The Existential Crisis in Higher Learning: Reinventing Ourselves Around Students

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There’s been a spate of education articles concerning “troubling” or “triggering” comments and speakers and programs and the concomitant evolution of “safe spaces” on college campus that provide refuge, calming areas in which to reclaim the self that’s been disquietly pushed off balance.

Get it? Higher education, even in the most elite, safe spaces imaginable, may not be so welcoming, understanding, safe, secure. It may be anxiety-ridden, hostile, dangerous, off-putting, demanding, deprecating. Dangerous, yes, just ask around, definitely dangerous to many who have found themselves vulnerable and unsafe, violently abused. Dangerous, yes. Demeaning too. Make you feel wrong, like you don’t belong, have no place in the world. An outsider.

To say that academia is struggling to find itself, again, is an understatement. It’s struggling to define its relevance, now and in the future; it’s struggling to understand the needs of students and the public; it’s struggling to justify cost v outcomes; and, it’s struggling to understand its hand in creating the very world in which we find ourselves. No small task.

In College and Hiding From Scary IdeasJudith Shulevitz describes an academic world where students “are eager to self-infantalize,” parents go along, even help it along, and colleges and universities are caught between a rock and a hard place: make the academic world safe for all free speech – academic freedom; and make this setting behind the hallowed ivy safe for those that might be adversely affected by what we might say is politically incorrect speech: hate speech, language that may be defined as inflammatory and insensitive, callous, violent speech, writings, art and film that might depict the harrowing affects of violence, that might argue for the ease with which we commit acts of killing – and the personalities and faces and organizations and groups – artists, politicians, bankers and lawyers, celebrities, sports figures, etc., a long list – that we might associate with any of these incorrect forms of expression.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy quickly came along: “Don’t Blame Students for Being Hypersensitive. Blame the Colleges.” Bovy writes a superb article – but the title tells the story. Her use of history – how we evolved to this point (irony of course) – is spot on. Not that Shulevitz isn’t; she is too. Shulevitz and Bovy are speaking of something larger gone awry, which requires we move beyond blaming, though “blaming” of this sort – Shulevitz’s and Bovy’s – let’s us into the larger problem – or is it problems?

You decide. Here are 3 large challenges that incite the need for safe places in academia:

  • teaching hides behind the illusion of objectivity, as if saying that history is objective, and information is delivered coldly and sometimes de-contextualized, straight-on, students asked to respond accordingly, obediently, head down, busy working with the hope of being initiated and hoisted into a node on our vertical socio-economic system – a production model that relies on conformity, deference and reverence;
  • since “Americanization” took hold on a grand scale during the Reagan years and focused on the cash-nexus rather than national identity, colleges and universities lost their footing, became multinational corporations as a way to achieve relevance (brand power), and are increasingly sensitive to the rumblings of their shareholders – the board of trustees, paying families, government and the media – we all say, after all, that we have a stake in Education, do we not?;
  • the illusion of objectivity and “Americanization,” not globalization, have contributed to an academic environment focused less on an individual’s need to find something important within her – who am I – and more on achievement, excellence and efficiency – what am I – that require a student look towards a tomorrow that will give value to her material worth, and not herself, who she is, what she believes.

Bovy concludes her article, addressing Amanda Hess’ notion, in “Elite College Students Protest Their Elite Commencement Speakers,” that students are looking for a “uniquely tailored experience,” which “elite schools are promising their students in exchange for astronomical costs,” because these students believe they are “owed exactly the experience they want,” saying that:

This strikes me as almost right, but I’d switch the order. It’s not that students demand that colleges provide a gated-community experience tailored to their every preference. Instead, the elite schools are selling that experience—and given the competitiveness of that marketplace, it’s hardly surprising that campus life sometimes crosses over into the ridiculous. Shulevitz blames the students, and surely they deserve some of it. But they’re demanding exactly the college experience that the brochures have promised them.

Here is where the problem conflates, folds in. Stops. It’s the students, the parents and the institutions. But this is only the surface structure, the symptoms or some of the results of the 3 greater challenges: Why do students self-infantalize? Why do parents foster this? And why do colleges and universities, particularly the elite ones, promise infantalization at a high cost?

Answers:

Americanization changed more than just higher education. It brought with it a new ideology, corporatism: the needs and wants of the corporation trump nation-state identity and the will of the people. Unions are on the ropes; health care, too, even with Obamacare and with insurance companies reporting record earnings, is fighting for existence, for a better place – universal coverage(?). Funding for public education is being chipped away, while standardized testing and the assessment of teachers have taken center stage supported by a powerful theme: some can pay to be well educated, others will not afford it and be left out. We find ourselves in an education environment that mirrors the socio-economic stratification of society, the separation of classes and races, and fueled by an ongoing rhetoric, fear the Other, he’s here to take from you. (Pretty well argued by Jonathan Kozol in The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.)

Public education, K-12, has been gutted and those caught inside separated. This separation – and lack of diversity – exacerbates fear and anxiety among students, families and teachers. Coupled to this fear, for students and their families – I must not venture out of my group/tribe, a message that’s delivered very powerfully throughout systems – comes the high stakes world of getting into an elite school, a name, some guarantee of a (well paying) job in the future. The student, in this world, is already cowering, already obedient. When she arrives in college – Princeton, Yale, Harvard, the mini ivies, you name them, UC Berkeley, U of VA – that time to explore and blossom, to embrace the unknown, she’s instead wincing and looking for a hand to hold, safety, an established path, worn, well lit and marked, and not the road least traveled.

A conveyor belt to material success defined by excellence and efficiency, accounting terms, breeds obedience and fear. No one wants to experiment, take a chance, speak out, claim a space, wonder, get lost. Getting lost and being vulnerable are frowned upon. The student is thus always off balance, measuring possible falls. Hesitant.

Learning requires no hesitation. It requires leaps. Trust. This is the frightening part.

Colleges and universities provide the social structure to try and ensure safety – “a small army of service professionals,” as Shulevitz describes them, “mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like.”

But when you look at the immensity and complexity of academic work today; when you look at the material goals and aspirations and pressures faced by most students; when you then pit these against dwindling resources, environmental problems, justice issues and issues of identity and wellbeing – the student is rather lost and anxious. Fearing the onslaught of offensive and challenging speech is but a symptom of students wanting more, something richer, deeper; they want to find themselves. They’re asking for justice, for the anxiety over molded impositions to cease. They’re looking for creativity, aesthetics – beauty and a philosophy to go with it.

Creativity requires breathing space. This is the classroom’s purview, the teacher’s attention.

If we slow our teaching way down and extend it over longer periods of time, perhaps over more than a semester using online tools, community service and dialog, intentional living, and give rise to safe learning spaces where mentoring, in the very traditional, Socratic way, I dare say, can evolve, then text, student, faculty will commune in distinct ways, and solve problems. This, I venture, would begin to alleviate the tension, the blaming and the misconceptions we have of each other. This is an invitation to bring diversity into classrooms, schools, and, most importantly, to a staid pedagogy still stuck somewhere in a 19th Century aristocratic model. It’s an invitation to re-think what we do and how we do it, K-16. The current model got us to this point. Do we want to continue? If we look around and are honest, the model is broken. Is that good? It’s the only conclusion. So we have to change; it’s in our capacity to do so.

It’s less about power and authority over fields of knowledge and more about connecting fields of knowledge to an individual’s contextualized learning practices. This requires some understanding of human nature, the science of the stages of learning, the context in which education is delivered – the who, what, when, where. Understanding these three ideas will lead us all to see the child as a whole being, not merely a repository and parrot of knowledge we push in.

If we create a teaching and learning environment that is safe and free and that decompresses the massive compression that is the reality of our time, we can then address mutual respect, honor, conduct; we can address all sorts of language challenges because we have the time and the space to deal with it ourselves. This is not expensive. We have the means and the talent, right now, to tack this ship into healthier waters.

Students infantalize because they don’t want to grow up. Who can blame them? I wouldn’t want to grow up either – not today. Students infantalize because the world is frightening. To say that it isn’t is a wild conceit, the wildest. Isn’t it?

Parents infantalize because they fear for their children. Understandable. (I’ve been blamed for “babying” my children – yes; it is, I can say, fear.) A better use of a parent’s time, energy and emotions, however, is to press schools to do a better job teaching and creating safe spaces in classrooms – not rejecting speakers, not more counselors and certainly not more deans! – that do not shy from controversy, rather address it coherently and with a student-centered approach that honors a student’s place, her history, the context of her life; that enables her to direct herself. In other words, parents: press schools to see the whole student; to see your child as a person, first. We’re not doing that.

A child today entering college is many things: hope, aspiration, desire – a life; but she is also capital the institution needs increasingly so. There’s the human divided: a commodity and a being.

What are our priorities?

If we demand that colleges and universities – the entire K-16 system – focus on the Human Being, the corporate-academic model will react. Its primary concern, all rhetoric on brochures aside, is staying alive, being on top, maintaining brand value, increasing it. If staying on top means recreating itself to capitalize on (a) the very personal needs of students, (b) the promises – still – of technologies, particularly as these speak to how we may change our very important intimate relationships with students, and, (c), the increasing need to evolve professor-teacher-mentors, an instrumental third party, that can speak to small numbers of students about forging ahead professionally and personally, not one instead of the other, then the university – as would any corporation – will change. The corporate-academic institution will react to market pressures, primarily. That’s us.

Right now we’re mired in the blame game, arguably necessary at this stage, so I’m not using “blame” in a derogatory way; it is what it is. But we just need to look under the hood; there are solutions, and these require massive perspective changes and a restructuring of the educational model, using everything at our disposal. How might K-3 education, for instance, help mold higher education? There is an answer here (but for another essay though).

“The reliable, mechanistic old college system has allowed a large number of people born into middle-and upper-middle class circumstances to comfortably ride along established pathways to prosperity without having to work especially hard,” says Kevin Cary in The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. “As the higher-education system opens up to many more people, this will change.”

With software companies and technology pushing on one end, colleges and universities struggling to find their identity (read: niche) on another, we have a perfect storm: ambiguity reigns. It’s a time ripe for powerful forces to take hold. They have, they are: “Instead of waiting for 35,000 students to apply and picking among them by reading stacks of paper, elite schools like MIT, Princeton, and Stanford will electronically search among tens of millions of potential students worldwide.” Not surprising. Technology will sort, which plays right into one of its most powerful capacities – sorting.

In the future we’ll be more finely denominated. “A critical mass of high schools will allow students to make evidence of their learning machine-discoverable, and more people will build up portfolios of digital badges and other credentials online to attract the attention of universities around the world,” continues Cary. This is now; this will happen. The point is to start adjusting and re-creating ourselves now. If there is money to be made by a software company, a college and a university, it will be made.

Education’s existential crisis is caused by immobility – us. Way too many colleges and universities are not thinking about how the world Cary describes affects us now – never mind tomorrow. It’s already taking shape, this is why we’re off-balance, searching.

One clear way to re-create ourselves is to imagine more instances of intimate contact with our students. It’s not happening in the current design – there’s no time for it. Yes, some students do receive personal attention; yes, this does appear to happen, more often, in elite liberal arts colleges – a reason for their existence, I’d argue, and extraordinary cost; but even here, among the elite, the model needs reinventing, which can reduce costs, re-ignite the essence of the liberal arts and how it relates to citizenship, and demonstrate new, invigorating and imaginative safe spaces where learning can take place. And let’s not forget, technology will have a hand in this; it can and will assist us – a certainty. Unless, of course, we’re happy being sorted – a choice we have.

Education going through an existential crisis is not new; it’s not surprising, since everywhere we look – government, business and banking, social services and health care – the same questions and challenges exist. Education can’t be exempt. Whether educators on a grand scale have a say in the changes that are afoot, there’s no telling. But change is inevitable and in years to come these conversations, hopefully, will seem naive, things we had to say to align us. Then we’ll be addressing other challenges.

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Object Lessons: Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

I’ve navigated the teaching profession intuitively, always gravitating to what I sensed were voids in the system that, more often than not, compromised students. My rewards have not been monetary, nor have there been accolades showered on me – a special chair, a title, the such and such professor of. No. I’m nowhere near a think tank and the leisured life of, well, thinking and writing. None of this has happened. Mine has been a bumpy road – humbling in many respects. Some might even say I live on the boundaries of academe, shunning careerism – no publishing in obscure journals, no writing unreadable books, no clawing up the expected ladder to obscurity. I’ve done none of it. I’ve focused on students instead – and there’s a price to be paid for that.

But the rewards for this focus occupy my office shelves —objects the students have given me over the years. They are testaments to the significance of shared learning moments otherwise muted by the hallowed ivy.

Objects are aesthetic records of the deeply emotional link between the past and the present. Objects say something of our need to regain something of ourselves – something lost, perhaps, what memory is; they’re even about something we yet don’t know we’ve lost, something of a nature we’re yet unsure of. Something needing discovery. Objects point to the past, but to the future as well. And they emphasize how ephemeral time is.

Yet – while these objects are incredibly intimate accolades, they also signify how my dreams were held in check by my sense of responsibility to others, to the commitment one makes to someone else’s desires – a young dreamer’s. In these objects is a teaching life; they are portals into the difficult work of helping young minds integrate into culture – and of how a teacher evolves with students.

Life is Just a Bowl of Varies – Sid was an older gentleman that followed me around from course to course. And one day, when he was done with his schooling pastime to idle away hours in retirement, he handed me a bowl comprised of various dice. LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF VARIES was printed on a card – that’s all. He was telling me that life is varied, diverse – and that it might diverge from my plans.

Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

I sensed this. I fell into teaching; it was never planned. Many people don’t plan on becoming teachers – at least none that I knew while at grad school. Some go into it because it’s the final, common denominator; others continue down a path (mine was “the writing life”) unaware that the teaching profession would grab hold of them, a safety net of sorts. I thought I was going elsewhere. Sid must have navigated many divergent paths. He taught me something – something to expect.

Sid sat in the back of the class, usually next to other retirees that came to listen. I had no idea whether they read the material or whether they’d read the material in another life. Seldom did these folks say anything, giving space to the young undergrads that had to take my course. It was after class that one or two of the retirees would come up, thank me for the lecture and tell me whether they liked it or not. It was good today. This is when Sid, one day, came up and said, You’re an iconoclast. I smiled. I wore it like a badge of honor, a purpose for my teaching life.

I started teaching in 1985. I taught at SUNY College at Purchase from 1987 to 1996, two nights a week, three hour classes, and sometimes a three hour day class. I had to work to pay the rent, so SUNY was how I read the texts I needed to complete my PhD (I also taught at Manhattanville College at the time – 1986-1995. The life of the adjunct.). Introduction to American Literature. Literature of the Modern Age. Sexuality, Morality and Aesthetics in English Literature – 1880-1923 (drew a strange crowd, especially at night). Literature of Discipline and Punishment. Poor Sid, looking back, sat through most of these and watched an inexperienced teacher stumble his way through. I suppose Sid saw something, which prompted him to give me the dice – LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF VARIES.

It’s turned out to be true. Everything for me has been about change and adaptation. Sid was right. I keep his bowl prominently displayed.

Stanley London Brass Compass

Stanley London Brass Compass

The Compass – Leah, in the picture, now a teacher and a tennis star, too, sent me, most recently, the antique, Stanley London, brass compass. Inscribed inside the top of the compass is Robert Frost‘s The Road Not Taken (1916). You know it.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Leah sent me The Compass not long ago. It sits opposite Life is Just a Bowl of Varies. The space between them is a traveled life.

I joked with her and said, “What, you think I need a compass?” We laughed. And she said, “No, you seem to be always finding paths for people.”

I think it’s both: in trying to find paths for students to fulfill dreams, I’ve found my own. We’ve both used the compass. We still need it.

Then there’s Frost. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.

When I’ve traveled down a path a frightened student puts forth, this has been a road that diverges. I’ve gone down many a scary road with students; we held on. Eventually I’ve tried doubling back. But that’s been impossible. “Back” is never a return; it’s a moving away, sometimes with regret and sorrow, always with something new in the horizon. It’s good to have a compass.

Heraclitus said, “Things keep their secrets.” The challenge with objects. Dice are small throwable objects with multiple resting positions. Like us, humans. Only we seem to land in random places, occupying arbitrary positions. We need navigational instruments that show directions and give a frame of reference.

Heraclitus also said that, “Whoever cannot seek/the unforeseen sees nothing,/for the known way/is an impasse.”

Object lesson 1: the objects of my teaching life represent a rejection of the “known way,” an understanding that we are always in “an impasse” – but that at least two are needed to break through the gridlock, the predicament, the jam. The hats and scarfs from Afghanistan, the elephant from Sri Lanka, Chinese objects, cards from all over the world – Thank You! Professor – all of these objects hold time. They speak of the impossible. Scary journeys taken side-by-side when no one was watching. These objects are symbols of always diverting plans that asked for different commitments, and once the commitments were made, as Frost says, I doubt if I should ever come back.