For various reasons, my on-campus errands this past week have repeatedly put me in the path of a demographic I don’t usually encounter in the run-up to the new school year: proud and anxious parents. This was move-in week, and the campus was coated with a thin and awkward layer of parents bringing their incoming freshmen to the university, helping them move into campus housing, trying to figure out what building to go to next and how to find it, standing in line at the bookstore loaded down with shrink-wrapped science textbooks and brand new T-shirts.
This is a big deal.
Indeed, for those of us who work at the university, it’s easy to forget just how big a deal these moments of transition are. To be fair, I think some of us may rightly wonder how much transition is actually going on. Parents who want to talk to instructors about their little darling’s grades are not the stuff of urban legend; they are, in fact, a thing.
But so are the parents who get their kid situated on campus and then step back and let the kid take it from there — sometimes because that’s how they’ve chosen to handle this transition, and sometimes because they don’t really have a choice. A lot of working-class parents or parents of first-generation college students are no better equipped to navigate or explain the sometimes mystifying features of university life than their students are. They take out the loans, they help pay the bills, and they hope for the best for their kids — but they don’t know what “the best” would look like for the next four years beyond giving their kid a fighting chance at employability. And the students themselves don’t know either.
And the university — not simply or especially the one I work at in particular, but just “the university” in general as a social institution — is divided on what “the best” entails. This is an old story, though: the tension between ideas of education as practical training, education as the cultivation of the whole person, education as a democratizing force, education as a credentialing function. It’s not as if “the university” stands for or aims for only one of these goals. We are a mixed multitude, with mixed motives. And the edifice of “the higher learning” — this idea and this place we work in and work to build — seems to be crumbling, not so much from neglect or confusion as from an all-out assault by the “disruptors” who want to reduce the work and worth of education to a facile, fatuous quantification of “outcomes.” These seem like very dark days for the higher learning in America.
Yet, this year, as in years past, some sons and daughters became the first in their family to cross threshold of a university. Sometimes their parents or grandparents, their step-parents, siblings, aunts or uncles, were on hand to help them go through that door. I saw some of those folks on campus this week. I will see some of their sons and daughters in my class on Monday. And I will see plenty of students from affluent, white-collar professional families in my class as well. To the parents and teachers and coaches and mentors of all these students from all these backgrounds, who helped them get this far, I would simply say, “Good job.”
To the students themselves I will no doubt say many other things. But they’ll probably hear “good job” now and then as well — not because I believe in indiscriminately doling out praise, but because I believe in finding the promise in things, and in people, and giving people an opportunity to build from there. That habit is not something you’re born with; that’s something you learn. So, to the folks who have taught me how to be who I am as a teacher and as a person, I would simply say “Thank you.” I will try to pass on the best and let the rest go.
I wish for all of my colleagues, for my fellow-academics, for my professors and my friends, a good year. We are the university with a capital U, and, by damn, by God, or by Garrison, no matter what these “disruptive innovators” and bean-counters and higher-ed profiteers are up to, we’ve got to keep the light burning.*
*If the reader wonders what light I’m talking about, then I’d suggest that a class in the liberal arts — the humanities or the natural sciences — might be in order.