Last Thursday was the Academic Freedom Forum that I organized. One of the primary goals of the event was to contribute to the intellectual life of the university at large, and to invite all members of the university to take part. By my count, 8 of my 108 students attended. I expect there are basically three reasons more of my students didn’t attend: because they weren’t interested, because they had a schedule conflict, or because they didn’t feel comfortable going.
Those who were uninterested may not have understood what the event was about, or why it would be relevant to their lives. They might also have not cared about the issue. I expect that some didn’t care because they don’t consider education to be about doing anything except attending classes and fulfilling requirements for graduation. What is the purpose of university education? How does that purpose relate to fulfilling graduation requirements? Is that purpose related to doing anything outside of fulfilling graduation requirements?
Those who had schedule conflicts may have had a class at the time of the event, but many had work or family obligations. It’s obviously impossible to schedule anything such that no one has any conflicting events. But scheduling is made more difficult by the many obligations most of our students confront daily. Many of those obligations should take precedence over engaging in the intellectual life of the university. What is the relative value of engaging in that intellectual life of the university compared to these other obligations?
Those who were uncomfortable about attending may feel alienated from the life of the university. That could be because of language or culture gaps: even the notion of “intellectual life” may make someone feel unwanted or uninvited. Others may have a health or mental health related reason. I know I often skip events on campus, even events I am interested in, because of anxiety. I know it’s not avoiding anxious situations is not a very positive response to anxiety, but after a long work day, with my energy reserves low, it’s sometimes too much of a burden to summon the fortitude to tough it out. Whose university is it? Whose intellectual life is it?
This is a complex issue. I usually think about it in simple terms, based on my own experience as an undergraduate student. My life as an undergraduate student was not similar to most here at Stan State. I come from a relatively privileged background, and my parents paid my tuition to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (tuition would have been a bit higher there, in constant dollars, than tuition here at Stan State now). I had a job, 20 hours a week, in the library, to pay for books and other expenses. I lived on campus. In addition to classes and work, I spent hours and hours every week, on campus, talking to my professors in their offices, reading in the library, and just prowling around the academic buildings, seeing what was going on. I went to some kind of university academic-related event about every other week—a public lecture by a visiting scholar, a film screening, a play, an art display, a poetry reading, you name it, I would go, especially if there was free food. None of this was for class, or for graduation requirements, or for credit, but just because I saw there were opportunities to do these things, and I wanted to do them. It mattered to me because I had an actively curious intellect, and because I wanted to be an active member of the university. Not only that, but I felt like the university was mine to explore and even exploit in those ways. My feeling was that faculty in their offices were fair game for me to go talk to, about anything at all; that the library was an open invitation to read anything at all about anything at all; and that the art studios, theaters, and architecture department were there for my own entertainment and stimulation. Nobody told me I wasn’t allowed in.
My way of approaching college life was unusual then, and would be even more unusual now. For one thing, my economic situation was very different from what a larger and larger majority of students face today. A lot has changed about the financing of so-called public higher education: fees are higher, and textbook costs are astronomically higher. A lot has changed about the economic conditions of everyday life, and about public funding for a great many human needs.
I imagine it is also the case that the culturally prevailing ideas about the value of higher education have changed. If it was unusual in my undergrad days for students to think of college as an intentional, transformative set of experiences, I think now it sounds almost goofy to suggest this. The cultural idea we have of higher education now emphasizes job preparation to such an extent, that it’s hard for many people to imagine it can do anything else.
The cultural role of higher education has changed also because the demographics of college student populations have changed. Back when I attended, UNCC had more than the usual number of “non-traditional” students—which means students who are not 18-22 years old, and who did not begin college immediately after high school and expect to complete college in four years. At Stan State today, most of our students are non-traditional students. On top of that, a huge majority are first-generation college students, many are immigrants, many more are the children of immigrants, and many do not primarily speak English (the de facto language of teaching on our campus).
When I take all that into consideration, I realize that my own experience of undergraduate education was incredibly privileged, but also that I took every last advantage of it that I could. That immeasurably enriched my education and my life. Because I know how full, rich, and happy the experience of participation in the intellectual life of the university was for me, I want that for everyone. This also indicates what I think university education is, what it is for, and what value it has.
But who is it for? Remember, I was privileged. I didn’t doubt where my next meal was coming from (not until grad school). I had the resources to take advantage of the university. I didn’t receive the message, not once, never ever ever, that university education was not for me.
What do you value about university education? What are you getting from it? What could you get from it? How?
If you did not attend the Academic Freedom Forum because you couldn’t afford to (i.e., your schedule made it impossible), because you weren’t interested, or because you were uncomfortable about coming, this is not your problem. It is a problem concerning the institution as a whole and all of our relations to it. It is a problem regarding our economic, cultural, and social statuses, and, yes, of classism, racism, sexism, prejudice against different ethnicities, against different linguistic groups. The university is not somehow outside of the society, and the social conflicts and problems in our society are reflected in everything that goes on in the university.
My question is what we can do to make university education as valuable to you as it can be, and as it should be?