Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Three Visions

The new academic year is about to start.  Every year, around this time, I reflect on how I’d like to see community colleges work.  

In my perfect world, a community college would be a collection of mad scientists experimenting with the best ways to help students learn.  They’d hail from all sorts of disciplines, and presumably some of them would have better grooming than the traditional mad scientist, but they’d share the excitement and focus on the task at hand.  The college would be a constant cauldron of experimentation and communication of results.  In this view, academic freedom exists to enable experimentation.  Over time, as results accumulated, the effects for the students would get progressively better.

I used to think that my vision was so obvious and universally shared that there wasn’t much point in spelling it out, any more than there would be in calling attention to the fact that people breathe.  But experience has taught me otherwise.

Plenty of other visions are in play, each with different assumptions.  When assumptions crash into each other, conflict ensues.

For example, the “college as church” vision still holds sway in some quarters.  In that vision, a privileged group with unique access to The Text sits in judgment of all others.  Adherents to this vision tend to be intensely status-conscious, and are often quick to take umbrage at any hint that things could be better than they already are.  

Some of the trappings (and history) of higher education enable this perspective to survive.  The academic freedom that I think should be used to try new things can be perverted and recast as an entitlement to be left alone.  A background condition that should enable constructive action is read, instead, as license for inaction.  And the various ranks and ceremonies that characterize academic life are consistent with both a churchly past and a churchly vision.

The ‘mad scientist’ vision and the ‘church’ vision don’t mesh terribly well.  Among other reasons, part of the appeal of the ‘mad scientist’ vision (substitute “jam session” if you like that better) is that it subordinates any one person’s ideas to actual results.  The job of the scientist is to follow the results where they lead (just as the job of the musician is to follow the groove where it goes).  There’s certainly room for creativity, but the creativity is in response to things that actually happen, or actually fail to happen.

In the ‘church’ vision, though, if an implementation of the One True Faith doesn’t work, the answer is to Try Harder.  A square peg can fit into a round hole, if you’re just willing to push hard enough.  Bad results don’t call The Truth into question; if anything, they suggest a character flaw in whomever got the results.  If students aren’t learning, it must be because kids today lack moral fiber, or they dress funny, or their music sucks.

These aren’t the only visions.  In our national politics, the “personnel office” vision has gained great traction lately.  In that vision, colleges are assembly lines designed to pump out graduates for various product lines (called “occupations”).  You judge a college by the efficiency with which it produces graduates; in this vision, the job of the people who work at the college is to reduce errors and otherwise fulfill orders.

In this vision, workers are basically interchangeable parts, and colleges differ only in their product lines and the efficiency with which they work.  We assume that the task at hand is obvious, and that the only questions are around leaner and more airtight implementation.

The personnel office vision is as authoritarian as the churchly vision, but it locates the source of authority differently.  Instead of inhering in text and tradition, in this view, authority derives from the external job marketplace.  The market says what it wants, and the task of the college is to provide it.  End of story.

Yes, these are all overdrawn, oversimplified, and extreme.  Granted.  But I see plenty of people falling into each of these camps, with varying degrees of purity or self-awareness, and their respective senses of the rules of the game follow.  Is academic freedom in the service of trying new things (the mad scientist), protecting the sacred from the profane (the church), or simply anachronistic (the personnel office)?  Are faculty creative workers (the mad scientist), the chosen people (the church), or widgets (the personnel office)?  Is teaching a creative profession (the mad scientist), a calling (the church), or a deliverable (the personnel office)?

The mad scientist vision strikes the churchly as irreverent, which, in a sense, it is.  And it strikes the personnel office folk as error-prone and kind of loose, which, again, it is.  You can’t have trial and error without error.  But to my mind, it’s both the most humble and the most future-oriented approach.  Job markets change quickly, and reducing the future to the size of the present is a crime against progress.  I don’t know what the hot occupation will be ten years from now, but I’m willing to guess that the abilities to communicate, to synthesize difficult and disparate information, and to adapt will still be relevant.  What better way to learn those things than to stew in them, in a place that does exactly that?