Friday, August 11, 2017

Welcome to college!

Source: Flickr
Without really meaning to, I've found I write an education piece about this time every year, which seems appropriate as America heads back to school. Since I wrote on K-12 policy earlier this summer, let's talk about the kind of school where I teach: college.

So you're going to college? Good for you! Having taught full-time at the college level for thirty years, it seems like a natural environment for me, but in the contexts of most people's lives it is a rather weird interlude, not to mention an expensive one. What I would like is for it to be a worthwhile experience.

From my perspective "on the inside," there are many misconceptions about college which can diminish your experience. A cranky column in Sunday's Cedar Rapids Gazette by northeast Iowa writer Sandra Reicks contains a bunch. From the column:
College campuses are heavily tilted toward liberalism. That's why most parents sending a child with conservative leanings off the college have had "the talk" with them. Know who has the power--professors. Know the likely political leaning of these professors--liberal. Know what could happen if you challenge their belief system--the "A" paper could become a "B" paper. Better to keep your head down, get through college, and let your conservatism shine after you have the degree in hand.
The column's argument contains some unstated premises: (1) College is important mainly because a degree provides a credential essential to most careers. How you get there is less important than that you get there. (2) The gatekeepers deciding who gets a degree and who doesn't are the professors. Achieving a degree is basically a matter of keeping the professors happy. If you do that, you can attend all the parties and play all the games you want. You could, I guess, do some assignments for classes, if you're into that sort of thing. (3) Today's society is essentially a battle between people who are Right and people who are Wrong. The Wrong are everywhere. There's nothing we can do about them, other than to avoid them to the extent possible.

If the first one was ever true, it certainly is no longer valid. There is a market for professionals, but it's a highly competitive one in which you will be with a lot of other people who are talented and had GPAs. What differentiates you from the rest will be critical: your ability to communicate, both written and spoken; your ability to think analytically and critically; the experiences you've had along the way; and whatever else you bring to the table that will pay for the cost of hiring you.

And your college wants you to succeed. Colleges have historically not been for-profit businesses, but that doesn't mean they don't operate in a highly competitive marketplace, or are insensitive to the bottom line. Colleges with satisfied, prosperous alumni have successful fund-raising campaigns and can use their reputation to attract the best new students. Colleges with unhappy, struggling alumni do badly financially and reputationally. Donald Trump didn't last long in the college business.

Without denyng the existence of ultimate truths, I argue that very few if any people are always Wrong, and no one is always right. Social phenomena are complex, and nobody has a complete handle on the truth. So the best, not to mention the wisest, way to a common life is through conversations in which the broadest possible set of perspectives is articulated and accounted for.

So, to the stated premise and conclusions: (4) Many college professors are ideologically biased to the extreme left, as well as being petty and vindictive. Therefore, conservative students should humor their professors, keep their own heads down, and figure out whatever they have to do to achieve a diploma.

This is tragically bad advice. It encourages the student to waste four valuable years by hunkering down and avoiding experiences, instead of accumulating experiences to prepare for the job market. It encourages the student to keep at a distance people who could serve as mentors. It encourages the student to close themselves off from others whose perspectives are different from theirs, when in fact they're going to be spending the next several decades of their lives dealing with them. It encourages the student to prepare for life as an "organization man," when that model of business has been absent for decades. It discourages the student from examining their beliefs, allowing those to become what John Stuart Mill (On Liberty, 1869, chapter 2) called "a dead dogma, not a living truth." Most tragically, it encourages the student to avoid opportunities to learn to disagree respectfully, which is a key life skill in the 21st century. Questions, challenges and contrary facts are NOT disrespectful; they show respect for the person and engagement with the argument. (And if we're only providing this for our conservative students and not our liberal ones, it's the liberals we're cheating.) Really, if students are getting and taking Reicks's advice, no wonder only 36 percent of Republicans think colleges and universities have a positive effect on America.

As a professor in the Internet age, I know I'm not the fount of knowledge, even in my field of study. I know less information than any student with a Smart phone. A classroom in which no one is the acknowledged authority is actually an exciting place where all can learn. What I can do is model the analysis of information from a number of perspectives, and moderate productive conversations. Any student who contributes to those conversations is welcome, and I value any perspective I can learn from. Maybe I'm unusual, but in this regard I don't think I am.

Of course, there need to be rules. An conversation that strives to be inclusive is going to make arguments for exclusion difficult-to-impossible. We need to respect data, however much our interpretations may differ. We need to respect each other, which means arguing in good faith, listening and responding to others, not being cynical, and not retreating into "Well, that's just me." Resist the temptation, which any exposure to social media will show is strong, to caricature and ridicule. Remember the goal is not "winning" some imaginary ideological contest, but to create a common life in which all can thrive.

I'm not saying this can be easily achieved or even easily described. (See my 2013 effort on deliberation.) The national political environment, and that of many states, has not for a long time provided much help by way of example. As David Koyzis points out, the ideal of inclusion exists awkwardly alongside revealed religions like Christianity which make absolute truth claims. (This reality leads me to wonder if a Christian, or a particular type of Christian, can be an urbanist, or an urbanist can be a Christian? I would say yes, and point to Eric O. Jacobsen as a prime example, but it requires a certain flexibility.) But if the way were easy, or straightforward, it would have been paved by now.

At some level, isn't this about negative assumptions about what people will think if I say I own a gun, or oppose abortion, or voted for Trump? (On the other hand, the personal is also political--how vocal should your opposition to homosexuality be in a conversation that inevitably includes gays and lesbians?) Such assumptions ahead of the fact amount to "verdict first, trial later" (if at all). Remember that in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) Jesus sends his disciples to "all nations," not to enclaves where they are to complain about the media and political correctness. Remember, too, the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, wherein this:
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.
You've got this.

SOURCE: Sandra Reicks, "Colleges Promote Diversity--Sometimes," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 8 August 2017, 3D

SEE ALSO: "A Silent but Needful Protest," 1 November 2016

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