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Thoughts on Community Change and Higher Education

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As leaders of state universities across the country, including our own, work assiduously to remake their institutions into de facto private for-profit revenue-generating institutions as public funding for their operations continues to fall, I am reminded that this turn has resulted from our society’s collective choice to fear the future. For it is fear, fear of economic and social change particularly, that has persuaded our nation’s citizens to turn to a neoliberal governance philosophy that has promoted an atomistic individualism and that has assigned the market to serve as the primary arbiter of social choice. That collective decision has also resulted in the ongoing delegitimation of our nation’s principal democratic institutions, including its public and private universities, and a companion pressure to make those institutions that do survive this assault resemble for-profit entities.

It is important to emphasize that contrary to the misleading claim that higher education institutions exist apart from society in an “ivory tower,” public universities are rooted in their states and communities and have not been exempt from the overwhelming force of this epistemic shift in our society. Instead, their executives have for decades now attended to the latest management and leadership constructs at play among corporate leaders and adopted and adapted those in an ongoing attempt to retain a modicum of legitimacy and to demonstrate that they, too, can be “entrepreneurial,” efficient and “nimble,” and that their organizations can survive in the neoliberal environment thrust upon them.

I mention none of this to criticize those leaders who in good faith have sought to navigate what has effectively been a Hobson’s choice for their schools: “Take what you are given and behave as demanded or be deprived completely of the resources necessary to address your assigned missions.” Most public higher education executives have been moving their institutions to align with the neoliberal reality they confront by agreeing to commodify what their organizations do and to evaluate virtually all that they undertake against market-derived metrics. Moreover, many, if not all, public universities are now increasingly asking their faculties to design educational experiences for students so as foremost to maximize revenues for their institutions and to serve existing job markets, with any broader purposes becoming secondary considerations.

These trends have been carefully analyzed and have been the subject of sharp argument by many authors, including some highly respected higher education leaders. I describe this overarching trend here for context, as I want to comment briefly on a significant consequence of this shift in what public universities do and how they do it: the loss for the civic imagination and for self-governance that this turn represents. That truncation, in turn, is consequential for our society’s post-secondary students because their capacity for self-governance or lack thereof represents our future. Indeed, our current governance crisis, symbolized by demagogic leadership and active efforts to abridge, if not abrogate, the civil and human rights of selected/targeted groups, provides partial evidence of the dangers of our society’s choice to cower before the future and to pretend that markets can govern. Nevertheless, in the name of ensuring relevance, whatever that may mean in a constantly changing consumer-driven society, students are now treated to curricula tailored ever more carefully to perceived market requirements and are provided experiences that enshrine preparation for employment as the principal measure of what constitutes a successful education.

While none of this is new, this trend toward remaking universities into simply vocational training centers is now proceeding at an unprecedented pace as tens of thousands of students enter post-secondary institutions pressed relentlessly by their families to take only such courses as those mentors perceive to be job- and occupation-relevant. This unremitting force suggests that public universities can scarcely be expected to be immune from this cultural tsunami of claims, rooted finally in fear. And that fear appears rapidly to be creating an environment in which only that curricula and those activities that serve the perceived present desires of the market place are likely to receive university leaders’ attention, let alone their support. Indeed, many public education leaders are today celebrating private corporate actors as “partners” in curriculum design and delivery in the name of ensuring their institutions’ market relevance.

What is in danger here are experiences that universities have long afforded students that enable them to grow personally and to deepen their self-understanding and their comprehension of other human beings and the broader human experience, and that will enable them to pursue fuller personal and professional lives. Ultimately what may be in jeopardy is their individual and collective capacity to imagine possibilities beyond those now extant and to deliberate as citizens in ways that can ensure their continued freedom and engagement in self-governance.

In a recent keynote presentation at a conference of the nonprofit organization On Being, the English poet and philosopher David Whyte shared a poem he recently published that treated the question of human possibility, broadly understood:

Just beyond / yourself. // It’s where / you need / to be. // Half a step / into / self-forgetting / and the rest / restored / by what / you’ll meet. // There is a road / always beckoning. // When you see / the two sides / of it / closing together / at that far horizon / and deep in / the foundations / of your own / heart / at exactly / the same / time, // that’s how / you know / it's the way / you / have / to go. // That’s how / you know / it’s the road / you / have / to follow. // That’s / how you know. // It’s just beyond / yourself, / it’s / where you / need to be.[1]

When reading this poem, I was struck that while it can be read several ways, it can be interpreted as a clear statement of the raison d’etre of universities. At their best, higher education institutions seek to engage and encourage those who enroll in them to enter into a journey, a life-long quest, to become more deeply aware of their own frailties and possibilities and of those of humankind. This fraught intellectual and moral adventure requires reflection, empathy, imagination and courage, even as it encourages an ever-deepening self-awareness.

The intellectual and emotional voyage that lies at the heart of higher education is not for the faint of heart and it does not rest on technical capacity in whole or even major part. Rather, it demands that those who traverse it grapple with the complexities of the human experience and have the courage finally to admit the humbling truth that they can only do what their talents and enterprise will allow and that these will never permit all they might wish to attain. Along this path, those launched well on their voyage can learn much, devote themselves deeply and emerge a more fully human and more fulfilled professional. But to enjoy such fruits, or rather, to experience all the vicissitudes that they may accompany or themselves yield, requires an openness and a curiosity to that “beckoning road” rather than a closed sense of self driven foremost by fear and therefore characterized and limited by a dearth of imagination.

All of this is of moment for the Institute as we work with an interdisciplinary group of graduate students developing IPG’s rapidly evolving Community Change Collaborative (CCC). One piece of that multi-faceted effort has found the students working with towns and communities in Appalachia hard hit by calamitous economic and social change in recent decades and seeking to discern a way forward amidst the polarization, poverty and shock their populations are experiencing. The students have assumed this responsibility aware that the present political moment blames those communities for their woes on the one hand and simultaneously and paradoxically, promises a nonexistent panacea for those difficulties on the other hand. The Collaborative’s members enter these communities, too, deeply aware that there is no known “technical fix” for the citizens’ plights and that their very brokenness makes it harder for the populations of each to take such steps as they can to survive in the existing political economy. Finally, even should the initiative successfully aid a share of these towns as they elaborate a way ahead for themselves, the students involved must nonetheless humbly acknowledge that there is no such thing as certainty in such efforts because it remains unclear that the market will again support these communities as communities over the long run.

The capacities these students most require as they engage in this work with communities are empathy, moral courage, a profound respect for those with whom they interact and an abiding hope that shared action can make a difference for those most affected. These values and capabilities and the deep sensitivity that must join and suffuse them necessitate that those involved, in Whyte’s words, realize that their work in these towns will demand foremost, “that the road [they] you have to follow… it’s just beyond yourself, it’s where you need to be.” [2] They must work to assist citizens as they seek to overcome their own divisions and fragilities to fashion possibilities for themselves. Moreover, the CCC students must undertake this work in a way driven not by a hubris born of apparent market value or false certainties, but instead by humility and an abiding belief in human dignity and the energy arising from their shared humanity with those they would assist.

One may hope that Virginia Tech will continue to support those values and the educational paths that culminate in the realization of such efforts. Anything less would not only result in the potential collapse of this and future similar projects, but also represent a deeper and more eventful societal failure of these students and of the broader democratic project of this country. Whether this nation succeeds or perishes depends not on these young leaders’ technical training and knowledge, but on their deeper and abiding understanding and disciplined pursuit and veneration of human dignity and possibility.

Notes

[1] Whyte, David, “Poetry from the On Being Gathering.” https://onbeing.org/programs/poetry-from-the-on-being-gathering-david-whyte-opening-night-sep2018/?utm_source=On+Being+Newsletter&utm_campaign=d9c031eea6-20180915_ThePause&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1c66543c2f-d9c031eea6-70098757&mc_cid=d9c031eea6&mc_eid=d39b572b52 Accessed September 16, 2018.

[2] David Whyte, 2018. “Just Beyond Yourself,” The Bell and the Blackbird. Langley WA: Many Rivers Press, p. 21. 

Publication Date

October 1, 2018

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