Back-To-School Lit

Steve Volk, September 13, 2015

They arrive on our electronic (or real) doorsteps as punctually as the back-to-school adverts, and seemingly in the same quantity. Late August and early September in the United States is the season when the public is called on to contemplate the world of higher education… most often, what’s wrong with it. Today’s (Sept. 13) New York Times is devoted to higher ed. It includes an insightful piece on college tuition by Adam Davidson, a thought-provoking article by Annie Murphy Paul on whether college lectures discriminate (“A growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students”), a terrific essay by Edward E. Baptist on the challenges of “Teaching Slavery to Reluctant Listeners” (“Whenever we dredge up the past, we find that the rusty old chains we rake from the bottom are connected to some people’s present-­day pains and others’ contemporary privilege”), and Syreeta McFadden’s contemplation on “Teaching Martin Luther King Jr. in the Age of Freddie Gray.” Read them.

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Eva Hesse – Exhibition Catalog. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Along with these types of stories in the New York Times one encounters a raft of articles that chronicle a student arrival at college for her first semester, describe high schoolers teetering on the cusp of the college-decision-year, follow parents unsure of whether they can afford the university that has plucked their daughter’s heartstrings, and sermonize on how higher education has sold it soul.

And then there is the burgeoning journalism (back-to-school lit, I call it) that falls into the subgenre of “What’s-The-Matter-With-Kids-Today,” a nod to “Bye, Bye Birdie” of Broadway fame (“Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?”). These are the articles that lament the “The Coddling of the American Mind”, the rise of intolerance on campus, or, in the latest to appear, and in which Oberlin takes pride of place (The Atlantic, Sept. 11, 2015) , the spread of a new “victimhood” culture, an argument first described in the research of two sociologists.

There is much that can be said about the issues raised in these latter articles, and I would hope that faculty, staff, and students can discuss them further in a variety of settings. Here, I will only say that while many of us are confused or upset or angered by what not only appears to be, but is in specific instances, a fundamental disregard for the principles of academic freedom, we should also be aware of the context in which these articles continue to appear. Not to discount some of the arguments made, nonetheless the tendency in some of the reporting to generalize a relatively few examples of specific behaviors into a new student culture raises the question of how widespread these trends are within higher education. Similarly, to dismiss what scholars have found to be real and significant barriers to some students’ learning (what scholars have termed “microaggressions” ) by decrying or ridiculing the fact that a few students have deployed the concept in ways that are no longer recognizable or defensible, does not encourage a deeper understanding of what are important issues, and principles, for those of us who teach and interact with students on liberal arts campuses. Nor do these articles open the way to a productive discussion of the subject, something which is desperately needed. (Those looking for a well-researched introduction to the topic of microaggressions, for example, should consult the work of Derald Wing Sue of Teachers College, Columbia University – you can start here and here – or Kevin Nadal of John Jay College, CUNY – try here.) There certainly is much which we can, and should, discuss, including what I would term the emergence of a “safety” narrative on some campuses (usually elite, selective colleges or flagship university), but the seeming intent of the back-to-school-and-the-liberal-arts-colleges-have-all-gone-crazy articles to ramp up outrage against the education that takes place in these colleges should be interrogated along with the behaviors they describe.

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Richard Bosman, The Signal, from the Olive Press Print Portfolio II, Woodcut. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

We (the approximately 130 residential liberal arts colleges that remain) are a tiny percent of the overall higher education framework in the United States today (just over 2%, to be exact). There are nearly 20 million post-secondary students in the U.S. today, and many are struggling with debt, thinking about future employment, juggling studying with jobs and families, and just trying to learn in a political environment which disparages teachers and belittles actual knowledge. While writers in the Atlantic enjoy skewering liberal arts colleges as hotbeds of “political correctism” and left-wing students run amuck, and while we can share the anxiety of those wondering how any but the very rich will be able to afford a university degree, we are, in fact, doing many things right, and the back-to-school season is a good time to remind ourselves of this. Even researchers who have launched the most serious critiques of higher education for not adding to students’ capacity to think critically (Arum and Roska’s Academically Adrift, for example) have concluded that liberal arts colleges are getting it right.

So, what is it we do (and, I could add, why does it seem to make our detractors so angry)? To help answer this question, I turn to my polestar in these matters, John Dewey, and to a lovely article that the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1989 (“Education as Socialization and as Individualization”). In the article Rorty offers an explanation of why liberals and conservatives see the purposes of education so differently. Conservatives, he suggests, stress the importance of education for socialization while liberals argue in favor of education for individualization. (Interestingly, he observes, in the United States, education up to the age of 18 or 19 is mostly a conservative stronghold; it’s mostly about socialization, “of getting the students to take over the moral and political common sense of the society as it is.” Higher education, on the other hand, has been mostly a liberal’s domain, about encouraging Socratic skepticism, a place where “we hope that students can be distracted from their struggle to get into a high-paying profession, and that the professors will not simply try to reproduce themselves by preparing the students to enter graduate study in their own disciplines.”

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Ernest C. Withers, The “Little Rock Nine” first day of school, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Dewey’s approach, Rorty writes, wasn’t based on either conservative or liberal precepts. He offered “neither the conservative’s philosophical justification of democracy by reference to eternal values nor the radical’s justification by reference to decreasing alienation.” For Dewey, the promise of an education was its democratic value as an on-going experiment engaged in…by us. Dewey asks that we “put our faith in ourselves – in the utopian hope characteristic of a democratic community…” For Dewey, hope, “the ability to believe that the future will be unspecifiably different from, and unspecifiably freer than, the past – is the condition of growth.”

We, on campus, have been thinking much about both the value and valence of hope, as we pondered the words of Bryan Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, who was on campus last week and continue to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me in our reading groups.

For his part, Rorty sadly observed that there now are certain aspects of the U.S. educational establishment that Dewey couldn’t have foreseen, but that we should not hold this against his vision of hope. Dewey “could not have foreseen,” he wrote, “that the United States would decide to pay its pre-college teachers a fifth of what it pays its doctors. Nor did he foresee that an increasingly greedy and heartless American middle class would let the quality of education a child received become proportional to the assessed value of the parents’ real estate.”

Rorty is a Deweyan, and, as he put it, “We Deweyans think that the social function of American colleges is to help the student see that the national narrative around which their socialization has centered is an open-ended one. It is to tempt the students to make themselves into people who can stand to their own pasts, as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Susan B.] Anthony, [Eugene] Debs and [James] Baldwin, stood to their pasts. This is done by helping the students realize that, despite the progress that the present has made over the past, the good has once again become the enemy of the better. With a bit of help, the students will start noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surroundings. With luck, the best of them will succeed in altering the conventional wisdom, so that the next generation is socialized in a somewhat different way than they themselves were socialized…To hope [this way] is to remind oneself that growth is indeed the only end that democratic higher education can serve and also to remind oneself that the direction of growth is unpredictable.”

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Diego Rivera, Open Air School (1932), Lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

There are politicians and pundits, and, yes, some administrators, who, when reading the back-to-school lit which will make its way to their desktops, think that higher education is too important to be left in the hands of professors, let alone allow the students to have a voice in it. But I think of what it is that we have done and what we should continue to do. And I am reminded of what the Civil War historian, James McPherson, pointed out in his 1975 book, The Abolitionist’s Legacy (Princeton): an extraordinarily high percentage abolitionist leaders were shaped by their colleges. In a sample of 250 antislavery leaders, nearly 80% either had college degrees or spent time in college. This, at a moment when less than 2% of the overall population was college educated. If we are doing what we should be doing, our students, even those who might not get everything right as they attempt to cope with the world around them, what they bring with them, and what they are learning, will succeed in “noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surrounds” – and try to change it.

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