You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Matt Rowland Hill, a Welsh journalist, memoirist and book reviewer and the son of a fundamentalist Baptist preacher, describes the loss of religious faith as a shattering experience: “an internal catastrophe—the voice of God falls silent, comforting certainties are overturned, notions of right and wrong vanish into thin air.”

One doesn’t simply lose faith but often is stripped of family and community connections, forcing a former believer to seek “new illusions or new salves for pain.”

Many of literature’s great works—from the biblical book of Job to Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain—describe tortured dramas of doubt, disillusionment, anguish, loss, alienation and confusion, followed by an unending quest for “dogmatic certainty and the promise of a just world to come.”

I write today about another crisis of faith.

It’s not a secret: faith in higher education’s promise is fading. Not in the college credential, but in something far more meaningful than that: in higher education’s transformative power, in learning as an adventure and a universe expanding, in education as a pure and noble pursuit.

Wesleyan president Michael Roth recently published a manifesto on behalf of lifelong learning—an education that “in its ideal form, being a perpetual student is not an act of avoidance but rather a path to perpetual self-determination and freedom.” President Roth goes on,

“Ultimately, the true student learns freedom by developing curiosity, judgment and creativity in the service of one’s own good and the good of their communities. This flourishing is different from being trained by an instructor to do a task or earn a badge and it is different from the satisfaction one gets through acquiring objects or experiences in the marketplace.”

My “Higher Ed Gamma” partner, Michael Rutter, is the poster child for lifelong learning. Not only did he receive a classic liberal arts experience high up on a hill, but he subsequently attended night classes, attended extension courses, took online courses, acquired a Micromaster’s and participated in study groups, book clubs and myriad forms of informal and formal learning. He also produces learning content—books, MOOCs and more—designed for students for all stripes to get on the path to advanced education.

That commitment to lifelong learning, not for a credential or a promotion, but for its own sake, does seem to be imperiled. A kind of cynicism and pessimism has taken hold. Inside Higher Ed’s John Warner has called out the waning belief in colleges as “places where people discover and enhance their capacities.”

He’s certainly quite right to worry that figures like Roth are caught up in a gauzy nostalgia for a halcyon past that was never widely shared.

What with Varsity Blues, grade inflation, lazy rivers, student debt and administrative bloat, it’s hard not to see signs of a deep rot within higher ed. The five-alarm fires that surround higher ed have yet to be contained.

Warner, in his inimitable, ineffable and acerbic style, describes how he has tried to sell his students “on the experience of college being as important, or more important, than their ultimate transcript—probably because this was my experience, but also because it’s true, or should be true, at least.”

Then, he looks around at the dismantling of West Virginia University and the entire Florida state university system and asks how the typical student, balancing financial job and family constraints, can focus on intellectual thriving.

We might ask ourselves: Is there a lighted pathway out of today’s haunted reality?

The crisis of religious faith is not hard to explain. As one writer, Brink Lindsey, puts it,

“The Reformation shattered the unity of western Christendom; the Scientific Revolution progressively substituted rational understanding for divine mystery; the Enlightenment asserted the power of reason over faith in guiding human affairs; Darwin further shrank the scope of the miraculous by explaining all of life’s teeming diversity and revealing humanity’s kinship with the rest of nature.”

Lindsey goes on:

“Other social developments, carrying forward into and through the 20th century, further contributed to secularization. Industrial capitalism resituated human existence from proximity to nature, where the divine presence is often sensed, to a world of technological and organizational artifice where the traditional religious virtues have little relevance. Modern medicine demoted the importance of faith and prayer at life’s most critical junctures. The rise of the welfare state relieved the church of some of its key social functions in ministering to the poor and sick.”

The result: “The felt presence of the divine, once ubiquitous and incessant, shrank until it was all but reduced to the inside of churches on Sunday mornings … What the sociologist Peter Berger called the ‘sacred canopy’ has shattered and fallen to earth.” Whether you regard the drift toward secularism as a tragedy or a tale of progress, demystification and the advance of scientific thinking, we do know that there has been a strong connection between the ebbing of participation in organized religion and a decline in rich social connections and life satisfaction and interpersonal trust.

As Lindsey notes, we’ve also witnessed a decline in this country’s civic religion—“the quasi-religious faith in American promise, rooted in an understanding of America’s founding as a sacred covenant to live according to the high ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence.”

The loss of faith in higher education may lack the gravity and drama of the falling away from organized religion, yet that doesn’t mean it’s without larger cultural significance. While some of higher ed’s bitterest critics might liken the classroom to Satan’s synagogue, I, for one, still regard it as a sacred space where, at its best, something like communion and transubstantiation and the search for transcendent meaning take place.

A decade ago, I was among those who naively and unrealistically believed that scaled open learning was the first step toward untethering learning, democratizing higher education and elevating students everywhere. I was quite taken with 2U’s tagline: “no more back row.”

I was not alone. In my colleague Michael Rutter’s words,

“That such fever dreams were coming, in part, from elites seemed ever more important, as these were the kinds of places with literal gates around their campuses and ones with impossibly low admissions rates and restricted access posh alumni clubs in all the major world capital cities.”

In his “Just Visiting” columns, Warner was quite right to poke fun at the unbridled enthusiasm of amateur tech hackers who believed that they’d be able to disrupt institutions that had not had a true refresh since the 1700s. He knew that he was popping the balloons of a passing innovation fad.

But he also knew that in their misguided way, those who us who promoted MOOCs were, at heart, trying to elevate teaching, celebrate learning and promote a utopian view of the importance of higher ed.

He skewered those who thought that recorded lectures coupled with multiple-choice questions could replicate the classroom’s magic. He wasn’t so much defending traditional classroom learning but the art of teaching, the importance of mentorship and the fact that learning requires engagement and interaction, close and critical reading, the active processing of information, and thinking through the act of writing.

He was right, and even the converts turned and admitted the errors of their ways.

I worry that learning for its own sake has become the ultimate class privilege. It has become a playground for the already highly educated and is not truly available to those who cannot interrupt family, work and other demands on their time and money.

A recent article in The Telegraph discusses what the author, the University of Wisconsin’s Nicholas Hillman, calls the college marketplace myth: that high school students should “meticulously shop around for colleges nationwide and pick the best fit.” In response, policy makers devote immense resources “into massive information campaigns and programs that help students choose among schools—such as College Scorecard, College Navigator and tuition watchlists.”

This is all for nothing. As Hillman points out,

“Only 1 in 5 undergraduate students travel outside their home state for college, according to research I conducted with the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit that advocates for student-centered public policies. And typically, students travel less than 17 miles from home—generally attending a community college or local public university.

“That’s not due to a lack of talent or educational aspirations. It’s because a growing number of students need to care for family members, have close ties to their communities or have work responsibilities. Even with a scholarship, many still won’t want to travel far. They just want to get a good education close to their homes and communities. And contrary to the ‘classic’ image, 1 in 3 undergraduate students are older than age 24.”

He’s right: the version of college that most students encounter is far more rooted in grit, dust and grime than at a liberal arts college and flagship campus. It is transactional, and the brains onboard are often juggling multiple competing priorities.

Rutter shared some valuable advice: rather than expect our students’ personal journey to be akin to ours, we need to meet our students where they are and “open the shades a crack and do the best you can with the light that remains.”

We may not be able to fundamentally alter our colleges and universities, but we can certainly ignite a fire and fan the flames. It’s fully within our power to make our classrooms into intellectually intense communities of inquiry, transform learning into an odyssey of discovery and be the mentors that our students need.

Don’t succumb to pessimism. Don’t be disappointed that a college education isn’t more.

More than two millennia ago, the Roman poet Lucretius wrote of the “vitai lampada,” the torch bearers who transform the lives of those around them. Do your best to carry that guiding light.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Next Story

Written By

More from Higher Ed Gamma