Pretty good sheep

It’s Fall Faculty Meeting day at my school this morning, the annual inaugural summons to congregate in Tucker Auditorium to be alternately cheered and chastened by our leader. Classes begin Monday.

It’s Move-in Day for students and their box-hauling families, too. I’ll warn them, the schlepping and hauling never really stops. Older Daughter phoned home just yesterday with an urgent request to bundle and ship a bunch of stuff we missed.

With the academic year thus underway, and anticipating another talk from the top recycling the refrain that we need to get ’em in and get ’em out, thoughts turn again to the big question of what it is we’re supposed to be doing here.

A new critique of elite higher ed called Excellent Sheep calls out the ivy league for producing conformists instead of freethinkers and leaders. That’s the buzz, anyway. I haven’t read it. I have read reviews like this one, in the form of an open letter to author William Deresiewicz.

“You trace academe’s troubles to “the Gilded Age,” when colleges became engines of social stratification as wealth was created in the Industrial Revolution. But these conflicts about educational purpose in bourgeois societies are cyclical—already in prospering Athens, Socrates and Protagoras were arguing about education as soul-searching skepticism in service of personal and civic virtue, versus education as learning to get ahead in the world by giving the right answers.”*

True enough. But excellent sheep at least do the reading and look for answers themselves. The current factory model we’ve been urged to deploy at our large public university, I fear, falls short even of that faded ideal. We’re just supposed to get students out into the world, credentialed for employment. Whether they develop soul enough to engage in constructive questioning seems not to be our charge.

But it will always be mine. I will always tell my students that if they can get both a degree and a sense of self and a life-direction in four years, go for it! But if they need to do what I did, to take a little longer, to switch majors in mid-stream and thus discover an avocation as well as a vocation, and can find a way to fund that exploration, then my board of regents and administrative overlords should have nothing to say in opposition.

In short, my mission is to subvert the factory model. That’s what I take “student-centered” learning really to mean.

*What Ails Elite Education? – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education

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