Sunday, December 21, 2008

Why doesn’t college work better? An Introduction

As much as I like teaching, it’s often frustrating, seemingly relentless (part of why I’m buried and not blogging as much these days) and short of tangible rewards. On top of that, criticism of higher education is common, from employers to students. Why? What prevents colleges and universities from performing better?

I’ve thought about writing a series of reflections about this for over a year. At that time, however, I was also angry at a handful of related issues, and it wasn’t the time for clear thinking. Now that I’m merely buried in work, though, I’m ready to explain. The problem, in no particular order, is students, professors, high schools, parents, taxpayers, administrators, government, employers, guidance counselors, economics, culture, and society at large. Did I leave anybody out?

As I find a moment here and there, I’ll explore these areas one by one, labeling them when I do as part one, part two, etc. But here’s a start.

Higher education exists for one purpose--to continue. Seriously, no irony. It always has, since its inception in the 12th century. Sure, if research occurs, if education happens, if knowledge expands, terrific. But the system is set up not to reward those endeavors, but to continue. In fact, not only have many new ideas originated outside of supposed intelligentsia, but also those institutions often opposed the new approaches. Despite its more recent “liberal” label, college is a thoroughly conservative institution.

All the other stakeholders have much the same focus--to survive. Admittedly, lots of people throw themselves into endeavors for lots of commendable reasons. But the bottom line is survival, not growth. What growth does occur is a byproduct. Add a healthy dose of self-justification, and we have a system of higher education.

So join me on an exploration, and I look forward to your comments along the way.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Healthy Balance Game

In Hermann Hesse’s "The Glass Bead Game," the young Joseph Knecht asks his mentor, the Music Master, for advice. Knecht is uncertain about which direction to take his career, about how to best respond to the events around him, and about difficulties he sees in official positions.

The Music Master tells him of a time, when he himself was young, that he likewise sought the advice of a respected elder and mentor, a Sanskrit scholar known as “The Yogi.” As the Music Master described his concerns and woes, the Yogi instead asked several questions about his meals, about his bedtimes, about his meditation practice. Instead, the Music Master had let good practice slide in each of these areas, largely because his concerns were so important and pressing.

But the Yogi points out not only the slip, but also that just when we most need to address health concerns (meals, bedtimes, meditation) during periods of stress, we are least inclined to correct our faults and return to normalcy. Ironic to be sure--we ourselves know we are off-balance (hence the stress), but leave behind balancing elements, even ferociously defending the counterproductive choices.

I am guilty as charged of this offense. Overwhelmed as I am, though, with work, home matters, personal challenges, and many, many projects for the future, some of them immediately pressing, I shall strive to remember to seek balance.

As another yogi tells us at the end of the novel, all is maya.

And welcome back to my blog!