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.

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