As Kwame Anthony Appiah reminds us, universities advance great science, literary culture, and the educated citizenry necessary for a democracy, and they do so by bringing a diverse set of conflicting ideas and ideals into a learning culture. The same could be said about the New York Times Magazine's special issue, "Collegeland."
The magazine begins with Appiah's "What Is the Point of College," which explains two competing visions for higher education today - "Utility U." and "Utopia U." The bifurcation is between Utility U., and its goal of getting a good return on your college investment, and Utopia U., which is "about building your soul as much as your skills." The divide goes a long way towards explaining other legacies of the growing corporate dominance of America.
The special issue ends with Nicole Hannah-Jones's "Conscience of the Nation." She concludes with a statistic that should shock all of us into action. In 1978, just 542 black men went to medical school. Even though the nation's black population had increased markedly, last year just 515 black men entered medical school!
In between, Appiah, Hannah-Jones, and the other contributors explain how global and national economic and political forces have changed universities and how transformations in higher education will affect the broader society. To understand their nuanced analyses, however, we must return to Appiah's introduction and the foundation it lays for "Collegeland."
Appiah explains that universities have always been a place to explore both "the qualities of your skills and of your soul." These "are two separate questions that aren't quite separable." But, "college was a pretty good place to work out some answers to both."
In Utility U., Appiah writes "students are consumers; they have needs and desires to be met, at a price they'll pay." On the other hand, "Utopia U. is concerned with values. The values agenda can involve the content of classes, the nature of campus communities or both." Utopia U. seeks "to create a safe space, to check your privilege and suspend the prejudices of the larger world, to promote human development and advance moral progress." But, Appiah and other contributors recount the tragic story of how higher education was tilted toward Utility.
Then, Adam Davidson draws upon The Race Between Education and Technology, by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, to remind us that:
Without greater access to higher education, the United States is likely to have even greater income inequality, a huge segment of the population will see its income fall and some of our core assumptions about national identity -- ours as a land of opportunity, a prosperous democracy -- will be at risk.
Since the 1980s, however, funding for higher education has been cut to the point where Utility rules. Nikil Saval contributes a discussion on the way that the University of Cincinnati has increased its debt by 20%, investing $1.1 billion in buildings by "starchitects," seeking to create "a desirable, glamorous place to spend four years living and studying." Then, Frederik deBoer explains the many ways that universities have been rendered subservient to corporatism.
Nowhere has the relative decline of utopianism in universities and in the nation at large, and the rise of utilitarianism, been more destructive than in its effects on African Americans' educations and economic futures. As bad as the economic stresses have been for the majority of America's non-elite institutions of higher learning, they have been even worse for the historically black colleges (HBCs) that award 16% of bachelor's degrees earned by black students. Hannah-Jones recalls:
Historically black colleges have always been incubators of black leadership; in the 1990s, the last time data was collected, graduates of these schools accounted for 80 percent of the nation's black judges, 50 percent of black doctors and lawyers and 40 percent of black members of Congress.
This crisis is doubly tragic because "nearly three of four students at historically black colleges come from low-income families, compared with about half of all American college students, and most are still first-generation college attendees."
On the other hand, Xavier University's Norman Francis pioneered an effort at New Orleans's HBC that produces more black graduates who become doctors than any other school. It is also first in graduating black students with degrees in biology and physics, among the top four in graduating black pharmacists, and third in graduates who later earn doctorates in science and engineering.
So, Xavier out-competes other universities in these extremely important Utility U. metrics, but it does so with a strategy that is utopian, or at least human. Hannah-Jones describes Dr. Pierre Johnson as a case study in Xavier's "fierce parenting" approach. Johnson grew up in the 1980s poverty of the South Side of Chicago, the child of a single mother who battled drug addiction. As a ten-year-old, Johnson observed the doctors who disrespected his pregnant mother, as well a black doctor who "didn't look down on her.''
Despite becoming an excellent student, Johnson struggled during his first few weeks of college. Fortunately, he was supported by Xavier's early-alert system. Johnson and other struggling students were identified as needing help long before their midterm exams. Moreover, Johnson participated in study groups. Hannah-Jones describes this process where:
Students would stay up until the wee hours of the morning helping one another. ''You have almost a hundred kids asking questions, discussing the material,'' Johnson said. ''To see the material broken down that way was just amazing. And if you didn't get it, they'd explain it again. And if you still didn't get it, they'd explain it again.''
Xavier's study groups thus encourage collaboration. Johnson said they ''took the competition out of it. ... We had this feeling if we all stuck together and helped each other, we would make it."
Even if Xavier had merely achieved the utilitarian goal bringing more poor students of color into the medical profession, that would be noteworthy. The school, however, has discovered the path to success in public education and other forms of post-secondary and higher education. As Dr. Francis says, teachers engage in "constant monitoring.'' Students are expected to learn, but when they need support, it is provided. Francis calls the system "love and pain."
And that brings us back to Utility U. and Utopia U., and the battle over the values that our schools and our society represent. As Appiah notes, this conflict "brings us back to demons and doubt" and their "very different metrics for success."
We've tried two generations of utilitarianism and corporate power, and we've seen how it cheapens discourse in schools and society. Its time go back to "the safe-space ideal and the free-speech ideal." This post focused on the New York Times Magazine's insights that can help us create equal spaces in our democracy. It deserves another post on the way the same themes illuminate the free-speech conflicts of today's universities.