As I write this final post for 2021, the many holidays that we observe at this time of year urge me to think about the meanings we attach to our celebratory practices. For me our December rituals help mark endings, prepare for new beginnings, foster connection to family, friends, and community, and most of all, pierce the seasonal darkness with our festivals of lights. These activities, regardless of particular religious affiliations, set this time of year apart from others, imbuing it with sacredness, even in the face of the commerce that we have woven through it in the United States.
It is in this context of that I am thinking about the lines between sacred and profane in higher education. The sacred part is that part that is characterized as a social good that can help weave together our society; the profane is a regular business that lives or dies by its ability to generate sufficient income to survive. As we complete the final tasks of the year, I find myself pondering the impact of ordinary commercial considerations on the more exalted goals of higher education. (Apologies to Emile Durkheim and Mircea Eliade. Read them if you haven’t already).
You see, I just returned from the annual conference of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), and if I’m honest, the news was not good. Despite several lovely panels reporting on new strategies for supporting transfer students, improving our efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion on our campuses, and even innovative new degree structures, the final session focused on the realities of demographics in the United States and it was sobering. Nathan Grawe’s review of the projections nationwide through 2037 tell the story. What we have been experiencing in New England for the last 8-10 years is now a national trend toward a shrinking population of young people. Here in Connecticut the projections are an 18% drop in potential students by 2037. Something is going to have to change.
But adaptation is complicated. Our potential students are changing, and we should attend to their needs and expectations. But, if we focus on the career development opportunities that so many students and families are looking for, we end up in conversations about the value of the liberal arts. No longer an assumed good (a once sacred component of what we do), we are faced with defending liberal arts education. If we decide to explore some of the new academic models being tested right now – the NEXUS degree (an employer/experiential learning focused two year degree) or the three year BA (90 credit equivalent) that looks a lot like the European model of a BA – we find ourselves having to make a case for the four-year degree. If we focus on new disciplines, we are faced with questions about how many majors/degrees we can effectively support, and inevitably what we might cut. Cutting things that are unpopular is the opposite of what many of us thought education should do. In all of this is a sense that we’ve abandoned the sacred world of education for the profane world of commerce.
In the 20th century, higher education took liberal arts and the four-year bachelor’s degree on faith. We believed in their ability to transform, without necessarily articulating how it did so. We believed the BA experience was enough to prepare students to navigate the world post-graduation and that opportunities would emerge. We also believed in the power of higher education, particularly public higher education, to create the opportunity for social mobility, supporting our faith in access to the American Dream.
Over the last two decades, this faith has been reshaped with questions focused on outcomes instead of experiences. We have found ourselves defining course outcomes, major outcomes, and degree outcomes as part of our routine practice. This is spurred on by the growing cost of education. It is also spurred on by the need to meet the needs of a broader group of students, who are seeking the opportunities that higher education provides, but would like some evidence that the investment is worth it. These explanations have led to a clear tension between our faith in the transformation that occurs as we ponder great ideas or conduct research or engage in interesting conversations and the seemingly necessary world of recruiting pitches that make us a means to an employment end.
My mind is juggling these tensions as I consider the realities of the projected population changes in CT, New England, and the nation over the next 15 years. It is clear that we must change to survive. Faith in our value has been shaken, so has our own faith in past-practices that we now recognize as exclusionary. We are worried that if we change too much we will create a new kind of exclusion: the kind that sends some students to places to explore ideas and other students to places that prepare for careers. If we are honest, that has been happening in higher education forever, so, I am not writing off new approaches, though I can hear the concerns about access to a traditional liberal arts degree, even before the conversation begins. We must explore them to be more inclusive. We must explore them to survive.
But will all of this adaptation eliminate the sacred part of education? I don’t think so. We must remember that the sacredness is not really in the structures we have built so far. Those have evolved over time to meet changing expectations and to include more people. No, changing how we organize education will not take away its place as a sacred institution, which at its core reflects faith in the betterment of both the individual and society.
We will always argue over the how of education because we should. Those arguments reflect our commitment to learning about learning. We will always argue over the cost, because as a society we have made this a cost we share, even if not as I would have it shared. We will always argue about purpose, because we have a healthy habit of questioning our assumptions about all institutions, even churches. This is the only way for us to uncover our good and bad ideas. It is the only way for us to grow.
No, the sacred part of education is not in the structure, it is in our faith in its power to transform, not just the individual, but all of us. It is a wish for better and a belief that better can be achieved. That is a powerful belief indeed. It gives me hope and brings a little light into the darkness of all the gloomy forecasts.
Happy holidays, happy new year, happy rest to all.