Higher Education

What are Schools For?

It seems that I come around to this topic at least once every 6 months. The prevailing economic conditions, political priorities, and evolving learning environments provoke questions that are at the heart of what education should or could be at this moment in history. As I peruse the higher ed news I see rich debates on social justice, modes of instruction, and the value of education. As my mind tries to sort it all out, I find myself reaching back to the work of Dr. Henry Perkinson who taught one of the best classes in my doctoral program: Readings in the History of Western Thought: What are Schools For? It’s time to revisit this question once again.

To start, it seems prudent to acknowledge that the answer to the question What are schools for? depends on which students we hope to serve. As provost at an access-oriented public university, the answer is clear – we exist to serve any student who is striving for the advantages that a college education can bring. Those advantages are related to social and economic opportunities and the ability to live a fulfilling life. All of our efforts then, should focus on making these advantages real for our students. But how do these advantages connect with the debates surrounding social justice, instructional formats, and the value of education? Quite directly. Let me explore them one-by-one.

What are the obligations of a public, access-oriented university, committed to changing lives, to the topic of social justice? Profound. One cannot be transformed by education if there is no opportunity to explore the history of ideas that underpin our social structures and the ways in which those ideas have changed and grown over time. As soon as we ask ourselves questions about how our world is organized now, and how we got here, we have entered a conversation about social justice. There are no stories untouched by bias, and it will be ever so. Each new discovery reveals another thing, place, or person we forgot to consider or actively excluded. We will always be finding those gaps or blind spots or exclusions and grappling with their consequences. It does not seem possible to teach anything without touching on social justice; it is embedded in all we do.

Our students need multiple opportunities to see how the past is connected to present in all disciplines, examining our best and worst ideas, and the impetus for change. They need learning environments that allow them to grapple with difficult concepts, the impact of discoveries large and small, and, yes, the gaps in narratives that have excluded some voices in favor of others. They need the chance to argue about these topics in contexts that demand extended thought instead of snap judgements, evaluation of evidence from multiple sources, and honest consideration of conflicting points of view. They also need the opportunity to practice these conversations with both passion and diplomacy. Without these opportunities, we will fail to give our students the chance to develop the skills and habits of mind necessary for navigating social and economic decisions that support a fulfilling life. Yes, the obligation to think about social justice is strong.

What are the obligations of a public, access-oriented university, committed to changing lives, to the exploration of our teaching practices and modalities? Unrelenting. These questions directly reflect our mission. We cannot change lives if our students don’t understand our goals or our expectations, or if we persist with methods of instruction that have a demonstrably negative impact on the equitable distribution of success. We should be obsessed with the literature on instructional design in any modality. We should be engaged with the research on non-cognitive variables and their outsized impact on our first-generation college students. We should be exploring ideas about course design that help our students draw connections between the learning in the classroom and the world in which they live.

Our faculty need multiple opportunities to experiment with instructional design. They need opportunities to engage the research on how students are learning and to try out new ideas. This means that those efforts need to be recognized as valuable to their career trajectory. We need to think about the kinds of supports we should give to new faculty to encourage attention to pedagogy. This might be a smaller teaching load and some professional development opportunities. It might also mean some relief from research expectations in the first few years. We also need to think about how to continue that engagement with pedagogy over the arc of a career, perhaps building in some periodic reductions in teaching loads to spend some time testing out a new approach. It isn’t that complicated, but we should be thinking about how to systematically support faculty development in instructional design as part of our understanding of their roles and responsibilities at the university.

Strong engagement with the research on pedagogy and instructional design is essential for a university like this one. It is the best path to supporting the diversity of learners we embrace in our mission. It is also the best path to improving student success rates, which translates into improved opinions of our value. This is the work of investment and engagement, not economic efficiency. Focusing on great instructional design keeps our attention on great learning experiences that don’t short-change students at access-oriented universities.

So, what are schools for? Or should I say, what are public, access-oriented universities for? We exist to serve any student who wants the advantages that a college education can bring. How do we help them access those advantages? First, by creating learning environments that are informed by the scholarship of teaching and learning and then being obsessed with finding better ways to invite students to engage difficult material and explore ideas. Second, by insisting on placing all that we know in context, the good and the bad of it all, so that our students leave us informed about the complexities of our world and prepared to engage those complexities honestly and fearlessly. That is our purpose; that is our value.

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