John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Does It Mean to Be an “Ideologue”?

John Gardner

Recently, I was having a conversation with a very thoughtful, insightful friend, who knows me pretty well overall. And I respect his perceptions of things greatly. We were talking about my work and he described me as an “ideologue.” This label stunned me.  Then I thought, no, I better sit back and consider it.

What is an ideologue? My Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines an ideologue as: “an impractical idealist: theorist; an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology.”

Part of the context of our conversation arose out of a discussion we were having about the spate of recent comparisons between Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama; and in the case of Lincoln the popular attention he has been receiving recently driven by the film “Lincoln”; and in our current President’s case, the focus of his second Inaugural address. The comparison of both revolved around their capacity to focus, keeping their eye on the prize, with unwavering concentration on a single driven purpose; in the case of Lincoln, this being, of course, the securing of the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery. Further context was a January 27, 2013 Sunday New York Times article in the Business section, talking about the use of Lincoln as a case study in business schools of CEO management styles.

When the conversation turned to me, I took umbrage, sort of, and challenged that descriptor of “ideologue.” My friend hastily qualified that he had not meant this as a negative at all and offered alternative language to elaborate on what he meant. That language was on the order of me leading a charge, at times a kind of “battering ram” (his words, not mine), and he even used the term “crusade.” That word in term reminded me of the ideologues who organized and led the crusades and slit the throats of the resisting “infidels.”

So, John, does the shoe fit?

Let me deconstruct the definition, briefly:

1.  “impractical”; perhaps at times, but usually I would have to say I am the ultimate pragmatist who tries very hard to practice of the art of the possible. I am sure that when I launched the first-year experience movement and began attempting to persuade the academy to take the first year more seriously, that I had plenty of skeptical observers who were saying this attempt was not very “practical.” And by that they would have meant realistic or promising. I believe I have proved them wrong.

2.  “idealist”: yes, absolutely, I own that. In fact, my largest single current professional preoccupation is with a process called Foundations of Excellence ® which has engaged 245 colleges and universities in the use of an idealistic and aspirational set of “Foundational Dimensions of Excellence” (see  So, yes, there are many manifestations to my idealism. This is a central part of my character, core values and behaviors, dating to my high school days when I first came out of the closet to challenge my peer group with a more idealistic argument to do something which they didn’t want to do (I lost that argument—but that is another story).

3.  “blindly partisan”: I admit that I am “partisan” but I would not acknowledge the “blindly.” I believe that to the extent humanly possible I recognize and respect educational philosophies and practices that are different from my own. I understand those differences and often acknowledge their merits. When this comes to politics, the gift of academic freedom has given me the opportunity to be comfortably more partisan than many (without fear of retribution like losing my job), but I think and hope in a very civil way.

4.  “theorist”: yes, I own that. I have developed theories for a more preferable state of affairs for first-year, sophomore, transfer, and senior students. I have written and spoken extensively on my views about how to enhance student success in these transitions.

5.  “adherent of a particular ideology.” Yes, I own that too.  So what then is that ideology? Well, it is my philosophy of student success (unabridged):

a.  Successful access to and attainment in higher education is the principal channel of upward social mobility in the United States.

b.  Rates of failure and attrition are unacceptable and represent an enormous waste of human resources and capital.  The largest amounts of failure and attrition during the college experience take place during or at the completion of the first year (or the equivalent thereof).

c.  Necessary changes in pedagogies, policies, and curriculum must be based on sound assessment practices and findings, but this assessment must be mission-related and must pay appropriate respect to the vast diversity of American postsecondary institutional types. Institutions want and need to be able to compare their performance in the first college year with peer institutions and/or with aspirational groups in terms of learning outcomes vis a vis recognized, desirable standards.

d.  The public demand for accountability is increasing and will continue to do so. In order to satisfy this demand, campuses must have more data on their student characteristics, what those students experience in college, how and what they are learning, and whether they are improving and receiving value-added knowledge and experiences.

e.  Any efforts to improve the beginning college experience must be more connected to the K-12 pipeline than they are today.  Although there are many notable efforts, the pre-college and college experiences are still largely unconnected.

f.  Any effort to more seriously improve academic success during the first college year must involve more of the faculty and must be legitimized by the disciplinary cultures and bodies which measure and determine the criteria for success and advancement of faculty in their subcultures. A central issue is faculty resistance to change and the resulting need to vastly increase faculty buy-in to these proposed first-year initiatives.

g.  The roles of campus chief executive, chief academic and chief financial officers, and trustees are also critical for mobilizing institutional change, for determining priorities, and for finding and allocating necessary personnel and fiscal resources; more attention must be paid to the knowledge of the first college year possessed by these four leadership categories and how they act upon this knowledge.  In addition all important campus middle managers—deans and department heads—who either promote or inhibit change, must also be addressed in like fashion.  Another key cohort is the institutional research professionals and other colleagues who are responsible for assessment and reaccreditation self-studies.

h.  The most dominant perception held by the public and its elected representatives in terms of where responsibility for college student learning/failure rests is that the problems we face in higher education attainment are most fundamentally due to the failure of college students to take sufficient responsibility for their own learning. Pat Callan’s NationalCenter for Public Policy and Higher Education, in its 1999 report “Taking Responsibility,” stated the following:

We also found agreement on what these leaders take to be the most serious problem facing higher education. For these leaders, the real obstacle is not the price tag, but the fact that many students are not sufficiently prepared to take advantage of a college education . . . the most critical factor in higher education is the responsibility taken by students themselves.

While we recognize the enormous importance of student responsibility as a basis for their learning, we will not join in full agreement this chorus of student bashing and blaming the victim. Instead, we believe that responsibility has to be jointly and equally shared by the postsecondary institutions that have admitted these students and by the students themselves.

i.  The first college year should be transformational; pedagogies of engagement are known, necessary, and desirable, and student learning in the first year also must be tied to issues of civic concern.

The foundation of all the outcomes we desire from American higher education, for better or worse, is laid in the first college year.  Unfortunately, most campuses have very little research-based data on the effectiveness of their first college year, and thus more assessment of that year (and the tools to do so) is in order.

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