I most frequently use is painted white and has a gray floor. There are windows, but not too large, with blue curtains to be drawn when the light is too strong. On the walls there is no decoration; the only things hanging are the white board and the coat hangers. There is a projector and a technical corner with the DVD-player and stereo system, all managed from the instructor’s station, a table with electronic controls in one corner. The students are invited to sit in rows, three tables that accommodate about three students each, all facing the front of the classroom.

How typical this classroom is! I am sure most of the readers here will recognize it from their personal experience: an anonymous place that has to change face and personality with every group of students, with every teacher. Every time I enter into the room, I think that it is in my power to change the room, to give it a new shine, to make it reveal some secret and enticing place where all my students can be transported. But this magic does not always happen. Sometimes the room remains a colorless space where dozens of pairs of eyes are focused on the one person at the front, performing.

There are evident power relations that this classroom conveys: the focus on the “source of knowledge”, the teacher; the hierarchy of the students with the most dedicated (unless most nearsighted) in the front rows and the happy chatters in the back. There is also a certain atmosphere of dreariness, which I blame on the grayness and whiteness of the color scheme.

How can this be different? I remember having the chance to visit one friend who worked for Google, in NYC (see some pictures here). The office space there was quite different from your typical maze of boxes: there were colors not just gray, and Chinese paper lamps, and funny ways to write one’s name on each cubicle. Can this work in the classroom? Can we have a green room with wood floors and flowers in pots at the windows? A Chinese paper lamp hanging from the ceiling? Can we start every lesson with a remodeling of the table/chair disposition so that we form circles or spirals or groups of rectangles or whatever geometrical form we feel like? (I have actually tried this a couple of times, with the result that everyone was exhausted from hauling furniture around.) Or is this version of the classroom conveying a lack of seriousness, a lightness, a jocularity inappropriate for university teaching?

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

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