Shape of the Earth

College’s Identity Crisis, Frank Bruni’s October 2013 essay in the New York Times, is a perfect example of not what is wrong with college, but what is wrong with the way people think about college. Bruni’s essay is one more exhibit in what Kevin R. McClure correctly pegs as Higher Education’s Reform-Industrial Complex:

Dominating the higher-education-reform conversation are those whose livelihoods are tied to the idea that the system is failing or in need of some “innovative” solution. Take, for example, the myriad policy centers and think tanks that have popped up recently to give opinions on higher education’s future. It is the job of these organizations to write papers and convene meetings about the problems colleges and universities face, meaning there is work (and employment) only so long as problems can be identified.

As McClure writes, this is not to say that there are no problems–but the conversation is dominated by journalists and consultants who cater to popular misunderstandings of what a college education, particularly in the liberal arts, should accomplish.

Beset by measures of college education in terms of employment outcomes and competitiveness, many have turned to defending the liberal arts based on lifetime earnings or employer surveys. Convinced of the need to deliver value to undergraduates, colleges turn to all kinds of measures of student satisfaction, student success, and trumpet how they are student-focused enterprises. These are not necessarily bad things. However, they miss the larger point about why we attempt to engage in a holistic approach to education that we hope will transform student lives: because college is a place of transformation not just for students but for society. What we attempt to do in college is ultimately about what Tim Ingold describes in “The Shape of the Earth”:

What we are, or what we can be, is something that we continually shape through our actions–which we have constantly to work at, and for which we alone must bear the responsibility. But in shaping one another we also shape the earth, for which, too, we are responsible. (2011:114)

College is a place where we consider the shape of the earth, not just in the transmission of scientific fact as a globe spinning in space, but what kind of shape the earth is in and how we might play our part in shaping the earth.

From “The Meaning of College” to “The Shape of the Earth”

Our first-year seminar completed a set of readings about the Meaning of College, from Pondering Oyaron to finding out the Oyaron College Fiction to reflections on the Place of College, and finally culminating by attending the “State of the College” address, followed by a paper. While it initially looked like a leap from there to the next readings on Earth and Sky, this re-grounded attention to the earth and weather is in fact crucial to contemporary college experience.

It would seem that one of the most compelling conversations we could have, that we must have, is about the shape of the earth, sky, and weather, as modified by human occupation. Far from college being a space of transport or transit into the highest-profit-sector possible, we should be asking to what degree the highest-profit-possible sector contributes to potential planetary havoc, and what our responsibilities are with regard to the idols of economic growth and prosperity.

Bruni’s essay begins with what he calls a “chilling survey last year of recent graduates. It showed that 62 percent of them didn’t know, for example, that Congressional terms are two years in the House of Representatives and six years in the Senate.” But what exactly does this mean? This isn’t a college-level fact: it’s at best a high-school civics fact, or a news-reader fact. Does Bruni, and the Time-magazine-reading public, really expect that such transmission-memory facts be paramount in college courses? On the final exams?

As Bruni should know, the real answer to the question of Congressional terms is: “Who cares?” Even though Congress recently brought us government shutdown and possible economic meltdown, it’s almost assured that most of the people responsible for the debacle will be safely returned to Congress from their gerrymandered districts. In such conditions, fact-based knowledge about Congressional terms is largely irrelevant. Of course, we need to know how and why the Congressional system became so dysfunctional, and how this dysfunction impedes true dialogue around issues that might really matter: that’s what college could mean.

College: Why Do We Do It?

I was pleased to note in the “State of the College” address that the president said we don’t always want to use the word retention, but should rather talk about forward movement: “Let’s not call it retention, let’s call it ‘moving forward.’” I doubt that the president read my Against Retention statement, but I couldn’t help smiling at the echo of what I wrote then: “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.”

That said, and as one of my students thoughtfully wrote, the State of the College was “numbers upon numbers upon numbers” with an emphasis on test, evaluate, assess. The student correctly diagnosed the issue: “College as an entire industry has become exactly that–an industry.”

At each State of the College transition, an individual student face came into view, and then the president: “This is why we’re here. They are where we must continue to focus our energy every single day.” Of course we do focus on student learning, student success, and student transformation. But to say that college is about the students is deceptive. It feeds a consumerist mentality and a tendency of student-narcissism: it’s all about the students.

College is not all about the students. It is about processes of transformation, creating knowledgeable conversations about our world and our place within it. Students come to college to join in those processes and those conversations. Too often I’ve not given this process my all, omitting students from a place in that conversation. That is not good. However, it’s time to be open about those processes, because what this is really about is how we shape the earth.