Thursday, January 27, 2011

Aspiring, Anxious, and Adrift: A Confluence of Worry About Higher Education

Let's turn, shall we, from the almost myopic concern with Mark Twain over the past months to a set of broader concerns.  This past week has brought a variety of responses to and reports about the state of American college and university life.  From Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift to William Pannapacker's (aka Thomas H. Benton) Chronicle of Higher Education essay "Getting Medieval on Higher Education" (January 23, 2011), to today's series of reports on the declining mental health of college and university freshman (January 28, 2011 in both the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education), it's clear that we are about to experience a confluence of perspectives.  Today's students, we are told, are full of aspirations, anxious, and adrift.  And the one way to ease their upset is to turn back to the Rule of St. Benedict.  Interesting.  And maybe even right.

Benedict, of course, was the founder of the Benedictine Order, a monastic community that adheres to strict communitarian rules and turns away from the seductions of the physical world.  To his credit, Pannapacker is not arguing for a turn to narrow religious training for 21st century students.  He does make a case that a substantial number of colleges and universities have lost their way, embracing a mission more appropriate for health or vacation resorts, with an emphasis on the latest gym equipment or entertainment and social activities rather than on education (at the least) or a life of the mind (at its most profound).  My own institution's interest in building a "club med" dorm is one example.  Students are pushed to participate in social events, organizational activities, and entertainments in an attempt to keep them happy and on campus.  Gone is the focus on intellectual growth or experimenting with learning.  It's more important that you join a club than read a book. 

The draw of the monastic life of the mind may be long dead, but I wonder if it's possible to resurrect some portion of its power if we think of it as a way to focus student (and faculty and administrator) attention on content and the possibilities for learning.  A simpler academic life may, in fact, help to mitigate the pressures now placed on students (by parents, by institutions, by society) to achieve honors and gain a set of accomplishments:  learning and the focus on the process and content of learning might be a way both to respond to our students' anxiety level and to increase the learning that takes place within our supposed institutions of higher learning.  It might even be less expensive by diminishing the competition to be ever more modern and ever more luxurious (a well-funded library would be prized about a well-appointed dorm or gymnasium).

It might be worth a try.  Of course, it would mean that an institution would have to do a good bit of soul searching and mission exploration.  And it would mean a radical adjustment to definitions of achievement and quality.  And not every college or university would make that change -- nor should they.  But some could.  And maybe for those few, the change would offer a renewed commitment to learning.  Perhaps.

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