John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Let’s Get Back to Basics: What is the Purpose of our Work?

February 28, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I have had two mental occasions recently to remind me that those of us in the social justice business for undergraduate college students need to keep reminding ourselves of why we are in this work.

One occasion was sitting at a conference banquet function listening to an emissary of corporate America share her vision for our work. The other was reading a story about a courageous college graduate who gave her life to achieve the mission of her work which she was inspired to pursue as a result of her college experience.

Some context: we wouldn’t be involved in our collective work to accomplish “student success” were it not for the great strides made in “access” to college, made possible by the Higher Education Act of 1965 which was part of the larger “Great Society” legislative reform agenda to provide a more equitable America for all upwardly aspiring citizens. And even though I have been working on educational reform issues for decades now that go beyond simply providing “access”, it seems that the higher ed and political establishments have just discovered that “access” isn’t quite enough. No, besides “access” we need “success” and this has become defined and enshrined in public policy, campus based initiatives, and in all sorts of products for-profit America is selling the establishment by one word: “retention”.

Another way of defining this new found public discovery of “success” is with the phrase “getting through” as in “getting through” undergraduate education to degree attainment. Now, those of us working in the first-year experience vineyards since well before the first national conference on this topic in 1983, now we are joined, thank goodness, by many prominent foundations (such as Lumina and Gates), by national organizations or projects  such as Complete College America and Completion by Design and/or Achieving the Dream—and too the work of my non-profit organization—all working towards that common goal: attainment/completion, whatever the word/phrase du jour may be. This is a hugely important development. We need and our students need all the help they can get.

But I find myself continually wanting to return to the question(s): what is the purpose of all this? Is the purpose of the academy now to “retain” students, to “get them through”? So why do we want to “get them through”? What do we want them to do, to know, as a result of having “gotten them through”? Is completion per se the goal or a means to multiple goals? Are we unintentionally confusing means with ends?

Two recent perspectives for me on the purposes of getting students through follow below.

The first was at the just completed 31st annual Conference on The First-Year Experience. At an occasion for a plenary gathering, to award and recognize what we call “Outstanding First-Year Advocates”, a senior official of a for-profit corporation that was sponsoring this awards ceremony told the several thousand educators in the room that she was confident we in the audience shared her company’s goal “of creating successful e-learners” and then she invited us all to come by her booth to show us how we could create this educational outcome. My immediate reaction was to ask myself have I labored for 45 years to create successful “e-learners”? Not on your life. This is just one more reason I don’t want the thinkers in corporate America defining for us the goals of higher education. Now if she had said “successful learners” I would not have had this reaction. Admit it John: you are an academic. You do believe in the value of the academy of espousing learning for the sake of learning. But narrowing all this down to “e-learning” seemed to me the grossest possible oversimplification. It also overlooks the fact that “e-learning” is only one of many ways to promote learning. Let us hope higher education will still promote other forms of learning, inside and outside the curriculum: experiential learning; learning in an auditory fashion from the wisdom of real time college teachers still in the traditional classroom; students learning from each other in real time discussion, in addition to on-line discussion; learning through service; and many other modalities. No, “e-learning” didn’t speak to me, most of all because it didn’t say anything about learning for what end(s).

Five days later, as I read a page one story in The New York Times about the death of a courageous journalist who died pursuing her outcome of higher education, a foreign war correspondent, I received a reminder of a purpose of higher education, one I found much more compelling than simply completing, attaining, being retained, or becoming a successful e-learner.

“Ghastly Images Flow From Shattered Syrian City” is the February 23, 2012 Times headline for this inspiring but sad story of Marie Colvin, who died (along with another journalist) in Homs, Syria, covering the tragic slaughter that has been occurring there, so that we on the outside free and not free world can know what the Syrian government does not want us to know. Ms Colvin, writing for The Times of London, was a 1978 graduate of Yale with a degree in anthropology. She had been a war correspondent for over 25 years, a highly dangerous but important career taking her to places as varied as the Balkans, the Middle East, Somalia, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, Timor, and finally Syria. At 56, she had already paid a price for her cause, having been hit by shrapnel in 2001 in Sri Lanka, necessitating the wearing of an eye patch. On this particular assignment she had been hoping for an official visa to enter Syria but was not able to obtain one so she snuck across the border anyway, and met her end when the Syrian army shelled a building in which she had sought refuge.

As I read further about Marie Colvin in a separate New York Times interview with her mother, I learned that while an undergraduate at Yale she took a course from the Pulitzer Prize winning writer, John Hersey. According to her mother, Ms. Colvin also became a writer for the student newspaper, The Yale Daily News and “decided to become a journalist.”

Now when I think of the purposes of degree completion, this kind of impact is what moves me, motivates me. This is what our work is all about.  Certainly, in my case, not about creating successful “e-learners” and not just about retention, albeit recognizing that we do need to retain students in order to impact them. I would prefer to think that we retain students because we impact them. The life of  Marie Colvin reminds me that our cause –those of us higher educators striving for student success-must be about providing transformative educational experiences (such as being influenced by inspiring professors and having powerful developmental experiences on campus that link the co-curriculum and the curriculum) that changed our students’ lives forever, for the better, having moved them in totally new directions from the epiphany or epiphanies they have experienced while with us (probably not reading textbooks on line).

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