Communities

In an ideal world, that is a world as I like to imagine it, colleges and universities would be communities of learning, places where folks with different points of view, ages, and preferences meet to discuss with open minds the issues that have confounded humanity for generations. The emphasis here is on “communities,” since the idea is that there is a common purpose, a common goal: all are together to learn from one another and from other minds outside the community that are invited in to share what they know and join in the conversation.

In the real world, the world we all know and love, it is not quite like this. Increasingly, colleges and universities have become warring camps where faculty and students align themselves with one another on political or ideological grounds and dare others to intrude. Increasingly commonplace are such things as the denial of invitations to certain people to come to campus to join in the conversation; such invitations are met with howls of protest as they are regarded as the anathema of what education is now all about. Faculty members select reading material that conforms to their own particular “take” on the issues of the day, insisting that others have done so for generations and it is now their turn. Whether or not this is true, and I seriously question it, there is no place for this sort of selective indoctrination, the hammering into young and impressionable heads the last word on controversial topics that allow for a variety of opinions, indeed, demand a variety of opinions in order to help the young people to learn to think. Cultural diversity, with the stress on the superiority of other cultures (any other cultures) to our own, has taken the place of intellectual diversity, the open expression of a variety of points of view on complex issues. Shouting has replaced civil discourse, and open minds have been closed.

Years ago, when I taught at the University of Rhode Island there was increasing interest among faculty members in the new unions that were forming around the country. At URI we had the American Association of University Professors, the mildest form of union, but one dedicated to guaranteeing freedom of speech, intellectual freedom, and, of course, decent wages for the hard work that many are unaware goes into teaching the young. At the time I worried that this new wave of unionization might well lead to a confrontational relationship between faculty and administration, that it would destroy the collegiality that I though central to the purpose of a community of learning. How naive! But, in a sense, I was right. Unions, for all the good they do, tend to grow like an experiment gone wrong and to become all-powerful and all-important. Instead of working to protect the ideals of communities of learning they lend themselves to the growing conviction that education is all about business and learning must take a back seat.

All of this, I suppose, is the complaint of an old, fossilized college teacher who complains that things were never as they should have been but are even worse today then they were once upon a time. There is some truth in this, of course, as old folks tend to look back with rose-colored glasses. But, at the same time, it is undeniably true that the gap has grown wider and wider between the ideal of education as a place where the young come to gain true freedom, the possession of their own minds, and the reality of college as a business. I have seen it happening and while I have done what I could to close that gap I do realize that it is too little too late. Things were never ideal, and there have always been reasons to complain — legitimately so. But of late, the larger culture has come together with the academy to create a world within a world in which business is the order of the day and intolerance has replaced tolerance while the young struggle to understand why they are there in the first place — and how on earth they are going to pay for the privilege after graduation.

There are success stories, of course, excellent students who want to learn and grow led by dedicated teachers who realize that the student’s intellectual growth is of paramount importance, and it is not fostered by indoctrination posing as education . And these exceptions are the foundation on which to build our hopes as they are in the world at large where good people struggle to do good while all around them folks worry only about how to do well, how to “succeed” in ย world in which success is measured in dollars and cents.

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16 thoughts on “Communities

  1. Hey Hugh, good morning! As one of those so many for whom “university” was a fairy tale dream, I had to find “higher education” in some other ways. University became looked upon as that ivory tower; a processor of elitists; basically a type of brain factory to unleash expensive, entitled, controlling, greedy and power-hungry types into the world to fill up high-floor office spaces in government, medicine, law, religion, fake-modern art, scientific research and board rooms. There is a real university and it’s not a place with buildings and self-serving academics. It’s called the real world. Everybody is immersed in that one and they can learn from it or not. It too is expensive and increasingly mostly unaffordable but it’s certainly inclusive!

    • There are some good colleges and universities around, but you have to look closely. And you are spot on: you can’t learn everything you need to know in college. But if the college is worth its salt, it can help young people learn to think — which is what it’s all about, ideally!

  2. I was very fortunate in that when working on my undergraduate degree (University of Virginia), the majority of my professors were passionate about their topics and they used that passion to stimulate our interest, to awaken our desires to learn more, to think for ourselves. We were encouraged to look at life from a variety of viewpoints, to ponder and decide for ourselves which best fit our own philosophies. Had I been in college a decade later, it would have been different, for at some point it was decided that professors ought to be judged based on their pass/fail rate. Obviously, there is no way to measure or quantify how much a student was moved to think, to develop and mature, or to understand the world, and since society is big on being able to measure things, they decided to measure how many students received ‘good’ grades in a given class.

    I imagine there are still some who teach for the love of teaching and for whom it is more rewarding to see a student learn a new concept, a new ideology, to question long-held beliefs, than to have a 98% pass rate. But when your job, your tenure, your pay, depend on that pass rate … well, need I say more?

    Add to that the fact that parents and students alike seem to place more value on job-preparedness than on life-preparedness, and you have a recipe for dull, cookie-cutter colleges and universities. There will still be deep thinkers in the world, for there are those who will always ‘question everything’, but they will learn, as Sha’Tara mentions, from the larger “University of Life”. I hope someday the trend reverses and those exceptions you mention become the norm, for I, too, am an old, fossilized person!

    • When I started out teaching after receiving my working papers the President of the University of Rhode Island told the assembled faculty that it was important for purposes of retention that they not be too hard on their students. It’s going downhill from there! But I was lucky: I never had anyone telling me how to grade (I soon left URI) and I usually won over the bright students who kept me going. In my day, by the way, UVA had a terrific reputation. You were lucky.( I would have loved to have had a student like you in class!!)

      • At the time, it was a good school and I only had a couple of professors who were less than enthusiastic. Most challenged us to think, think, think. And I would have loved to have you for a prof, my friend! I probably would have driven you crazy, for I was always asking questions and even more often, arguing! But, except for my economics professor, they all seemed to like me well enough! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Frank Zappa once said “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want to get educated, go to the library.”

    Not sure I totally subscribe to this, but I understand what he meant. The emphasis today is less on learning about the world than on getting trained for a career to earn a certain salary. And “liberal arts” seems less about being educated about a wide range of things than learning how to be a good “liberal” (and I say this as a liberal). The militant identity politics on college campuses is doing society more a disservice than a service, and has contributed to the right-wing backlash America’s currently suffering. Would you agree?

    • I would indeed. Identity politics have become the word of the day. The militant element says publicly that their goal is to turn the colleges and universities into political training grounds to change the world for the better — i.e, as they see it. I’m glad I am retired!

  4. Hugh, very interesting reading. I think we all have to guard against our biases impacting the pursuit of truth. Yet, we also need fair renderings of issues where biased is minimized.

    A niece told me she watched both Fox and MSNBC to get a balanced view of issues. I told her she was not accomplishing her goal as she is getting a more extreme view of the issues. It would behoove her to watch neither and look at several sources where issues are addressed and bias is minimized.

    As for the theme of “community,” I wrote recently about David Brooks speaking of the need for communities to bring us back together. He referenced an initiative in one city to assure a community center exists in each neighborhood for BBQs, picnics, classes, parties, meetings, etc.

    I am awaiting a Father’s Day book which discusses creating communities in inner cities with community gardens. The author said you do not see much crime in a community garden. People are coming together because of food deserts. It teaches kids where food comes from.

    These community activities on college campuses which focus on the disenfranchised are the true difference makers in the students and receipients.

    Keith

    • No question but that communities are breaking down. It is sad. This is why my wife and I have chosen to spend our waning years in a small town where the sense of community is still strong.

      • Hugh, good decision on your part. I think like relationships, maintaining community centers is hard work. One community advocate noted when a school is closed, it also takes away a community center for after school programs, adult meetings with various groups, etc. Keith

  5. After 35 years teaching in high school and preparing kids for university and college, I have to say that the overwhelming majority of kids do not go on to post-secondary education to broaden their minds and learn how to think. They go to party and get a piece of paper that will be their ticket to a great job and the material comforts of life. I don’t blame them. I blame the guidance counselors who harangued them from grade 9 to grade 12 about career paths to follow. The adults in education need a huge attitude adjustment. Thanks for a great post, Hugh.

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