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Becoming Acquainted With Ambivalence

Inside Higher Ed - Shared Governance in Crisis

Originally published: “Becoming Acquainted With Ambivalence,” Inside Higher Ed, February 28, 2017

Inside Higher Ed | Shared Governance in CrisisU.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s assertion that faculty members tell students what to say and think distorts a basic fact: most professors are dedicated to teaching their students to think independently and critically, argues Susan Resneck Pierce.

As someone who has been a faculty member and a dean, as well as a college president, and who has worked on college campuses as a consultant for the last decade, I believe that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was describing an alternative reality to that on most campuses when she insisted to college students at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, “The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say and, more ominously, what to think.”

Such a blanket characterization of the professoriate and college administrators, or what DeVos calls the “education establishment,” distorts a basic fact: at most colleges and universities in the United States — public and private, sectarian and nonsectarian — faculty members and administrators are dedicated to teaching their students to think independently and critically in order to prepare them, as Thomas Jefferson advocated, to be part of an educated citizenry. Although occasional news stories appear about faculty members — not all of whom are liberal in their politics — making political statements in their classes, such moments are far from the norm.

The diversity of institutions of higher education in the United States is one of this country’s greatest strengths. Nevertheless, even with that diversity, with few exceptions, most American college and universities put at the heart of their curricula the goal of teaching students critical inquiry and what Harvard University and others call “new ways of understanding and new ways of knowing.” Students are routinely taught to reflect on and to challenge what they read, hear and even think. They are taught to argue logically and to support their arguments with evidence. They are encouraged to embrace complexity or, as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man put it, to become “acquainted with ambivalence.” Those matters are at the heart of what most faculty members and administrators seek for their students.

A look at three university mission statements will illustrate the point.

Harvard, which is often the model for other institutions, puts it this way in its mission statement: “Beginning in the classroom with exposure to new ideas, new ways of understanding and new ways of knowing, students embark on a journey of intellectual transformation. Through a diverse living environment, where students live with people who are studying different topics, who come from different walks of life and have evolving identities, intellectual transformation is deepened and conditions for social transformation are created. From this we hope that students will begin to fashion their lives by gaining a sense of what they want to do with their gifts and talents, assessing their values and interests, and learning how they can best serve the world.”

Dominican University of California, for which I’ve consulted in the past, has a similar mission, which it describes both more succinctly and in some ways more expansively: “Dominican educates and prepares students to be ethical leaders and socially responsible global citizens who incorporate the Dominican values of study, reflection, community and service into their lives. The university is committed to diversity, sustainability and the integration of the liberal arts, the sciences and professional programs.”

Princeton University, too, highlights its “commitment to innovation, free inquiry and the discovery of new knowledge and new ideas” and then emphasizes — as most institutions do — that this commitment must be “coupled with a commitment to preserve and transmit the intellectual, artistic and cultural heritage of the past.”

It may also be that DeVos has failed to learn one of the key tenets of effective argument, that (as the cliché has it) one swallow does not make a summer. Rather, she may be basing her notion of what happens on college campuses on her limited experience as a student at and graduate of Calvin College, which is clear in its mission statement that one of its primary goals relates to “shaping and confirming the values” that will guide Calvin College students for the “rest of their lives.”

Specifically, unlike many other faith-based colleges that welcome students of all faiths and no faiths, Calvin College, in its expanded mission statement, is absolutely clear that it seeks to ensure that the values guiding their students “will be Christian ones, in accordance with biblical revelation. Such a view provides both the coherence of our curriculum and a goal for our curriculum. Its relationship with the denomination provides the college with moral authority.”

Calvin College, as a private institution, is within its rights to structure its programs in the way it does. But its approach of seeking to significantly influence the values, religious or otherwise, of its students is far from typical.

DeVos may also be underestimating the ability of college students, a population that includes adults as well as traditional-age students, to think for themselves. The protests that have appeared on numerous campuses in recent years indicate that many students are not blithely accepting institutional policies and practices on an array of levels. The involvement of students in votes of no confidence in their presidents (at places as diverse as Florida Atlantic University, Ithaca College, St. Louis University and Transylvania University) further gives the lie to any assumption of student complacency and unthinking acquiescence to authority.

Because of her limited experience with higher education, I would encourage DeVos to educate herself about the many strengths of American higher education and the widespread commitment to the values of the liberal arts. Because of space limitations, I am suggesting only a brief list. Others might wish to send their suggestions directly to the secretary at the Department of Education.

For a comprehensive view of the value of the liberal arts, she might begin with Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education.

To understand the profound impact higher education can have on students from underprivileged backgrounds, I urge her to read Ron Suskind’s account of how the life of a first-generation college student, Cedric Jennings, was transformed by his education at Brown, A Hope in the Unseen.

DeVos might also benefit from reading research that demonstrates the benefits of a college education, such as a Lumina Foundation paper by Philip Trostel, “It’s Not Just the Money: the Benefits of College Education to Individuals and to Society,” or “Education Pays: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society” by Jennifer Ma, Matea Pender and Meredith Welch.

She might also look at a report released earlier this week by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “On Solid Ground,” which points to the importance of assessing student achievement in “critical thinking, written communication and quantitative literacy.”

Finally, I would encourage DeVos to read the President’s Message written by Patricia McGuire of Trinity College, a Catholic institution in Washington, D.C., which defines “the quantities essential to effective leadership in our ever-changing global environment.” These are: “The ability to think critically, to write and speak clearly, to make ethical judgments, to know the context of history and literature, to understand the fundamental economic and political forces affecting the psychology of whole peoples.”

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