FORUM: What Does Higher Education Need Now? Part Two

FORUM: What Does Higher Education Need Now? Part Two

This is one crisis that must not go to waste

Higher education is in a time of crisis—or, rather, what seems like a perfect storm of crises. The past few years, especially in the wake of the pandemic, have seen the shuttering of a number of colleges and the contraction of others. The liberal arts are under attack from multiple directions. Students and professors alike feel over-extended, overworked, overwhelmed. In light of these crises, what does higher education need now? In this forum, we present nine perspectives and responses. You can read part one here.

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Do not keep students in hell

Antón Barba-Kay

If you call to mind Book II of Paradise Lost, you’ll likely remember the long debate between the devils damned to hell about whether to continue to wage war against God. Spoiler: They decide that, yes, that is indeed what they should do. Satan volunteers for the job and sets off toward Eden—the rest is apples. Less remembered, however, is what the other devils do while they await his return. They “betake them several ways and to several employments, as their inclinations lead them, to entertain the time till Satan return.” Some of them play sports “as at th’ Olympian games,” others make lovely music, others argue about philosophy, still others go on field trips. None of it is particularly sinister, but the point is that all these extracurriculars are vain and false, because nothing could possibly be at stake in them. “This reminds me of college,” a friend recently joked, and she’s right: It’s a tableau of a meaningless variety of pursuits, of an existence weightless and parenthesized from real consequences. It’s all just fun and games. It’s hell.

Bradshaw Frey’s essay develops one helpful way of figuring this issue—the disjunction (or worse) of town from gown. But I think that this nerve touches almost all common complaints about higher ed’s worse tendencies: its administrative coddling, its character as a consumer service, its systematic tolerance of fratty offenses, its continuously narrowing forms of assessing the “outcomes” or “competencies” that supposedly justify the ticket price—in sum, the dwindling significance of anything resembling an education in the face of what is known as the overall learning experience

This experience performs (for many people of certain castes) the function of a rite of passage. College is the time when one moves away from home, when one is given power without much responsibility. It is the anteroom between childhood and adulthood. Or, rather, perhaps this is what it once was, but no longer is. Not because college does not prepare young people for real life, but because that “real life”—to the extent that it is digitally buffered and mediated—increasingly resembles the college experience: a bespoke, customer experience designed to seamlessly answer to our preferences. Even as our children grow up faster, we adults keep playing video games, elect Donald Trump as president of the United States, and invent verbs like “adulting.”

Higher ed needs to give students more structured opportunities to shoulder responsibility and exercise judgment in matters of real weight. This means asking more from them; this means affording them more room both for achievement and failure; this means finding ways of putting them in contact with reality. It is hard to know where to start when so many of the incentives in place are perverse. But let me suggest: a greater emphasis on manual trades or practices demanding attention to material elements, a greater involvement in the maintenance of the infrastructure and grounds of the college, a greater role in admitting the students who will attend the institution and in hiring the faculty, and a lesser role for algorithmic measures of success such as are designed to supplant our judgments of what matters. 

Is it not the case that people only grow up when we treat them as if we expect them to? And is it not the unpleasant truth that it is more comfortable for us adults to keep them in hell in order to paper over our own moral inadequacies?

Antón Barba-Kay is Robert B. Aird Chair of Humanities at Deep Springs College and the author of A Web of Our Own Making: The Nature of Digital Formation (Cambridge University Press, 2023).

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Fleshing out a hopeful mutuality

Andy Draycott

We live in times of intense economic and ideological pressure and a general fear for higher education. Love, patience, and hope are needed. The good news of salvation in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, his cross and resurrection, points backwards through the reality of fallenness, sin, and death, to the original goodness of creation, as well as forward to the eschatological vindication of all things in the kingdom of God. 

The reality of fallenness manifests, among other things, as competitive arrogance and frailty in the intellectual work of the university. It is also visible structurally in the inequities of participation and preparedness of student body, faculty, and staff. Yet the goodness of social cooperation in higher education is manifest in the evident expertise of those whose research, teaching, administration, trusteeship, and plain old learning allow these institutions to hum with life and activity. Love is evident in attentiveness to God’s world.

The gospel’s neighbor love is oriented to compassionate embrace of the stranger. Meeting this stranger entails not only encounters with a person but also with people’s ideas, disciplines, theories, and ideologies. Higher education will thrive as it pursues love of creation and human co-creation in a freedom assured by ultimate truth in such a way that penultimate truth can be explored from all angles.

Questions will not find simple answers ripe for sloganeering. Learning is not a weapon; inquiry shuns the tactics of war propaganda that suppose that enmity is settled. Love will not fear complexity and nuance in research and instruction. Eschatology supports patience in this same endeavor. Pressures for results and productivity assume a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, outcomes-driven approach that disregards the learning of creatures made in the image of God. Higher education takes time and needs patience—even in times of crisis, or especially so.

Participation in the intellectual life of the higher education institution requires a common mission rather than isolated silos. Herein is hope. Core reading, core questions, and multiple stakeholders engaging faculty research are all needed to flesh out a hopeful mutuality in the civic good of the intellectual life. According to the gospel, this will also be prophetic participation. 

Following the democracy of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus’ kingdom orientation to the least of these, higher education will expand its curriculum and canon, its recruitment and hiring, to hear from voices traditionally marginalized. By receiving the gifts of perspectives too often excluded it will seek to value the diversity of the changing social context of higher education. This will have a bearing on how contingent, adjunct faculty are treated, for example, as well as how a curriculum engages the strengths and weaknesses of any traditional discipline. 

Whether the institutional identity is one of pluralistic secularism or confessional piety, community college or R1 university, this mutuality is good for the board of trustees, administration, faculty, staff, and students. And it is good for the public, as graduates and publications carry learning into settings of need and creativity, solidarity and entrepreneurship.

Andy Draycott is Professor of Theology at Biola University.

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What if higher education needs a love song?

Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt

When I was first asked the question, “What does higher education need now?” the first thing that came to mind was a song. More specifically, it was a song from the easy-listening radio station that my parents preferred in my youth: “What the world. Needs now. Is love. Sweet love.”

Here’s the thing: I think Jackie DeShannon might be on to something. What higher education needs now might, in fact, be love.

Over the last few years we’ve been told that the current generation of college-aged students is primarily transactional—pragmatic, not idealistic. They want flexibility, a good value, and a major that directly feeds into a profitable career.

But those descriptors can’t quite explain some recent trends in the higher education landscape. First, there’s the recent report that one in four college applicants decided against a college because of the political climate in that institution’s state. Second, there’s been recent, rapid growth in applications to historically Black colleges and universities. And third, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in out-of-state students at flagship public universities, even though it means substantially higher tuition payments.

Each of these phenomena has been analyzed and critiqued by higher education onlookers. But I’m interested in the possible throughline: What is the thread that connects these trends? Numerous culture writers have opined in recent years that students choose college because they want a certain kind of experience. We might disagree about what that “college experience” is and about its relative merits, and we might argue about the ethics of residential colleges promoting a deliberate separation from host communities, but the fact remains that many students go to college with the hope of belonging to something bigger than themselves. This explains the avoidance of certain political atmospheres, the interest in HBCU’s among Black students, and the willingness to pay more to attend a school with the particular conviviality of nationally televised football games. 

At the core, students go to where they think they can be loved. Sometimes they might confuse comfort or consensus with love, but the fundamental human longing is to be accepted into a community.

As a professor at a teaching institution, I understand that this desire to be loved has pedagogical consequences. I of course want my students to love art history. But I also recognize that their willingness to engage a new subject, to attempt the new skills of visual analysis and object-based research, to ask questions, to confront their own biases and unthinking practices, to engage in challenging discourse, and to risk being wrong largely depends on their security in love. They need to be confident that their humanity is not up for debate. Learning happens when students know they are loved.

And, as I extend hospitality and care to students, I also call them into love, inviting them to extend themselves towards others. As bell hooks writes in her essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” a “love ethic” is what makes the expansion of one’s own world and commitments possible. Surely that is a worthy goal of higher education.

Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt is Associate Professor of Art and Art History at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, and she is the author of Redeeming Vision: A Christian Guide to Looking at and Learning from Art (Baker Academic, 2023). She is a Contributing Editor for Current.

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Memento mori 2.0: Remember that you are human

Nadya Williams

Early in Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone (ca. 441 BCE) the chorus of Theban elders delivers one of the most famous and poignant choral odes in all of Greek tragedy: the Ode to Man. In it the speakers describe the wonders of human achievement. It is people—human beings—who have crafted, invented, persevered against all odds, defying the natural order so hostile to them on land and on sea. The only enemy they cannot overcome, the chorus notes, is death. Or, one could phrase it differently: The main limitation of human beings is their humanity. But humanity is not only a limitation; it is also, at the risk of stating the exceedingly obvious, what makes us human as opposed to machines, those created beings that cannot die.

Two and a half millennia after Sophocles’ day, we can still agree that inventions—scientific inventions, but no less so creative ones in the realms of art, music, literature and more—are an important part of the human story. In fact, inventions, great and small, are not just a part of the human story in general. They are part of every human being’s story individually. We have all been created with the Creator’s desire to create something ourselves. The desire is ever-present; only the medium differs. That love of the creative process is what leads us to think, innovate, build in a way that only human beings can. College is a time when we can learn to love this creative process more fully, as we learn to love and pursue knowledge in a way that is joyful rather than disordered or self-centered.

As we consider in this forum what higher education most needs right now, the wonder Sophocles expressed comes to mind. And so does the wonder that I have seen in the eyes of my students over the years, whenever the realization dawned of a good idea, a creative thought, or even the understanding of a complex grammatical construction in Greek or Latin. What higher education most needs to teach students now is what it means to be human beings: the image bearers of God, with mortal bodies and immortal souls—in the age of soulless machines. I am convinced that the best way to do this is to provide students opportunities to enjoy the humanities as part of their educational experience, whatever their major.  

The past century has been a time of great and impressive inventions, many of them used for ill (e.g., the advances in destructive military technology, which can now vaporize an entire city with the push of a button), others for good. This age of technological advancements has also repeatedly seen people replaced with machines that can perform tasks better, faster, more accurately than humans—whether it be the shift to the computers we know today, robots performing minor surgery, and most recently AI tools writing essays and more. Unlike human beings, furthermore, these machines are not limited by death. 

Sometimes it seems that we live in an age of machines. Maybe we do, but even if that is the case, the essential truth that we need to remind our students—and ourselves—does not change: It is human beings, the image-bearers of God, who possess immortal souls, and who possess the capacity to love: beauty, the arts and creativity, and other image-bearers.  

Nadya Williams is the author of Cultural Christians in the Early Church (forthcoming Nov. 2023 from Zondervan Academic) and Priceless, under contract with IVP Academic. She is Book Review Editor for Current, where she also edits The Arena blog.  

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Rotunda, University of Virginia

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