The wonders of college

by CarlD

It’s that time of year in the halls of academe when hope springs and experience pings, when we imagine the sweet epiphanies we will share with excited and eager students, while remembering years past’s slow boring of hard boards.

Mikhail has some thoughts about the first year experience, I am teaching a class explicitly designed to frame the first year experience, each of us has memories of those rosy days, so this is probably a good time to recall Tim Clydesdale’s sociological work on teens in the first year of college. There’s a nice short review in the Chronicle, titled “The Myth of First-Year Enlightenment.”

He finds that students in their first year are perhaps uniquely resistant to the kind of deeply transformative experience we imagine is the real payoff of college, and indeed are busy just figuring out how to get along away from home. In the meantime they put the very core values we’d like to get them to question into an “identity lockbox” for safekeeping.

Clydesdale notes that “Only a handful of students on each campus find a liberal-arts education to be deeply meaningful and important, and most of those end up becoming college professors themselves…. And so the liberal-arts paradigm perpetuates itself, while remaining out of sync with the vast majority of college students.” Yup.

Practically, Clydesdale recommends several shifts of emphasis: from content inculcation to skills development; from lectures students will soon forget to class discussion of issues, perspectives and interpretations; and from grand goals about moral awakening to modest goals about competence.

Mikhail is quite right that our young charges “will have to get used to the idea that life is full of situations in which you have to learn something, even if it looks like a completely useless subject – remember, [they’re] not old enough or experienced enough to be the judge of what is or isn’t useless.” And the first year is part of that process. But as a matter of practical pedagogy in the face of brute sociological facts, much of what we can accomplish in the first year is to not so thoroughly turn them off with our sanctimonious attempts to jam goodness into their heads that they’ll never recover and will remain sullen anti-intellectuals for the rest of their lives.


9 Responses to “The wonders of college”

  1. As a first-year college student, I’m reminded of two articles, both of which are perfectly enlightened Cleysdale’s study. One is the Ken Steele study — typically used amongst first-year focused inquiry/English classes — about the 4 “types” of college students, and the other is the landmark “Why College Professors are Socialists?”. Unfortunately, I can’t find either at the moment, but I did find this,, which is both infuriating and, well, unsurprising.

    I’m a bit surprised to see him take endorsement to a shift from “content inculcation to skills development”; this might help students realize the pragmatism of said topics, but its hardly one for the purists – and, dare I say, self-defeating. Isn’t this the trade-school mentality that you would want to shy away from?

  2. Thanks for the link, Halldor. I agree, infuriating and unsurprising. One obvious problem with the whole “liberal academy” argument is that free inquiry and open consideration of diverse viewpoints is itself a liberal value – and not a conservative one, since what’s conserved is a predetermined truth. So the university itself would be impossible on conservative grounds, or rather would become merely a collection of tech programs. That said, there are value liberals and dogma liberals, and the professor being discussed in the link sounds like more the latter kind.

    Your question pokes right at the dangerous middle of this discussion. I hope what I and Clydesdale are arguing for is not an immediate practical payoff on the trade-school model, but a more thoughtful engagement with how a college education as such can pay off. We’re looking for somewhere between the geek utopia of deep moral transformation and the stripped wasteland of a tightly instrumentalized education where the only imaginable purpose of an English class is to learn where to put your commas.

    The skills proper to a college education are critical thinking, rigorous interpretation, and sensitivity to perspectives, alternatives and complexities. Such skills don’t pay off immediately and they’re in a sense value-neutral, but they’re what we need to become more thoughtful, reflective, effective, and actively moral people in the longer run.

    Hm, getting a little preachy here, sorry. In real life I just do this stuff without getting all on a high horse about it.

  3. Dyke the situation in Holland is equally tragic. At home, in Yugo, I studied psychology, and while searching for a continuation of my edu in the US noticed that most state universities had psychology programs that privileged the cognitive-behavioral strands of thinking, while at the U of Belgrade, modeled after the Franco-Russian matrix, they accented learning many different strands (from psychoanalysis to transactional analysis). Already in the 1990s it was obvious where this was going ie. that it was in the service of a smooth spread of marketing. But the real shock came when I started studying media design in Holland, where the liberalism in education I think is much greater than in the States. for the first time in my life I encountered real-life 19 year old zombies, people for whom reflectivity and morality appear as iPod signals being transmitted randomly through the network. This being among other things the consequence of the fact that they are not forced by the schooling system to actually attend classes, and they can drop the exam any number of times as they will certainly pass it in the end. I think this is definitely related to Calvinist pragmatism, but also, to socialist movements in the 1960s which radically transformed Holland.

  4. That’s interesting, CPC. My friend Bob knows more about how psychology works here, but my impression matches yours. I think you’re right too about the affinity of the behaviorisms to consumer society as both cause and effect; another dimension of that is health insurers preferring brief, practical therapeutics to long, holistic ones for cost reasons, pushing the education market in that direction. Finally, one must mention that in a mass higher education system quality must be diluted, and empathetically gifted therapists and well-read teachers of therapy will either be spread thin or clustered in few centers of excellence (comparable to Belgrade); whereas cognitive-behaviorism (whose best minds I actually quite admire) offers a set of simple theories and systematic methods that can be mastered and deployed by those of indifferent talents.

    Your second point sounds like the worst of both worlds. In the old days, as I understand it, European university students were also free to attend classes as they saw fit and take their exams at will, but self-discipline was required because the standards were extremely rigorous and there was no guarantee of passage. Marx’s case is illustrative.

    At least (or sadly?) dueling societies are no more.

  5. Just to make sure: we all agree that university education shouldn’t merely be a way to sort out those who correspond to a certain ideal from the “mass,” right? Because this might be where the disconnect lies. Parents, administrators, and would-be employers tend to focus on “university as filter,” at least in what I’ve seen in the United States. Some Canadians seem to subscribe to this view but it’s less dominant here.
    There’s also an endoctrination aspect, but it’s much less integrated a plan.

  6. Alexandre, I probably haven’t understood your question but I’ll take a crack at what I think you may be getting at.

    Right, mass university education shouldn’t merely be a sorting mechanism, but that is in fact what it is – a big filtering and sorting mechanism designed to facilitate staffing in the low to upper middle sectors of the economy. If university didn’t do that, the people who pay for it – ultimately, businesses who hire our graduates – would not do so, and most of us would be out of a job.

    Secondarily, we teach the students some things that are valuable to the same funders, most notably a certain kind of adult intellectual self-discipline, a process for which all of our particular specialized knowledges are just grist.

    Peripherally, we prepare our graduates to be more engaging at company parties.

    Finally, we provide convenient legitimation services by symbolically representing the ‘open society’ that underwrites the justice claims of the market economy. (This service function is much of why Bourdieu refers to academics as the “dominated fraction of the dominant class,” and it’s why so many ‘radical’ academics are permitted to bite the hands that feed them.)

    These correspond to the ‘refinement of the gentleman’ functions of the old elite universities, which continue of course to perform it for that same class of clientele. The research functions of the university are in some sense another matter, but in the humanities a trivial one.

    Anything else mass university education ‘should’ be for is stuff we can slip in around the edges, as long as the paying missions are not thereby compromised. That turns out to be quite a lot – planting the “landminds” we’ve talked about – so, not being a revolutionary, I’m happy to tolerate the more functional aspects of the situation.

  7. @Carl My question was a bit elliptical but you got it exactly. I quite like the last point. Sounds like the type of analysis I find a bit far-reaching but which still connects with what academics say about themselves.
    Engaging people at parties is a skill which seems to have lost a bit of its prestige since Proust’s time (or, at least, since Brel’s «Paumés du petit matin» was first recorded) but it still proves valuable. My guess is that many a corporation (especially in the “tech sector”) really enjoy having the gender-neutral equivalent of Woody Allen’s Whore of Mensa.
    About funding… I was (academically) raised in a context which gives value to “higher education for all.” University education is always funded in part by the public. Private investments are growing, especially in specific projects or programmes. Endowments and private sponsorships are unusual. Grants and fellowships come from funding agencies which depend from federal and provincial governments. Most professors are paid about the same salaries as everybody else, regardless of the prestige of the host institution. And people associate universities with all sorts of things which aren’t related, directly or indirectly, to selecting future employees, let alone train people for specific jobs.
    Even here, the system is broken.
    Oh, I’m not bitter or disillusioned. But I can say I easily get cynical.

  8. @Enkerli, nice. I’m 100% in favor of public funding for education. But in the United States in particular and capitalist economies in general, when the ‘public’ funds things it’s basically a way for businesses to transfer the costs of their interests to the working class.

    But again, not being a revolutionary, I don’t find this entirely upsetting. Our standard of living is generated by business, which needs relatively affluent and ‘sophisticated’ workers to also function as consumers. The final transfer of the costs of the core’s generalized nobility to the global peasant periphery does give a moment of pause, of course, but giving that up would also involve giving up the leverage to do anything about it. Hm.


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