This is not a blog about all of us having watched too many of the presidential debates. Instead, it’s another in a series about higher education in America. The title comes from a new book of the same title, by authors Richard Keeling and Richard Hersch. I know Hersch a bit as he served as the president another fine liberal arts college, Hobart and William Smith, in the 90’s and then went on to lead Trinity (in Hartford, Conn) after that. Hersch and Keeling’s book, We’re Losing Our Minds, laments the limited learning happening on most college campuses these days. I got a good start on it this weekend and by the time I am through, you may hear from me again.
Here’s the premise. Beyond the implied assurance of employment (which one no longer can rely on), the idea of positive intellectual and personal growth lies at the heart of our hopes about, goals for, and confidence in higher education. College is meant to change people, to be a place where students develop greater understanding, can apply their new knowledge in the world, can articulate and defend a new perspective and show new personal, social and civic maturity. That’s why I love Oglethorpe’s motto so much: make a life, make a living and make a difference. Sitting passively through college is a waste of both individual and collective time and resources and unfortunately, according to the Richards, it is possible and increasingly common to do exactly that – to accumulate credit hours, meet basic academic requirements, and receive a degree without truly engaging in the process of real, substantive learning. I agree. And I also believe that the best preparation for one’s career or careers requires learning of this type, rather than a model that focuses simply on job training. I guess that why I am president of a liberal arts college where learning is what we do.
The other night I attended an event where the discussion wandered to the Occupy Wall Street movement. There were maybe 25 of us sitting around a table trying to solve the world’s problems. It’s been a couple of weeks and you probably have not noticed much of a change in the world order. Anyway, a half dozen of us worked in higher education. At one point in the conversation, one of those representing another institution remarked that the reaction of 99% of his student body to the movement was “go home and get a job”. He seemed quite comfortable with that sentiment. I, on the other hand, can‘t seem to shake the unease that I felt then and still feel now. It’s quite easy, I think, to take issue with lots of things about the movement and the people in the movement. On the other hand, the “go get a job” sentiment which I have heard from plenty of others is an awful simple way of looking at the real issues that have spawned the movement. I don’t think people who have been exposed to real , substantive learning would suggest that’s the be-all-and-end-all solution. I certainly know that I would be disappointed if a single Oglethorpe student approached the problem that way.