Posted by: dacalu | 26 January 2014

The Soul of Higher Ed

In the last 24 hours, I have read two essays on higher education.  While I agree with both of them, I think they typify two competing trends in modern university education.  The question arises over how much energy should be devoted to the transmission of information and how much to the shaping of person.  Likewise, how much should teachers be interested in the extra curricular activities and extracurricular lives of their students. In short, how much should professors and administrators socialize and shepherd their students?

The first essay recounted the experience of a young woman who had to deal with the mental health regulations and expectations at Yale.  The second was a critique of how we use the concept of vulnerability, disempowering students and inhibiting lecturers.  While I found both insightful and agreed with their points, I can also see them as competing anecdotes invoked in the current battle for the soul of the university. With most of modern American culture, universities are caught up in the process of reorientation. Who are we and what are we doing?  I would suggest that there are three competing models present in the debate.

The Fee for Information Model

The first option follows from a strict service provider model.  Many have argued that universities should do neither more nor less than make information available to students in exchange for a fee.  Room, board, and activities should also be made available for the needs of customers, but by and large the whole process should be viewed as a simple business transaction.  They think that professors should refrain from editorializing and interpreting, but only provide facts to the students.  Further, they tend to argue that universities have become bloated by unnecessary faculty departments – in departments that do not contribute directly to the financial productivity of the country – and unnecessary administration – devoted to “student services” outside transmission of information or simple bureaucratic entrenchment.

I see two problems with this model, one ideological and the other practical.  I believe the first has received more attention, so I will start there.  Universities, as opposed to colleges, have traditionally focused their attention on sustaining studies with universal scope and on providing students with the ability to integrate all areas of their lives.  The modern version of this, often under the heads of “academic diversity” and “a liberal arts education.”  While I prefer this classical model, I also recognize that far more students enroll than ever before.  College is generally expected for middle and upper class citizens and aspired to by lower class citizens (and non-citizens); it opens tremendous economic and social possibilities.  It is entirely possible that there is insufficient demand for liberally educated citizens.  It is also entirely possible that we do not need a philosopher of quantum mechanics and an eco-feminist theologian in 10 colleges per state.  It may be that “information provider” is the appropriate model for most colleges – with the understanding that a few elite universities should be maintained for the education of management and the upper classes – their historical role.  I can’t say I like it, but the ideological argument has some weight.

I should note, as a caveat, that no information is entirely value free.  Both the information and the methodology used for acquiring it can only be taught in the context of values like open-mindedness, method over doctrine, curiosity, rigor, and commitment to the truth.  That said, I will stipulate, for the sake of argument that one may wish to minimize value commitments.  Alas, even with this caveat, the model simply does not provide in practice, what its adherents want.

Market forces do not and have not driven universities in this direction.  The advocates of slimmed down colleges, providing only the most straightforward facts and methods, have repeatedly acted to make universities operate as businesses and follow market forces.  Regardless of government subsidy (which, after all, is a force all markets deal with) customers choose their university based on all the extra-curriculars.  Those institutions flourish which have sports and activities, extensive health care and job placement services, not to mention alumni outreach and development departments.  They flourish because that’s exactly what the customers want.  Academic excellence is hard to measure; the size of the swimming pool and employment rates are not.  Market forces have driven the universities to exactly the place they presently are – overstaffed, over-focused on extra-curriculars, and grade inflated.  People who pay for college do not want information-only service.

The Higher High School Model

A second option suggests that universities, being the next logical step after high school, should operate much like high schools do.  They treat their students as children – the common phrase here is in loco parentis, acting in place of parents.  Advocates of this model support regular surveillance and counseling, extensive curricular requirements, and close attention to challenges faced by students.  Like the fee model, it results in over-staffing and counter-productive attention to the desires of the customers.  In this case, however, the customer is the parent (or alternatively the state, if you believe the state acts as a parent).  Like the fee model, it generates countless clubs and activities to fill the students’ time.  Unlike the fee model, it usually has some component of character formation extrinsic to the personal desires of the students.

The problem with the high school model is that it fails to form the students into independent thinkers and proactive adults. One of the greatest benefits of college, in my experience, is that it provides a relatively safe environment in which to explore self-determination.  The safety does not come from the hovering bevvy of attendants.  It comes from existing in a small community of common purpose.  You are surrounded by people of good will who care for you and your priorities because you have a common purpose – not because they are paid to care for you.

The Society Model

Universities arose in the Middle Ages in the context of religious societies.  They were groups of people devoted to common action – teaching and learning – within the context of the church.  We have largely separated academic and religious institutions in the 21st century.  With few exceptions, colleges are secular institutions, but they are still committed to the ideals of truth, honesty, and learning.  They still function in the context of initiates or masters (professors), acolytes or journeymen (grad students and post-docs), and postulants (students).  There is an aspect of meritocracy and hierarchy essential to the process.

I believe the key to healthy universities revolves around maintaining a common identity and purpose.  That requires the hard work of reaching consensus among the faculty and allowing faculty to direct university policy.  Otherwise they will not be invested in the mission of the institution.  That requires recognizing, accepting, and regularizing the very real power differentials between teachers and students.  Teachers should not, indeed must not, attempt to minimize that differential by lowering standards. They must police themselves and one another by quickly and efficiently stepping in when someone abuses their authority.  There must be clear expectations, rights, and responsibilities.

At the same time, the system only works when infused with a sense of common purpose and common care.  The very heart of the university lies in instilling in students that love of the subject matter that drives the professors.  Knowledge requires diligence; diligence requires emotional commitment; emotional commitment requires a true and heartfelt belief in the importance or beauty of the thing you study.

The Middle Way

Universities have arisen in multiple cultures around the world.  They have survived for over eleven centuries despite shifting social norms and circumstances.  They have thrived in monarchies, oligarchies, and democracies, under communist, socialist, and capitalist markets.  I do not think the answer to their problems will come from new and exciting methods.  It will come from the hard work of building community and fitting that community to the realities of the age.

Corporate structure has become necessary for universities.  That’s how we do work these days.  Corporate ethos, however, is not necessary.  Nor, I think, is it productive.

College students are young.  Evidence from sociology and biology and neurology suggests that human adolescence is becoming longer.  30 year olds are still living with their parents, the burden of expected education is getting heavier and heavier, and the human brain is still amazingly plastic into the mid-20s.  Treating college students like children, however, will only guarantee that they continue to behave like children.

We must come to terms with the fact that college students are inexperienced adults and help them negotiate that transition – with both high expectations and compassion.  Of course, that’s how I treat all adults…and children for that matter.  We must always strive to be more aware of the challenges and vulnerabilities of all members of our society (both the large one and the small ones).  At the same time, we need to be clear about what we care about.  Being vulnerable need not be serious or bad.  Attempts to “fix” or eliminate vulnerability can do more harm than good.

The soul of the university is at stake – the core, essence, and motivation of the university – as is the soul of our society.  We need more people who care deeply, study diligently, and do the hard work of keeping it healthy.  It is not a simple question of corporate vs. communal, sales vs. service, religious vs. secular education.  It is a question of what we want as communities and how we come to have a common understanding and purpose.


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