Hidden Decisions

One of my favorite anthropological writers, Clifford Geertz, once claimed that every good anthropologist he’d ever met or trained had felt like an outsider as a young person. That makes perfect sense to me; if you take the rules of a culture for granted, if they just work for you, then you have no reason to notice them. (That’s why our various sorts of privileges, whether rooted in gender or race or economics, are so hard to root out; the people who benefit from them are the least likely to recognize them.)

I wrote almost twenty years ago, about a suburban strip road, that our desires for trivial choice had brought about a remarkable reduction of meaningful choice. If we demand to be able to go to a store and choose from among thirty brands of toothpaste and twenty styles of bacon and nine different flavors of Doritos and a hundred and twenty different beers, then we’ve chosen exactly one kind of store that can provide that, and exactly one kind of landscape to put that store upon.

It’s important to do the same kind of investigation about any endeavor, and higher education should be doing the same. Let’s take an obvious, inevitable part of a college as an example: the registrar’s office. The registrar (now a collective noun encompassing anywhere from several people to several dozen) records which courses a student has taken; which of several thresholds have been passed (declaration of major, passage of mid-career exams, graduation, and so on); and the individual grades and patterns of grades for all of a student’s courses.

That seems inevitable. You can’t have a college without it. But why? What does the ubiquity of that function tell us about the hidden decisions of higher education? Or to ask it another way, what kinds of organizations and experiences don’t have a registrar?

Restaurants, for instance, don’t have registrars. We go to have an aesthetic experience, we’re educated by waiters and bartenders and sommeliers about the fine points of what’s available and how it’s prepared, but nobody else cares after the fact that we went there. The unlikelihood of a registrar for restaurants (or for museums, or for bookstores, or for travel) helps us see that a core function of that office is external communication; they’re keeping a record for someone else to examine at a later time.

And what information are they keeping? A record of progress toward a set outcome; the achievement of that outcome; and a comparison of one student’s performance against another’s. This tells us that a college degree is a standardized product; that the possession of that product has economic or social value; and that the value of that product can be measured in relatively unambiguous terms (both by the GPA and by the name of the school at the top of the transcript). If the college can’t communicate your ownership of a high-quality version of their product, then your experience is deemed to not have mattered. This is quite unlike the experience of reading books or seeing movies or eating at nice restaurants, which have the same nominal goals as college—to take pleasure and become more sophisticated thinkers.

The simple fact of a registrar function reveals the work of college as a sorting device for white-collar society, to separate those who belong from those who don’t, and to further separate the excellent from the acceptable.

What does the presence of so many women’s centers or support groups for minority students say about college? It says that we’re trying to invite women and people of color into the fold while simultaneously not having to change the institution very much. College as we know it was designed for the sons of the wealthy to consolidate and advance that wealth; if we don’t change its basic structures, then we’re asking everyone else to accommodate to a model inherently not well fit, and we bolt some support groups onto it and call ourselves progressive.

The Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University Bloomington has discovered a series of higher-ed practices that are research-demonstrated to improve student engagement and student performance. They include:

  • Undergraduate research
  • Learning communities, residential or social groups formed around shared courses or series of courses
  • Study abroad
  • Service learning, or community engagement
  • Internships
  • Culminating or integrative “capstone” experiences

These have come to be known as high-impact practices, or HIPs. So what does that say about the basic experience of college—you know, the individual student who goes to individual three-credit courses? Those would be the low-impact practices, or LIPs, a term that doesn’t exist but should. We know that going to class after class isn’t a high-impact experience, we know that at least half of students who start doing it won’t complete their degrees, but we keep that model at the center of the endeavor. Why do we do that? Because it’s what faculty know how to do, and it’s what institutions are built to provide.

I think that every major social institution deserves its own anthropologists, to make its decisions visible to itself. Otherwise, we just keep replicating the things we already know how to do and imagine them to be inevitable.