December 9, 2020

College Isn’t Widget-Making

As with so many things written about higher education these days, it is hard to know whether or not to take Ryan Craig’s lament about the “boomerfication” of college seriously.

Mr. Craig does perform an earnest Cassandra, lamenting a system burdened and broken by monolithic buildings no one uses and academic programs from which no one graduates. But the real culprit in Mr. Craig’s sordid drama? The “Sir-Mix-A-Lot” approach to higher learning abetted (really, sullied) by the cult of self-realization Boomers impress on their charges, unsuspecting students wrapped in the tentacles of this “boomer cult.”

The argument attempts to sustain its persuasive force in part by gesturing to a recent episode of The Crown, where Prince Charles — the uber-Boomer! — embodies all that is wrong with college: We are lost in our own narcissistic gardens. Maybe Mr. Craig, he who would, in poor imitation of Walt Whitman, disrupt all things, is on to something. But then, as my Generation Z students might say: Nope.

The problem with Mr. Craig’s insights is that they are not that insightful, nor are they accurate. While he’s been busy (I suppose) writing books about how to make the college experience on par with widget-making, I’ve been teaching, researching, and participating in the shared governance of my small, private liberal arts college and I can say, resolutely, that faculty and staff across the United States are working diligently to realize learning outcomes, equip students with civic and professional skills, and impress the importance of building a portfolio of meaningful experiences that will prepare them to adapt, recalibrate, and, most importantly, competently perform atop a variety of platforms that comprise the ever-shifting worlds of work.

Where Mr. Craig sees so-called word-salads and wants to drown these in the dressing of  “value clear career paths,” I see faculty and staff doubling-down on professional relationships to help students imagine, name, and realize lives of consequence.

Mr. Craig lauds backwards design, insisting colleges should build back from employment. Such a commitment, it seems, privileges the goal line at the expense of the game: If the end of college is a job, then, yes, it may make sense to undertake the kinds of fleeting backwards design Mr. Craig has trumpeted in a variety of outlets, many consumed with the bottom line and market shares.

But here’s the thing: If college is to mean something, we simply cannot have the proverbial tail wagging the dog. Do I want my students to make lives of meaningful employment upon graduation? Absolutely. Is that why I teach, or why I think they should embrace the opportunity to throw themselves into labs, studio practicums, or discussion seminars? Again, as Gen-Zers with a penchant for cultural history might say: As if!

In his hurry to disrupt all things, Mr. Craig has missed the trees for the forest, and as with all good ideas, the particulars really matter. Two especially are paramount:

(1) Yes, the cost of a college education is high. And it is within the political imaginations of  state legislators and the federal government to dedicate more monies to supporting students’ desire to learn (over the last four decades the faucet of state budget lines for higher ed has reduced almost to a drip) and to imagine loan repayment and forgiveness programs that might ensure students do not graduate with crippling debt. (While Mr. Craig leans on Kevin Carey’s analysis of student debt in the New York Times, he fails to foreground what Mr. Carey identifies as the principal — and greatest — source of debt for those who seek advanced education: loans for graduate, professional, and medical school.)

(2) Students may have difficulty launching into their first career after graduation. This is hard to swallow. And what is required is not the disruption of higher education in the glittery ways Mr. Craig would make it anew (“A pathway on every campus! Mobility, equality, fraternity!”), but a genuine disruption of the world of work, one that challenges assumptions about what it means to actually “launch” and presents recent grads with different timelines and structures of support whereby success might be built slowly and intentionally. Such a disruption would go beyond the transactional arrangements that seem the best Mr. Craig can conjure. Because, really, this isn’t rocket science.

And it’s rocket science that spurs me to offer one last rebuttal to Mr. Craig’s curious lament. Like him, I’ll draw lessons from The Crown, these from Season Three. Central to the “Moondust” story is the midlife crisis in which Prince Philip is mired. As the episode unfolds, Phillip, who by this time has incurred reckless personal risk flying his private plane and taken to exercising obsessively to the point of drawing blood, makes acquaintance with Dean Robin Woods, the new in-house bishop of Windsor Castle. Woods wants to create a religious academy for clergy to promote spiritual and personal growth. (Navel-gazers, assemble!) Philip will have none of it: He chides the participants, hectoring them for indulging in “pretentious, self-piteous nonsense” and cajoling them, in ways Mr. Craig might surely relish, to take action.

The episode culminates with the Royal Family viewing the successful moon landing of Apollo 11. Upon their subsequent return to Earth, the astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins commence a twenty-two nation tour, stopping at Buckingham Palace, where Philip, who had been so moved by their bravery and what they accomplished, requests a private audience with the American heroes. (This meeting is a fiction, lending creative richness to the episode.)

The Prince is keen to learn: Did the astronauts encounter the transcendent? Were there moments during the voyage where they confronted essential questions about existence?  Considered the weight and worth of humanity or the sheer awe of the universe?  Collins speaks for the group: “We pretty much spent the entire time with lists in our hands.” Phillip returns to Woods’s academy where he states to the priests in attendance that he was wrong to presume they were somehow weak or misguided in turning their sights inward. The allure of technology, even the bravery of the Americans, these are not the prize, he confesses. Instead, Philip extends bona fide respect and admiration for the priests and their openness to live the questions.

College as Mr. Craig would remake it seems like nothing more than a grand check-list of so-called appropriate professional pathways, outcomes, and curated skills employers allegedly need. (I want my certificate!) These so-called reforms seem like little more than earnest bug collecting, students stomping about in search of the latest and greatest digital specimens (skills) to fill their collections while employers wait, eager to unleash their prospective new employees upon tasks that contribute to profit margins.

I suppose, finally, Mr. Craig is serious. So we should say: These emphases are not wrong, but their weight is thoroughly out of proportion. College with Mr. Craig would seem akin to bootcamp with Margaret Thatcher, Joe Rogan, and Charli D’Amelio. Students might learn a purpose of a kind, but they would utterly neglect the richness that comes from examining one’s fundamental assumptions and reflecting on one’s ever-fledging actions. Mr. Craig likens college to a zero-sum game: Either students are duped by the incense of the Boomers’ candles of self-realization or students must put their heads down and curate and collect and refine “real” skills for this digital world.

Missing from this unimaginative sketch is a robust conception of trust: A trust in faculty and staff to continue to collaborate earnestly to imagine and realize curricula of imagination, creativity, challenge, and curiosity; a trust in students both to immerse themselves in refining their civic and professional skills and confronting difficult questions that cannot be quantified or weighted against the lines of a corporate budget; a trust, finally, in the conviction that higher learning must ask more of students than confrontations with digital portfolios and sundry professional toolboxes. At stake, really, are our shared civic fortunes and the ideas that hold us together.