Navigating the Contested Curriculum

First time here. Fifty miles an hour. Hundreds of other cars. No GPS. How’s your confidence level?
(Image by Annie Theby, via Unsplash)

About ten years ago, the writer Louis Menand wrote an article for The New Yorker called “Live and Learn,” the subtitle of which revealed its true topic: “Why we have college.” In it, he differentiated between two and a half substantially different reasons why college should exist in the first place, and why the fact that we don’t talk about those motives makes it almost impossible to do any of them well.

Mission A is “expos[ing] future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.” It is an exercise in enculturation, in curiosity, in social norming. In this view, college education “takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste…. Ideally, we want everyone to go to college, because college gets everyone on the same page. It’s a way of producing a society of like-minded grownups.” This is the function praised by the “great-ideas” people and decried by the “indoctrination” accusers, both of whom are kind of right, as we all are.

Mission B is sorting and ranking, of knowing who’s better than whom. In this view, “College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they’re sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious—no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense—those negatives will get picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types. At the end of the process, graduates get a score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential.” This model is laudable in its clarity, though it furthers the gender and race and class divisions that students arrived with in the first place. If you were born on the goal line, you’re automatically closer to a touchdown than someone born outside the stadium entirely.

And then Mission C, which Menand touches on only peripherally and only because his own students drag his attention toward it, is that college is intended to be technical training for a particular kind of job. Under this view, “…advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation. A college degree in a non-liberal field signifies competence in a specific line of work.”

There are clusters of colleges aimed closely at each of these three motives, and yet other colleges that try to be a little bit of all things to all students. But if we never actually say these things out loud, we’ll never actually know what kind of college we’re providing, because we won’t know why we’re doing it.

About that same time, the school I was working at was going through one of its innumerable disciplinary accreditation processes, the work of the home office making sure that all of its franchisees provide more or less the same product. In this particular instance, we were trying to ensure that we could talk about how the current curriculum met all of the expectations of the professional community for what a bachelor’s-degree-holder should know. That accreditor worked every year or two to administer a questionnaire asking professionals what students should know at the moment of graduation, what they should learn as young pre-licensure professionals, and what they probably wouldn’t know until they’d been in the profession for a few years. At no one’s surprise, the results were that all graduating students should know almost all of it, except for the business strategy parts—the grown-ups would take care of that, leaving their army of highly trained drafting monkeys at work in the back office.

Every profession is increasingly complex, in software and in policy and in diversity of available materials and tools. If we expect 21-year-olds to be competent young employees the day they graduate with their BA or BS, we’re just going to have to stuff more knowledge and technique into that undergraduate experience. But state and federal departments of education appropriately want to make sure that they aren’t paying for increasing seat time beyond the standard of 120 credits in four years, and that students aren’t incurring even more loan burden to get a degree that now takes five years, or six years, or eight. So the curriculum becomes a zero-sum game, in which innumerable forces each work to claim some share of the 120-credit landscape. As former college president Jill Ker Conway once wrote, the curriculum is the battlefield upon which intellectual wars are fought.

Now imagine again, as we did a couple of days ago, that you’re sixteen years old, a junior in high school, trying to figure out this opaque landscape even as you’re hurtling toward it. Everybody’s haranguing you about how important college is, but they haven’t done any meaningful thinking about why, or about how it might be appropriate for YOU and for your individual life trajectory. Nobody around you has experience with lots of different types of colleges, so you’re left to rely on shouted brand names (Ford! Chevy! Berkeley! Stanford!) or affordability and convenience.

Nobody tells you about the bitter fights that have gone on over that 120-credit landscape you hope to inhabit. Every inch of it was a contested decision, but now it’s presented to its potential consumers as logical to the point of inevitability. What does your get-ed consist of? Why are you doing it? How has the discipline divided your courses into methods and knowledge and underlying principles and theories of its future? You can’t take any of these programs for a meaningful test drive, it’s like buying a car from the brochure. Just shut up and get in, okay?

I’m serious. Put yourselves into that imaginary sixteen-year-old’s head, worried about issues of boyfriends or girlfriends, worried about issues of identity, engaged in a high school that’s doing whatever the state wants, worried about whether Dad’s going to be laid off or Mom’s going to be transferred to Dayton. And then imagine this flurry of garbled, unreliable information, a collegiate blizzard of half-truths pouring down upon you from which you’re expected to snatch exactly the right snowflake.

We have GOT to do better.

Voyages to the Unknown

Not sure where we’re going, but we’ll get there.
(Image by Eberhard Grossgasteiger, via Unsplash)

Yesterday, we talked about the mismatch between what academic majors and disciplines are, and students’ folk knowledge of what majors and disciplines are. And it is true that we all embark upon future paths that seem appealing but which are, in detail, entirely unknown. That’s what everyday life is, a series of predictions about how today builds tomorrow. And as the physicist Neils Bohr once said, “It is very difficult to predict, especially about the future.”

How might we do better at it? How might we lead eighteen-year-olds, from a vast diversity of backgrounds and privilege, from a vast diversity of cultures and family structures, to have a reasonable chance of using college to become?

I can tell you how I wouldn’t do it.

I wouldn’t do it in “intro” courses with 25 students, or 50, or 300.

I wouldn’t offer my most vulnerable and least affiliated teachers to my most vulnerable and not-yet-convinced students.

I wouldn’t frame the concept of self-discovery in terms like “general education,” which everybody instantly and demeaningly crushes down to “gen-ed,” knowing how little it matters. Or “breadth education,” the finishing-school notion that prepares us for a diverse array of pleasant conversations at the country club. Or “the great books,” the reading list that privileges one form of rigor above all others, and one cultural heritage above all others as well, declaring firmly that some things (and some people) exist on the serious and enduring side of the fence and all else is inadequate and temporal.

So, if I wouldn’t do it the way that almost every college in America does it, what other options might be available? Well, you’d have to peel away a lot of constraints.

About thirty years ago, The Big Picture Company embarked on the development of a new high school in Providence, Rhode Island, called The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, universally known as “The Met.” They developed a curricular model of three parts: close relationships with a single advisor (in groups of twelve students), meaningful internships in the local professional community, and a self-designed project from each student each semester. Here’s the bet they made: Give us some money, and get out of our way. If you do, we promise that our graduation rate will be way, way higher than the Providence city schools, and that 100% of our graduates will be accepted to a four-year college. If we can do that, you keep quiet. If we can’t, we close, because we don’t deserve to be open.

There’s some chips on the table. As they say in poker, “all in.”

There are no courses or curriculum or exams or teachers or credits. There are, instead, students and their advisors and their internship supervisors and their parents, who come together occasionally to look at what each student has done and to think carefully about what each student might do next. As one of my colleagues once described it, “You’ll love it. Every question you’d normally ask about school doesn’t apply to them.” For instance, a question like “what time is the 10th grade math class?” relies on four unspoken assumptions: grade levels, disciplines, classrooms, and course schedules. None of those existed at The Met.

Conceiving of a school like The Met requires a lot of things. It requires bravery, for sure, but more importantly, it requires us to think seriously about what’s at the core of the endeavor, and what’s just the surrounding mechanism. And it’s no surprise that a core value of the Big Picture Company is, and has always been, “one kid at a time.”

Turning our attention to college, and to the specific task of helping young people know themselves and their desires, it’s tempting to make recommendations. “During the first two years…” or “Class sizes should be limited to…” The hard work is to not go there yet, to sit with the dilemma and think for a long time about what we hope will be true rather than being all businesslike and efficient and figuring out a fix. If we can come to some core principles, I trust that my colleagues can create innumerable interesting and effective mechanisms to get there.

So here’s some core principles I’d propose for the endeavor.

  • We have no control over what came before, and we can’t whine about it. We can’t blame students’ difficulties on bad schools or tough neighborhoods or language learning or insufficient families. I mean, if you’re going to say that you only know how to serve wealthy students from important families from elite high schools, then just accept your limitations, call yourself Princeton and be done with it. This kind of program has to meet every single young person exactly where they’re at. In fact…
  • The diversity of students’ backgrounds is a core feature, through which each student will learn something about the enormous breadth of the world. This implies, of course, that we ask students to engage seriously with one another, and that we provide the tools of mediation and interpersonal relations that allow difference to be opportunity rather than threat. If we imagine that our students are libertarian free agents whose success is through at best ignoring others and at worst competing with others, then we will produce people who, in the words of David Foster Wallace, are “the lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms.” We are, always, mutually and collectively responsible for our wellbeing.
  • Growth cannot be fully predicted or tightly scheduled. Through our whole lives, all of our learning is a series of spurts and plateaus and setbacks and streams that don’t pan out. There should be regular moments where we check in and evaluate, but there will be no such common schedules or sequences of “achievement” or “attainment.” One of the most common principles of martial arts, for instance, is that students do not ask to move up to the next belt level, nor do those promotions come at set durations in the program. Promotion comes at the judgment of the sensei. But this is like any workplace, in which we get promotions not because of simple seniority but because our skills match some next task. The core questions are always “what have we done?” and “what might we do?”
  • The program’s work is enthusiasm, opportunity, and challenge. Enthusiasm for good ideas and interesting questions. Opportunity through recommending interesting next paths, opening doors that might not have been seen, finding colleagues who know more about something than we do. And challenge through continual expectation that the next thing we take on is just a little bit harder than we think we’re ready for.

If this doesn’t fit with the practices of our registrar’s office or our financial aid systems, doesn’t fit with our business model or our tenure and promotion guidelines, then we’re left to ask which are the means and which are the ends.

One more pass through this tomorrow.


Architecture 101, my home.
(Google Streetscapes screenshot)

It is not unusual for students to come to the university with conceptualizations of disciplines that are out of sync with academic reality… a lot of entering freshmen assume that sociology is something akin to social work, an applied study of social problems rather than an attempt to abstract a theory about social interaction and organization. Likewise, some think psychology will be a discussion of human motivation and counseling, what it is that makes people do what they do—and some coverage of ways to change what they do. It comes as a surprise that their textbook has only one chapter on personality and psychotherapy—and a half dozen pages on Freud. The rest is animal studies, computer models of thought, lots of neurophysiology. If they like to read novels, and they elect a literature course, they’ll expect to talk about characters and motive and plot, but instead they’re asked to situate the novel amid the historical forces that shaped it, to examine rhetorical and stylistic devices and search the prose for things that mean more than they seem to mean. Political science should mean politics and government and current events—nuclear treaties, trade sanctions, the Iran-Contra scandal—but instead it’s Marx and Weber and political economy and organizational and decision-making models. And so goes the litany of misdirection. This dissonance between the academy’s and the students’ definitions of disciplines makes it hard for students to get their bearings with material: to know what’s important, to see how the pieces fit together, to follow an argument, to have a sense of what can be passed over lightly.

Mike Rose, Lives on the Boundary, 1989 (191-92)

When I was in high school, I was a bland and mediocre student who’d risen to near the top of my class because I read a lot and I was polite and obedient. But that was enough to be considered college material. No one in my family had any experience with college, and I’ve written elsewhere about having absolutely no tools with which to choose the colleges I applied to, nor to then choose from among the three that were foolish enough to accept me.

But a second dilemma that I’m considering today (because of reading Mike Rose yesterday) was the question of what I might major in. And really, who among us at the age of sixteen had any sense at all of the adult paths available to us, aside from simple labels like lawyer or salesman or mechanic? We knew what our parents did, and I knew that I was unlikely to be either a factory worker or a telephone operator. We knew what our teachers did, and there’s no kid in their right mind who’d choose a job THAT stupid. So really, how do any of us decide on what turns out to be a mighty and momentous declaration?

And that’s what it is, a declaration. We “declare” a major, which is to say that we pledge some form of allegiance to a way of thinking and to a body of concerns and to a possible adult way of engaging with the world. It has close secular relations to religious practices of confirmation and bar/bat mitzvah, some half-awake seventh-grader making a public declaration of faith because the calendar said it was time. I mean, they won’t let us drive a car until we’re sixteen, won’t let us vote or enter into contracts until we’re eighteen, and won’t let us drink until we’re twenty-one, but at age thirteen we can stand in front of our parents’ friends and declare our perpetual allegiance to some faith and community? Please…

The problem on the table today is similar. What body of life experiences would it take to make a meaningful declaration of our adherence to sociology, or to engineering, or to history, or to any of the dozens of other life paths available at even the most meager regional college?

I can tell you that I was not the right model to follow. I had decided, when I was in eleventh grade, that I wanted to go to school for architecture. What body of evidence did I marshal on behalf of that choice, having grown up in a town where the smokestacks were far taller than any building or steeple, where factories were the most sophisticated building type on the landscape? What experience did I bring to that decision, having grown up on a block of shop-floor workers and telephone linemen and branch-bank managers and septic-tank excavators?

A) I lived on a block of identical houses, all the same floor plan, oversized Monopoly houses one per lot along the 3300 block of Lemuel Street. But I came to see that individual families had modified those houses in the twenty years since their construction after World War II, from trivial choices like paint and plants to significant decisions of reorganization and addition. And I vaguely understood that family and house decisions were related, not merely logistically but through values and aspirations and life histories.

B) In eleventh grade, I took a high-school course in mechanical drafting. And I was completely captivated. I loved the use of the t-square and the triangles and the circle templates. I loved the geometry of the projections that allowed accurate translation of top view into front view into side view, the faint guidelines that we used to align our vision across perspectives. I loved the idea of rotation, of seeing a couple of faces of a machine part and understanding how the other four faces would be represented, what would be seen if we turned it this way or that. I loved the simple feel of the tools: aligning and taping down the paper, sharpening leads just so, using line weights to represent meaning and legibility. I loved that we had a title block for each drawing sheet, bearing name and assignment title and date, a junior analog to the maker’s marks of master craftsmen worldwide. I was doing four or five assignments in the time others took to do one, carrying my completed paper up to Mr. Salisz for his review like a dog with a stick, waiting for him to please dear god throw me another one so I could chase it down again.

C) The factories themselves were important. Or, more accurately, the ghosts that inhabited factories left behind. Four stories tall and four blocks long and a block wide and all the windows shot out and weeds grown up through the parking lots where thousands of men parked for each of the three shifts of the day. They were somber and grave, industrial mausoleums marking the unspoken contributions and the lost aspirations of three generations of workers.

So what I knew at the end of high school was some inarticulate blend of A+B+C. And friends, I am here to tell you today that A+B+C ≠ architecture. At least, not in alignment with the academic discipline of architecture. As architecture professor William Hubbard explained in his 1996 book A Theory for Practice: Architecture in Three Discourses, those inside the profession and discipline carry interests in the work that are unlike those of other viewers. He differentiates between buildings as statements of values about good living, buildings as instruments toward some array of outcomes, and buildings as experiments in order and composition. All three of those were represented among the faculty in architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, for instance, and those communities hated one another. The tribalism of the studio faculty, the history and theory faculty, and the building technology faculty erupted often into open mockery, in full view of their students. The motives of one classroom were not allowed in the classrooms of the others, were declared not merely ineffective but heretical. (Nowadays we’d have to contend with a fourth tribe of design computing as well.)

Who among us, at sixteen, knows that? What high school kid knows what a doctor does all day, much less that there are hundreds of different ways of being a doctor? What high school kid is prepared, in any meaningful way, to declare that they want to be an architect or a nurse or an assistant regional marketing director for Kroger?

More tomorrow.

The Fuel that Runs It

Who will help?
(Image by Lukas Rychvalsky, via Unsplash)

My writing group was talking about the inherent difficulty of the first chapter of a novel. You can’t put everything first, so you have to help people be reassured that the things they don’t know yet will ultimately be revealed. And Nathan said something interesting, something that feels true: “The first chapter of a book teaches you how to read the book.”

Our neighbors lent me a copy of a book, Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool. I read it on New Year’s Eve afternoon, picking up speed the whole way through. Indeed, the first thirty pages or so of that book taught me how to read the book. It’s a book about stupid, belligerent people. It’s a book about being the victim of stupid, belligerent people. It’s about a young boy who learns over the next decades to repeat every single one of his stupid, belligerent father’s failings. The first thirty pages set that tone perfectly, so that all I had to do thereafter was skip twenty pages forward, read half a page to determine that indeed everyone was still stupid and belligerent, skip forward another twenty, confirm once again, and so on to the end. The first thirty or forty pages took an hour; the subsequent 450 about the same.

I got two emails yesterday, from two different friends who don’t know one another at all. One of them had just finished reading my book Leopard, and called it a “wonderful, loving story.” The other had read a recent pair of blog posts, and said “Thank you for all that you give to us with such generosity!”

Nora and I were talking yesterday morning about a piece of music I shared with her, a duet by the guitarist Ross Traut and bassist Steve Rodby. Rodby’s been the bass player with Pat Metheny for decades, and has a substantial career as a music producer and sideman, but I knew almost nothing about Ross Traut. I mean, the guy doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and he’s a hell of a player. So I googled “Ross Traut guitar,” and found that he has a gallery of Navajo arts in New York City. His homepage says I’ve been playing guitar since the beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in ’64, starting with air guitar and moving on from there. I’ve had a good run as a professional guitar player for the last 40 years and there is nothing that beats playing. However, looking at Navajo rugs is like listening to music. I imagine the creation of a Navajo weaving like a jazz improvisation only a lot slower. 

Anyway, we looked at Google Streetscapes to see the building he’s in, one of those Manhattan midrises filled with unknowable lives. And Nora said, “I wish you’d go back to that book you were working on about all the tenants of the office building. I know it didn’t exactly float your boat, but it’s such an interesting idea.” (Of course, we’re both academically trained in a field that collects and displays stories about people in their places.)

So after dinner last night, I went back and read the 93 pages that exist of the novel The Story Box. And that opener, which has done the work of teaching us how to read the book, showed itself to me in a completely new light. Cassie, the lead character, is an interesting person with an interesting array of problems. I can easily imagine spending time trying to figure out more about her. The other characters in the other office suites are compelling, all of them coming to terms with some major thing in their lives. And the idea of seeing the stories inside all of these cubes of leased space remains interesting.

What’s missing is the fuel of generosity. What’s missing is a character who’s vulnerable enough to admit what they need, and a character who hears that need and does her or his best to address it. In fact, the commercial worlds portrayed in the story have systematically trimmed away everyone’s opportunities for generosity, have pruned each of the four main characters back to their root. Maybe they’ll be able to flower again some day, but I’m not seeing it.

And that realization became two realizations. One is that generosity is indeed the fuel that has powered all of my stories, that we become greater through our work on behalf of others. But the other is that in almost every case, that generosity had to be exercised through something other than the character’s workplace. They all have jobs, of course, some of them pretty interesting jobs. But mostly, those jobs had to be overcome in order to do the real work of loving their friends.

How many of us are fortunate enough to be able to exercise generosity through our work? The notion of profit is not a generous notion. The forces of standardization and compliance are not generous forces. The drive to self-interest is not a generous drive. If we are generous people, that generosity may seep through gaps in the foundation, but the foundation itself is designed to be anti-generous, to be rapacious or defensive, each for ourselves against all others.

And in fact, as I was writing that last paragraph, a message came in, forwarded from a friend:

So, as we begin a new year, I’ll invite you to do a little meditation on the notion of generosity. What would it mean to truly see others, to be invested in their well-being, to help them to thrive? What opportunities do each of us have to do those things? And what stands in our way?