The evidence that students are experiencing a “stunning” amount of disconnection when it comes to school seems irrefutable.
The latest evidence I’ve come across is in Beth McMurtrie’s recent article at The Chronicle in which she talked to scores of faculty who report that students are “checked out, stressed out, and unsure of their future.”
A subsequent follow-up piece collecting first-person faculty perspectives on attempting to reach these students includes the testimony from one professor that “It feels like I’m pouring energy into a void.”
This is pretty dire, no doubt. But I believe what faculty and students are currently experiencing is nothing new when it comes to the dynamics of higher education itself.
It is my view that we have simply reached the endpoint of being able to run a system fueled by indefinite future rewards. In a world where there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel, what’s the point of continuing the journey deeper into the darkness?
The very structure of education in general is that current effort will pay off someday. Do well in grade school and you’ll be on track for an accelerated track in high school. Do well in high school and you can go to a selective college. Do well in college and you can go on to a selective graduate program or high-paying career.
But, of course, the career is only the starting point, not the endpoint.
There’s a story I tell in my book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities that I also often share when I do campus talks about a student in a sophomore-level general education literature course at Clemson University, circa 2008–2009. We were discussing a novel called Everything Matters! (by Ron Currie Jr.) in which the main character, Junior Thibodeaux, is born knowing the date of the end of the world, when he and everyone and everything else will be obliterated.
The conceit is essentially a mechanism to explore how one manages the existential dilemmas of life, while possessing this knowledge. It asks the reader to confront what truly “matters.”
During a discussion where I had prompted students to reflect on the events of the novel and Junior’s decisions relative to their own worldviews, I asked them to consider three questions:
- How did what matters to you come to matter to you?
- How do we measure if a life matters?
- How will you know if your life matters?
I wanted students to consider what they valued, and why? What motivated them? What were their desires? What is it about life that seems worth living?
After giving students a chance to reflect and write, I asked, “What did you learn as you considered the questions?”
The sophomore’s hand shot up, and she said, “I learned I can’t wait until I retire.”
Like a good instructor, I attempted to acknowledge and build on the comment, thinking that she was championing a carpe diem, seize-the-day type attitude, as in, “don’t wait until you retire to start living your life.”
“Why’s that?” I said.
“Because that’s when I’ll get to do everything I want to do,” she replied.
No more than 19, 20 years old, and she had internalized a worldview that said fulfilling her deepest desires must be deferred until she had amassed some sufficient amount of material security to finally start living.
This attitude was not uncommon in 2008, and it has only intensified over the years as the aperture for success seems to have narrowed for each new cohort of students. The increased anxiety and depression among student populations is entirely predictable, even sensible in the face of these conditions.
Add a pandemic into the mix, forcing us to confront a reality where there truly may be no ultimate payoff no matter how many hurdles you clear, and it is not surprising to see students struggling like this.
A similar dynamic is obviously at play for faculty who started on the same endless treadmill as undergraduate students and have simply been running on it for longer. Apply to graduate school, finish a dissertation, get a tenure-track job (if you’re fortunate), pursue tenure and so on and so on. How many faculty members have worked and sacrificed to achieve tenure, thinking that at last they would be able to do the work they most want to do, only to discover that there is no finish line, that they now have to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives, throwing them into an existential crisis.?
For both students and faculty, add in the fact that the institution which is supposed to be serving them, has in fact been acting like it is the other way around. What is there to latch onto to find meaning in the moment?
This dynamic exists even at the curricular level. General education courses only matter as preparation for the “real stuff” you get to do in your major.
What kind of message does this send to students about the work they’re supposed to be doing in the moment?
The faculty feedback gathered by McMurtrie on what they’re doing to help students navigate this period is sensible: Extend compassion, pay attention to building relationships, perhaps ease back on the throttle a bit.
However, as sensible as this is, it is not sufficient. We should be seizing this moment to consider some fundamental changes about how we position postsecondary education as a whole, and how we execute postsecondary education at the class and curriculum level.
The solution, as I see it, is both quite straightforward in concept and highly complicated in execution.
Essentially, we need to make the work of learning for its own sake worth doing while the learning is happening.
In a way, my work as a lifelong contingent laborer gave me an advantage in dealing with these challenges at an individual level. I knew there was no future for me that was any different from the present. It was overwhelmingly likely that teaching first-year writing was my fate as long as I was teaching.
This forced me to innovate and iterate for the sake of my own emotional survival. The result is what would become the curriculum ultimately enshrined in The Writer’s Practice
This process resulted in two important outcomes. One, it allowed me to find as much interest and pleasure as possible in the day-to-day work of teaching first-year writing.
Two, it made the space for me to realize that there was no future for me as an instructor inside a higher education institution, and I would therefore have to leave teaching in that context behind.
I was practicing the behaviors I want most for students—self-knowledge, self-efficacy and the exercise of agency. As nerve-racking and difficult as it was to leave behind the familiar for something new, I experienced these things as a form of freedom and liberation.
I felt capable of seizing the day. Even if my options were not idea., I could choose, I could act. I think this is what folks need right now.
At the moment, we are just barely emerging from the traumatic experience of the first two years of the pandemic, with no guarantee that future acute traumas aren’t still coming. It seems likely that if and when this acute phase is somewhat more distant, conditions will stabilize.
But it is important to recognize that the pre-pandemic status quo was not good and the desire to return to it simply because it is better than the present is not a good enough reason.
Over the next several months, I hope to do more thinking and writing about the specifics that could help move our systems away from an orientation around indefinite future reward and toward a focus on the pleasures of the moment.
Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education is my own big-picture starting point as I search for these complicated specifics. It considers how the higher education institution works if it is oriented around the mission of teaching and learning, as opposed to the operations of recruiting, enrolling and collecting tuition revenue from students.
If we perceive a void, it’s time to start filling it up.
If anyone else is also thinking about these things, I’d love to hear from you.
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