Has public higher education outlived its usefulness -- like cassette tapes and typewriters? Are our students "academically adrift," our institutions shams? Who benefits from this tale? Policy-makers and government officials are regarding public higher education as an industry that needs to operate on cheap labor in order to manufacture products. William Deresiewicz, Peter Brooks and Martha Nussbaum make clear the consequences: the dismantling of public higher education eviscerates the creation and perpetuation of knowledge, access to education, and the principle that an educated citizenry is the keystone of democracy.
The crisis in higher education must be redefined by those of us in public institutions who are living it daily. For us, there are two crises: the bowdlerizing of what learning means, and the critical need for a counter-discourse that will lead to material change in public attitudes and allocation of resources.
Numbers reveal a certain kind of information and conceal other kinds, such as what it means to be a human being. How do we quantify students’ experiencing the wonder of intellectual discovery, those moments when, as Rita Dove conveys so beautifully in her poem "Geometry," the ordinary is transformed into transcendent possibility? How is this learning accounted for when it occurs outside a public college course or institution, but is a direct result of both?
I prove a theorem and the house expands:
the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,
the ceiling floats away with a sigh.
As the walls clear themselves of everything
but transparency, the scent of carnations
leaves with them. I am out in the open
And above the windows have hinged into butterflies,
sunlight glinting where they've intersected.
They are going to some point true and unproven.
To those of us who teach working-class students that using their minds expands and transforms their lives, the data on spreadsheets is akin to thinking of students as if they were part numbers. In our classes, we propel students to grapple with the paradoxes of the "true and unproven" gleaned from different disciplinary perspectives. At semester’s end, we judge how well they’ve achieved this and other objectives and assign a grade. We can never assess, however, if, when, or how students integrate what they’ve learned into their psyches and experiences. Counting, quantifying, and measuring are not the only ways to make sense of what and how students learn. These methods do not illuminate the value of a college education to working-class students for whom privilege is not a birthright.
Stories and story-telling are other options, potent sources of information. Stories provide entrée to the inner life, "ourself behind ourself concealed," access to knowledge about what it means to experience learning. Stories humanize numbers on spreadsheets. They are a different kind of currency in an economy in which the exchange of ideas is the basis of community. Stories perform a multiplicity of functions as Robert Coles reminds us: they "point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course. They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers — offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we might make soundings." Stories, the ones we and our students tell, make possible an alternate way of thinking about learning, success, and achievement in publicly funded academic institutions.
Here is such a story. I was on a New York City subway deeply absorbed in reading Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried when a young man sitting across from me noticed the book’s title and started talking to me: “I remember that story. That’s the story that begins with the description of what the soldiers are carrying. Oh, I remember that story. We read it in my freshman English class.”
O’Brien’s book is indeed memorable. A searing account of soldiering in Vietnam, the collection of interwoven stories probes the anguish of war while meditating on the porous boundaries among reality, truth, and fiction. Most spectacularly, O’Brien employs the metaphor of carrying to convey the gravity of heartbreak, senseless loss, and war’s breach of moral ethics. "First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey," the first story begins. "They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack." Within the first two pages, O’Brien develops the metaphor further by listing the literal objects the soldiers wore on their bodies, hauled on their backs, and stashed in their pockets.
The subway encounter between the young man and me is as symbolic as the literal weight of the items the soldiers carried: the interaction encapsulates the very best a liberal arts general education can achieve. Something in the O’Brien text, the reading, the discussion, and the college classroom experience entered into the student, changed the way he constructed meaning, and became part of his world. Like the soldiers who carry the material and psychological weight of war, the student carries the book and the experience of reading it with him, and that is what inspired him to initiate connection with a stranger on a New York City subway.
The experience in the general education classroom provided the model for the interaction. The young man wanted to create connection about being moved emotionally, his discovery of the meaning of metaphor, and his memory of that experience. The interaction between the young man and me sparked by the O’Brien text suggests that the general education classroom fosters community building. Unknown to each other, the young man and I are part of a community premised on the idea that learning, and communing about learning, are fundamental, unifying values. Not limited by class or status, the community is the Jeffersonian ideal of an enlightened democratic citizenry. All involved, including the English professor who taught the class, the public institution in which the student took the class, and the faculty who designed the curriculum and deemed it a requirement, are academically on course, guided by a compass that keeps the true meaning of learning in view. Best explained by Ken Bain, true learning occurs when students embrace “new mental models of reality” spurred by teaching that cultivates their abilities to question, judge, evaluate, and construct meaning out of facts and information. True learning is personal and intellectual transformation.
In the story I just told, what proves the student’s learning? The student may not have done well in his freshman English class. He might have failed the class, transferred to another college, or dropped out for a year or two. He could be a statistic on a retention or graduation rate chart. Outcomes, measures, deliverables: inadequate. What this student learned is ineffable, as difficult to wrap our minds around as Emily Dickinson’s claim that the Brain is wider than the sky.
The Brain -- is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside
Dickinson’s dictum about the sanctity of the human imagination must guide us as we create a counter-discourse about the crisis in public higher education. Colleges and universities are not factories in which we produce widgets on an assembly line. Academics work with people, human beings whose height and weight can be measured, yes, but whose brains are wider than the sky, “For — put them side by side — /The one the other will contain/ with ease — and You — beside--.”
We need to create a competing conversation that honors the idea that brains are wider than the sky and deeper than the sea, “For — hold them — Blue to Blue — /The one the other will absorb — / As sponges — Buckets — do.” And we need to tell a collective story about what is right and on course about public higher education: the ways in which it defies an intellectual caste system and is currently one of the few places that comes close to realizing the American value of equality — in the diversity of faculty and students, and the pursuit of unregulated intellectual freedom.
Linda M. Grasso is professor and chair of English at York College of the City University of New York.
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