The Ecumenical, Evangelical College

NOT a trade school…

So yesterday I laid out a strategy for contingent faculty to work within colleges as they are currently configured. But here’s the dirty secret. I don’t like colleges as they are currently configured. They are the problem.

Let me explain.

College, for a lot of people, is 13th through 16th grade; something to do after high school—but still quite a lot like high school—that holds you out of the labor market for a few years and gets you some kind of a “gumption certificate” on the other end (plus a lot of parties and ballgames in between, and a network of friends you can turn to in later life). It’s a four-year extension of K-12’s necessary but rarely-spoken role as public-subsidy daycare.

College, for a lot of people, is a trade school for indoor jobs. You declare at eighteen or nineteen that you’d like to be a physical therapist or a nurse or an engineer, and we provide you with four years of increasingly focused training that will prepare you to take your professional exams and step into that job. Any time you hear a college president or a state’s legislature (or a parent, too often) talk about “workforce development,” that’s what they mean.

If we took those two motivations of college out of the current mix, we’d see the universe of American colleges drop from about 5000 down to 500. And I think that we could. We could replace college with job training, save everybody a year or two along the way, and serve millions of people, probably better than now. We could replace college with a four-year cruise ship, let everybody just ripen themselves from 18 to 22, and serve millions more.

The strategy I laid out yesterday for the protection of adjunct faculty was the development of a teaching-services corporation that would supply hundreds or thousands of colleges with the anonymous component courses needed to service their degree programs. Composition, languages, calculus, science for non-majors, intro to social sciences, history surveys… the courses that students pack with them when they transfer, and that they rightly expect will bolt directly into the new platform with no loss of serviceability.

And as I laid out the bones of that structure, a nagging little part of me said, “but what about academic freedom?”

Here’s the deal. Trade schools don’t live on academic freedom, because they don’t do anything academic; they provide knowledge, not curiosity. Cruise ships don’t live on academic freedom, because everyone is a concierge engaged in guest satisfaction. Trade schools and resorts are both managerial businesses, with employees that do what they’re supposed to when they’re supposed to, all providing a proscribed and predictable customer experience.

Those two models of college—the two prominent models in most people’s thinking, I’d wager—are exactly why people don’t get up in arms about the adjunct crisis. I mean, too bad for you and all, teaching your class for $2,400, but it’s no skin off my nose as long as it saves some money for me or for my kids. If the decision comes down to fairness or affordability and convenience, the American business landscape has bet on affordability and convenience every time, and never been wrong.

College, when it matters, is something other than trade school or resort. A good college (dare I say, a real college) is where one goes to determine what kind of an adult s/he’s going to become. It is not a place of data, or of information, or of knowledge, or of skill, but rather a place of wisdom, of deliberation, of guided exploration through the many, many ways of adult thought.

In order to do that, we take young people away from their parents, place them together in protected and distant grounds, and surround them with obsessives. With unreasonable adults, fixated on a particular problem, missionary about the practices of their field. But not all in one field, no, never. A dozen different paths, evangelical loonies at every turn, each beckoning their students to follow this path, not the others. This is the one true way! they each shout, and some number of students are convinced by one prophet or another—or better yet, build their own synthesis of the multiple theses and antitheses that flood them every day. And we surround them with other young people on a similarly bewildering journey, so that they can compare field notes along the way, argue themselves into further complexity.

This is the one role of the teaching faculty that deserves academic freedom; the freedom to be a wild-haired lunatic in the pursuit of antebellum American history, or of the power of quantitative pattern, or of the life-changing joy of a novel. The undergraduate faculty requires academic freedom only inasmuch as their freedom allows them to be dangerous. The institution itself must be strictly ecumenical, favoring no branch of the faith; but each individual faculty member must be allowed—no, expected—to be a mad prophet, an unreasonable glint in their eyes when they talk about actinide chemistry or competing models of macroeconomic policy.

At the end of a couple of years of that, we ask students to “declare.” To declare an adult life that is worthy of their endeavor, to declare that one intellectual path is so compelling that they will build the rest of it themselves.

There is no intellectual danger in a trade school. There is no intellectual danger on a cruise ship. Those environments accept contingent faculty exactly because both teachers and schools are meant to be the same as another, interchangeable by design. Academic freedom is anathema to trade schools, which rely on students leaving class A prepared for what awaits them in class B, and at the end of their curriculum, to be able to reliably pass a nationally-normed professional-licensure exam. Academic freedom is anathema to resorts, which need their faculty to be ingratiating and ready to serve, to ensure that each patron has an optimal experience exactly as she or he defines it. Academic freedom cannot exist in any meaningful way in most of American higher education as we have currently defined it.

If we want something worthy of us, we—like our students—will have to build it ourselves.