Moving the Rock

It's strange how things come together in your unconscious mind.  The great French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare claimed that his most brilliant ideas came to him in that drifting, unfocused quasi-dream state that immediately follows awakening.  He had spent weeks trying to prove the non-existence of a mathematical concept known as Fuschian functions.  After a restless night, he awoke and somehow knew they existed.  Weeks later, while on vacation, the idea of how to prove their existence flashed into his mind seemingly from nowhere.

I too have been stewing on something: my dissatisfaction with the core capstone.  Everything about it isn't working.  The students are going through the motions (as am I), the discussions are lifeless and seemingly irrelevant to the reality of higher education.  But I should probably back up.  The core capstone is the culminating experience of our core curriculum.  In it students review the meaning, value and use of their liberal arts education.  They assess their personal experience, debate the value of specific disciplinary perspectives, and articulate how their education relates to their roles and responsibilities as citizens in a diverse society.

Sounds terribly high-minded, doesn't it?

The problem is that the core capstone doesn't necessarily cap a coherent liberal arts education for many of my students, who are increasingly likely to have transferred in with credits from community colleges or multiple institutions.  Somehow I have to paint a thin coat of liberal arts happy talk over a grab bag of general education courses taught with widely divergent aims to students of widely divergent academic preparedness. My core capstone is often the only place in their mix-and-match coursework where they are asked to think about it amounting to a coherent whole. It's not surprising that they don't have much to say.  After all, that's not what they experienced. 

Anyway, all this has been simmering under the surface for weeks.  At the same time I've been on a bit of a book buying binge.  Among the dozen or so titles I bought are two relating to the state of higher education today:  Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by the classicist and law professor Martha C. Nussbaum, and Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by the sociologists Richard Arum and Jodipa Roksa. 

Nussbaum's thesis is that there are two competing models of higher education in the United States today: an emergent and increasingly-powerful economic growth model that sees education strictly in terms of its relationship to economic development, productivity and market competitiveness.  The other is an older human development model in which the aim of education is to cultivate human beings who can responsibly partake in and strengthen a democratic society.  Nussbaum points out that it's possible to have robust economic growth without democracy (witness China).  It's also possible to be economically dynamic while tolerating massive inequality (witness the former South Africa).  It's not possible, however, to maintain democratic institutions without a critically-aware citizenry imbued with an ethos of civic virtue.

Academically Adrift, on the other hand, maps the multi-faceted forces that shape under performance in student learning in American colleges and universities.  It's not the usual ideologically-driven jeremiad attacking lackluster professors, lazy students or obtuse administrators.  Rather, it shows how many competing pressures and perverse incentives contribute to poor student performance throughout higher education.  Indeed, the economic imperatives that Nussbaum notes are just one of many factors at work here.  In fact, most colleges and universities today try to synthesize both models. There is a nominally liberal arts core and an array of career preparation majors. The problem, as Nussbaum argues, is that the two models often create contradictory incentives.  And, she says, the human development model is on the ropes these days.

* * * * * *

So last night I came home from my night class and complained to my wife about how unhappy I have been teaching the core capstone. The questions I am asking, the discussions I am trying to lead, and even the texts I am assigning all seem completely irrelevant to my students and their experience in higher education.  I talk about the value of a scientific perspective, of historical awareness, of Socratic skepticism, of civic virtue, and they look at me like I'm nuts. Drowsing in bed this morning it occurred to me that the core capstone is ground zero of the clash of educational models that Nussbaum describes. I'm talking about the old model while most of my students are living in the new one.

They came to college to enhance their value as potential employees.  And civic virtue and democratic participation?  They mostly don't vote and can't see the point.  About three weeks into the capstone--while we're reading the Crito--I ask them what they morally owe their society for the benefits they have enjoyed.  It's often the first time in nearly 16 years of education that anyone has asked them this question.  So of course any discussion of the value of the liberal arts (i.e., the skills needed for a free citizenry) sounds alien to them.  Who talks that way today outside of a few hand wringers like me or the boilerplate writers of college mission statements?   

It makes rational sense to get the maximum benefit for the least investment in the model of education they have experienced.  The C student gets the same diploma as the A student, so the A student is a bit of a sucker.  Buy low, sell high.  But when I ask them to identify what's meaningful in their education, they speak only in terms of their own transformation.  The courses they value are not the easy As received for under-performing.  No, they're the ones in which they discovered a passion, developed an interest, or found out something new about their own potential. 

So how in the world do we change the discussion in this country when I have a hard enough time doing it in my classroom?  My students think of education as a transaction, but they only locate value in its capacity for transformation.  It seems like that would be enough, but time and again it's the transaction side of the debate that wins in the larger societal discourse.  How do we move the rock?   I dunno.  I'm stumped, tired and out of ideas.

Maybe it's time for another nap. 


Anonymous said…
Happy 300th post!

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