Idealism: The New Realism

I think that after producing my essay on inspiration, we might need a reality check here. How about this for reality? Today’s students are facing problems that are as daunting as any before them. The incidence of mental illness is profoundly troubling. Political tribalism seems impenetrable, creating obstacles to any real solutions to any number of social concerns: public health, crumbling infrastructure, global warming that is near a point of no return. The lack of public support for higher education is creating a cohort of indebted young adults, burdening them with debts that compromise the realization of promises given to them by agents of our institutions. 

Just to do a quick riff on perhaps the world’s most formidable concern: As I travel across the western United States, I am reminded that “the world is on fire.” Parks and trails are closed due to forest fires. While this is happening where I am, coastal communities in the east coast are being hammered by weather systems and oil spills, eroding beaches and habitats. The Surfside collapse in Miami and the deluge in Germany from a couple of months ago led to dozens of deaths, serving as reminders of the deadly consequences we are facing due to generations of assault on our environment. Indeed, my ruminations on institutional transformation are not born of ivied tower, gratuitous academic games, but of real-world circumstances that are with us today and most certainly more significantly in the planet’s future. 

Our common institutional story goes like this: We have built an amazing system of higher education in the United States—it is the envy of the world, as they say. From its humble origins in 1636, higher education has evolved into a diverse and multi-pronged system that has served as a foundation that has contributed to society in meaningful ways: from engineering roads and bridges to producing writers and poets to building business acumen. But, as the poet Nikki Giovanni said in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragic shooting in 2007, “We are better than we think, but not quite what we want to be.”

The institution of higher education, as we know it, is not good enough or, perhaps, brave enough to address the daunting issues facing us in the present or the future. And, nearly all of us who have been part of this work for years know this to be true. In her book, New Education, Cathy Davidson (2017) noted: 

Our institutions of higher education are helping young people transform themselves, as they always have, helping them move from dependence to independence, from childhood to adulthood. College is good at that. Yet college is no longer good at equipping graduates to succeed in an ever more complex and bewildering world. 

Davidson pointed out that higher education has been transformed throughout its history—from an institution composed of only White men, classical texts and heavy discipline, to a more pragmatic and contemporary curriculum, required of evolving political, demographic and technological realities. But, the current student demographic, evolving climate, and political realities require something new and different from current institutional conventions. 

As a longtime administrator and faculty member, I have been shaped by the institution of higher education, often in ways I don’t really understand. I’ve been molded by the conventions of the way things are. In the ways Davidson noted, I have been transformed in positive ways by higher education and I continue to be. However, our conventions of practice and dialogue have undoubtedly limited the capacity for successful adaptation to an imminent future that we have not faced before. 

The tell-tale of this truth is in the conversations and questions that are being asked as we carry out the “business of the university.” In my recent role as department chair in my college, I had the “opportunity” to sit in bi-monthly academic leadership team meetings that lasted from 10:00 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. In a form of passive resistance, I would regularly get up from the meeting at noon, go across the street to get lunch and come back to the meeting at about 12:30 p.m. Although I did this at almost every meeting over the course of a few months, no one said a word to me. In fact, when I asked one of my colleagues if she noticed I was doing this, she confessed that she had not noticed—remarkable given there were only a dozen of us at the meeting. 

My colleagues often complained that the meeting was too long. On its face, this was certainly true. But the bigger point was, what were we doing in this meeting? What role did it play in helping us to better serve the needs and fostering what Sharon Parks calls the “worthy dreams” of our students? While there was certainly “business of the college” that needed to be dealt with—You know, messages such as: “Don’t spend university money on alcohol! Don’t let the administrative staff go to the bathroom without a hall pass, etc.” Seriously, there is indeed important business to take care of, but we are missing the opportunities for any real transformation of our institutions, our students and ourselves if we don’t claim a new “agenda,” a generative way of talking about what matters currently and how to create space for this in higher education.  

Returning to the question of idealism and realism, I understand and even believe that throwing out all conventions of the academy is not fruitful, beneficial, or possible. Many good things can happen through the institution we have built. Mike Green, a new friend of mine and partner on this journey for individual and social change, reminded me of this fable: 

A scorpion wants to cross a river but cannot swim, so it asks a frog to carry it across. The frog hesitates, afraid that the scorpion might sting it, but the scorpion argues that if it did that, they would both drown. The frog considers this argument sensible and agrees to transport the scorpion. The frog lets the scorpion climb on its back and begins to swim. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog anyway, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it stung despite knowing the consequence, to which the scorpion replies: “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

The nature of our higher education institutions has been created over centuries to adapt to a particular world. The institution as we know it has certain aspects in its nature that cannot and will not be changed. But, there is also opportunity to foster the kind of experiences that can make a difference for students today and the world tomorrow.

I was recently hiking on a popular trail in Teton National Park. As has been my practice, I intentionally started conversations with several people—from simple questions about what is ahead, to what we are noticing on our journey and what brought us to this place we happen to be visiting together. One such conversation was with two young women who had graduated from college two months prior. I told them what I was up to on my sabbatical, and they proceeded to tell me about the high points of their time in college. They described experiences such as biological research in the field that informed understandings of the impact of climate change and study abroad opportunities that introduced them to a different culture. One talked about a particular classroom environment that she found inspiring. The class met in a circle, free of any formal presentations, and rich with provocative readings. Most importantly, the class was led by an instructor who fostered a learning environment in which students contemplated and shared how the ideas in the class intersected with their own personal, developmental journeys. As she explained it, the instructor did not overly engineer the class, but gave space to the students to find what was rich and inspiring and valuable for their educational journeys.

To better understand the experiences that are most evocative for sparking student interest, excitement, and inspiration, I am asking any readers (i.e., co-conspirators) to talk to students who you know have sampled some of the best of who we are in higher education. Invite them to reach out to me with their stories, or to complete the following survey. [ays_survey id=”3″]

And for my staff colleagues, I invite you to participate in this discussion using the following survey prompts. [ays_survey id=’4′]


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