Thrashing

Sometimes runnin’ it harder just digs you in deeper…

The past few days of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have been really instructive. I’ve been thinking about writing in response to L. Maren Wood’s article about how doctorates don’t prepare their holders for non-academic lives. Or in response to Matt Reed’s two days of reportback from the “Future of Higher Ed” conference. Or in response to John Warner’s request to think about how to move forward in the face of higher ed changes. Or Kevin Carey’s thinking about how higher ed has become politicized. Or Ray Schroeder’s enthusiasm for adopting the idea of skills rather than degrees.

But rather than respond to any one of those, I think they’re better taken in their entirety. And the entirety suggests that we have no shared, collective idea of what college is, nor of what we want college to be. Not even a little bit. What we’re seeing in all these articles is the thrashing of people who know that they’re stuck, but whose only strategy is to spin their tires further and further down into the morass. (And a conference on the “Future of Higher Ed”—a conference that costs $750 for registration plus another unspoken thousand dollars in travel and lodging for each of its 350 participants—has just consumed over $600,000 in wasted tire churn from its participant colleges. You can get it here for free, without leaving home.)

So let me say a few things. Some of them will be hard to hear. But I think they’re true.

  1. As David Labaree has stated so well (but in a kinder way), we already have the higher ed that we want. One that allows some kids to be rulers (substitute Yale for Eton to get the American version), some to be bohemians, some to be worker bees, and some to be tenuous at best but at least quiet about it. The problem is that we aren’t honest about that, and so individual families aren’t clear on what they’re buying when they choose one school or another.
  2. Expecting colleges to do workforce development is stupid. Nobody is adequately prepared to predict the good jobs of ten years from now, and no individual has enough awareness of the breadth of possible work to be able to choose a career path that they don’t already pretty much know. Workforce development is nothing but confirmation bias with a business-speak label. Real workforce development would be run by employers, as true entry-level jobs for immediate demands that they face in daily operations.
  3. Being a good college teacher does not require a doctorate. Nor a master’s degree. Nor any sort of external credential. Being a good college teacher is a miraculous blend of knowledge and wisdom and kindness, which come together in any number of flavors. What a doctorate does is to develop a commitment to rigorous confusion, a life of being comfortably unsettled in one’s thinking. That’s a great trait for teaching in some kinds of colleges, and completely beside the point for others.

The last thing I want to say deserves its own paragraph. We need to quit asking old white people what the future of higher education ought to be. (I include myself.) The future beneficiaries of higher education will be more predominantly women and people of color, will be of any number of national origins and family histories. They will be eighteen and thirty and forty-six years old, they will be far more genderfluid, and they will inhabit a world in which climate change renders any certainty merely wishful. We need to ask a lot of people to weigh in on the future of higher education who have not yet had their word, rather than continuing to have the same churning conversations among the same people in the same hotel ballrooms.