College is a Place

Against Space, Against Retention

I’ve been intrigued by Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. A post by Aaron Jonas Stutz, What is College For? quotes from Delbanco and takes us to the heart of the matter:

At its core, a college should be a place where young people find help for navigating the territory between adolescence and adulthood. It should provide guidance, but not coercion, for students trying to cross that treacherous terrain on their way toward self-knowledge. It should help them develop certain qualities of mind and heart requisite for reflective citizenship. Here is my own attempt at reducing these qualities to a list, in no particular order of priority, since they are inseparable from one another:

1. A skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past.
2. The ability to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena.
3. Appreciation of the natural world, enhanced by knowledge of science and the arts.
4. A willingness to imagine experience from perspectives other than one’s own.
5. A sense of ethical responsibility.

These habits of thought and feeling are hard to attain and harder to sustain. They cannot be derived from exclusive study of the humanities, the natural sciences, or the social sciences, and they cannot be fully developed solely by academic study, no matter how well “distributed” or “rounded.” It is absurd to imagine them as commodities to be purchased by and delivered to student consumers. Ultimately they make themselves known not in grades or examinations but in the way we live our lives. (Delbanco 2012:3-4)

College is a Place – Place Against Space

I resonate with Delbanco’s list, but here I would like to concentrate on the first phrase: “College should be a place.” Read with the Tim Ingold essay Against Space: Place, Movement, Knowledge, this declaration is potentially quite profound. It suggests that college cannot be divvied up into chunks of knowledge, MOOCed along by transmission models. There is something different that happens when we look at college as a grounded place.

That said, it also suggests the radical idea that college should be a place where certain kinds of knowledge and understanding is occurring, rather like what is on Delbanco’s list. Or in other words, some institutions that call themselves “college” may not be quite as college-like as they should be. Conversely, there may be other places where those skills are developing that should indeed be included as part of college.

College is a Place – Movement Against Retention

To say, however, that college is a place, is not to wrap it up in a kind of cozy, insulated locality. Rather, as Ingold notes, places “are delineated by movement, not by the outer limits to movement” (2011:149). For Ingold, movement defines place. It is a movement of the wayfarer:

The wayfarer is continually on the move. More strictly, he is his movement. . . . The wayfarer is instantiated in the world as a line of travel. It is a line that advances from the tip as he presses on, in an ongoing process of growth and development, or self-renewal. As he proceeds, however, the wayfarer has to sustain himself, both perceptually and materially, through an active engagement with the country that opens up along his path. Though from time to time he must pause for rest, and may even return repeatedly to the same place to do so, each pause is a moment of tension that–like holding one’s breath–becomes ever more intense and less sustainable the longer it lasts. Indeed the wayfarer has no final destination, for wherever he is, and so long as life goes on, there is somewhere further he can go. (2011:150)

My feeling is we would all be better off thinking of college in this sense–as a place in a process of wayfaring. Isn’t that what we mean by “lifelong learning”? We should similarly be wary of those who would make college into an interchangeable space, or conceive of college as “transport” or as “destination-oriented” (Ingold 2011:150).

And so, although this realization has been a long-time in the making, I object to how many institutions and administrations constantly focus on retention. What a terrible way to describe what we do! We don’t want to retain students–we want to work with them to enable and promote processes of growth, development, and self-renewal. College is a place, but it is a place defined by movement, not by retention.

I’ve already spent too much of my life talking about, thinking about, and trying to analyze retention. No more. Let’s talk about the place college should be: Let’s talk about growth, development, movement, and renewal.

College is a Knot of Stories

And here perhaps also lies the reconciliation between the Meaning of Oyaron, later disclosed as Oyaron Fictions: that “every place, as a gathering of things, is a knot of stories” (2011:154). It is of course important to know what the character of those stories are, so as to not fall into fictional traps and delusions, but it is this layered knot meshwork of stories that knits together our place.

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