U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What I Would Say

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.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “. . . 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.'”


    I was curious if you see some of these “disruptors” in popular culture? For example, do shows like Community contribute to the discussion as to how higher education is viewed? I find myself taking away mixed messages from the various movies, tv shows, and music circulating today.

    Do you see particular spheres that are contributing more of these “disruptors” than others (politics, entertainment, legal systems, or economics, for example)?

  2. Mark, I had nothing so subtle in mind as the potentially disruptive influence of various cultural reflections/refractions of university life. But thanks for your generous reading of my post.

    In using the term “disruptors,” I was gesturing toward the Ted-talk-ing, nonsense-peddling “innovators” in the education reform movement industry — the MOOC cheerleaders, the “assessment”/testing propagandists. All these education experts who have never taught a history class or a literature class or, for that matter, a physics class, but are just sure that the way to increased opportunity and improved educational quality is to offer online instruction in lieu of face-to-face pedagogy. Not that they would ever put *their* children through such an “education,” nor send their college-bound sons and daughters to universities that treated a MOOC as the equivalent of a face-to-face lecture with discussion section leaders.

    If parents really understood the bait-and-switch that some are trying to foist on them — with the “innovators” trying to turn publicly funded higher ed into a glorified diploma mill for the profit of private corporations who will provide all those marvelous alternatives to face-to-face instruction…for a modest fee to taxpayer supported universities — I think they would be outraged. I hope they would be.

    I think working class students deserve better than a diploma. They deserve an education. And I think that, beneath all the very real anxieties about whether or not this or that college degree is going to help their sons or daughters find a job, there is probably an expectation or at least a hope that the education itself will have some intrinsic value to the student that might not necessarily be measured in expected lifetime earnings.

    I think one possible strategy for combating some of this egregious plundering of the public good would be to take the issue to parents, and frame it as a fairness issue. Why should only “the best and brightest” benefit from face-to-face instruction? Why should the children of working-class parents get a watered-down version of a college education? It is precisely those families with the least familiarity with the prestige economy of higher education that will be most likely to fall for the “innovative” schemes of education profiteers.

    Explain to some family who has saved and borrowed and sacrificed in order to get their kid to college that a bunch of private companies are trying to figure out a way to make a tidy profit off of these students by increasing the quantity and reducing the quality of enrollment hours — they might push back against that kind of “disruptive innovation.” Someone who has the good sense and good ear to frame this issue in a way that taps into (rather than disdaining) populist sentiment might just discover the secret to stopping education “reform” while it is still on the way to the bank.

  3. http://www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=2892

    My alma mater is Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, a formerly Presbyterian, internationally-minded college of some 2000 students. It can count among its past students and faculty Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Kofi Annan.

    I was aware that the college had become dependably politically correct. But at the alumni weekend in June I discovered just how far Macalester has moved from the values of “Western Civ” it instilled in the 1960s.

    Macalester’s course offerings and descriptions may be accessed on its site. They quickly reveal an appearance of bias.

    For example, to major in history, a student would likely take the introductory American history series. The first logical course would be History 135, entitled American Violence to 1800: Age of Contact to the American Revolution. The second course in this series is History 136, American Violence 1800 to 1865: The Early Republic to the Civil War.

    No additional broad survey of American history past 1865 is offered (not enough violence?), but narrower slices of American history are. They include History 248: Jim Crow, as well as History 228: Gender and Sexuality in Colonial America and the Early Republic.

    Similar titles and course descriptions that appear to promote grievances and victimhood exist throughout many other departments. For example, our American Studies program declares that it emphasizes “race as a central dimension of U.S. History and contemporary social life.” One of the courses is on the “Hunger Games” novels.

    Or if a student wants to study art history, offerings include such courses as: “Gender, Sexualities, and Feminist Visual Culture,” and “Race, Ethnicity, Class, and Gender in American Art.”

    The obsession with race and gender continues throughout the catalogue.

    On the other hand, Macalester does have a course on entrepreneurship—but it has been offered just once in the last seven years.

  4. Recent essays by Thomas Frank and Diane Ravitch go to many of the points Lora raises here. There’s a growing consensus about some of the problems of education (higher and lower), but the solutions posed thus far are still a bit diverse—and disrupted by the corporate influences up and down the education chain. – TL

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