One of the most important pieces of American education research was a paper from 1980 published by Jean Anyon, called “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” (if this link fails, just Google it; it’s out there in quite a few places.) In an ingenious research design, Anyon and her colleagues were able to name the core dilemma of education—we don’t know why we do it. Or, more accurately, we know exactly why we do it, but we don’t talk about it, and we wouldn’t agree if we did.
The executive summary is that in schools aimed at working class kids, the goal (no matter what the “subject area”) was to have them follow procedure. For middle class kids, the goal was to have the independently calculate the right answer. For kids of professionals, the goal was to have them be expressive and interdependent. And for kids of the 1%, the goal was to have them be strategic. Read the article, it’s totally worth your while. The belief, unnamed but thoroughly evident, was that school should train kids to replicate their parents’ work lives; that some kids were capable of analytical and creative work, and other kids just needed to follow the footsteps on the floor.
The importance of this work came to mind again today when I read that the University of Akron has offered buyouts to 47% of its faculty, in an effort to control long-term spending patterns. Why 47%? Because they want to keep faculty in all of their “career fields,” and shed only those in the traditional liberal arts disciplines. All the social sciences faculty are eligible to leave; all of the humanities faculty. Math and physics can go home, but chemistry has to stay. U of A makes its money in teaching kids business, law, IT, healthcare and polymer engineering. They’re betting the ranch on being a trade school.
The supposedly commonsense notion that you go to college in order to learn a profession is actually only true for colleges aimed at working class and middle class kids. They’re bootstrap schools, the kinds of places where you go to be the first in your family to work an indoor job without injury risk, a job that doesn’t require nametags and uniforms.
College for the more well-to-do kids, for kids from college-experienced families… they’re under no such constraint. You can major in dance instead of athletic training, in physics instead of engineering, in history instead of public administration. You can change majors in light of discovering a new love, and not have your carefully curated path fall apart around you. The fundamental meaning of college is different for different schools and different students.
Not surprisingly, the nature of the faculty is different as well. Students at the bootstrap schools will be met by a majority-temp faculty, paid by the course to know a little bit more than their students, to check students’ progress as they work through the problem sets. Schools at the liberal arts temples will be met by broadly educated, curious, permanent faculty who are willing to guide a student through whatever interests she develops. And schools of the elite, the research universities both public and private, will be taught extensively by grad student TAs, who demonstrate the daily experience of the next steps their undergrads will be taking themselves in a few years.
American higher education is perplexing to the public and to policymakers because it isn’t one single thing that can be discussed coherently. It is a complex network of social relations that funnels different students down different roads to different lives.