Oppression and Student Development Theory

I work in student affairs which means I work at a university with college students. People in student affairs study student development theory. These are theories that help explain how college students learn and grow throughout college and beyond. Coming from Miami University, I know most about Marcia Baxter Magolda’s theory and usually relate them to everything in my life.

Marcia’s theory focuses on how people learn. She explains a student’s progression from absolute knowing through contextual knowing. Absolute knowers believe that there is an authority who holds all knowledge. This can be a parent, teacher, faculty member, preacher, politician, or administrator. Students trust the information they receive from these people, no matter how off the wall the information is.

From here they progress through transitional and independent knowing where they begin to question truth and who holds truth. They begin to realize that all knowledge isn’t certain and no authority holds all knowledge. Finally, after years of development, students arrive at contextual knowing. This is when they create truth based on evidence within a specific context. They understand that not all knowledge is equal and sometimes it depends on the situation.

Theories like these are called student development theory because it is based on research on college students. The experiences students have in college help them progress through these stages. These experiences could be a class where the faculty member requires students to challenge the information presented, a roommate who has a different lifestyle, or an administrator who pushes a student’s buttons. Usually, these experiences are unique to a college campus because it is an environment that gathers a diverse population of students to live, work, and learn together. There are not many other environments that can create a similar challenge.

You do not have to go to college to become a contextual knower. However, it is much easier to remain an absolute knower if you do not attend college or if you never have experiences outside of your hometown. So, what does this mean for oppression?

When you are an absolute knower, you believe what an authority tells you. You believe he or she has all knowledge. Think of a child who thinks his parent knows all the answers. Think of the people who go to church who believe their preachers interpretation of the Bible. Think of the freshman who enters her first lecture hall to learn all the knowledge the professor holds. These people expect the authority (teacher, preacher, professor) to know all the answers.

It’s not until you learn something that contradicts what an authority has told you that your development is challenged. This contradiction is what some of us like to call cognitive dissonance. Basically, you believe two opposite truths at the same time. An example of this may be a Christian who believes that homosexuality is wrong, but has a gay roommate who has become her best friend and who she believes should be able to love whoever she wants.

It’s a beautiful thing when this happens! Well, maybe not beautiful for the person experiencing it, but for the student affairs educator, it’s a dream come true!! This is when people open their minds, struggle with some tough questions, and make it through the other side as stronger, more informed people who see the world through different perspectives. What could be better?

So, again, back to the oppression stuff. If you are an absolute knower – you believe there is one truth held by an authority – tread carefully. Consider for a minute the opposite of what your authority is telling you. Could that opposite truth be true? Maybe not, but you should always consider it. Do your research.

Think about the little African American girls in the baby doll study. They were given dolls that were black and white and asked which one was the pretty doll. They always chose the white doll. They did this because of all the messages they were getting in society…through media, education, etc. What if they never considered the opposite truth? What if they never realized how beautiful they were? Challenge the knowledge you hold and break the barriers of truth!

(If you really want to dig deep into this, you can read this article for a little more insight into how the conservative worldview encourages absolute knowing. I’m not convinced it’s about being conservative, but more about having power and wanting to keep it. Not all conservatives are about that.)

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