The ends we seek in higher education: An excerpt from Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope

Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope, new in our series Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, is shipping now when ordered from our website. Here we share an excerpt from the book, which Gannon will launch officially at West Virginia University on April 1.

In August 2017, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, saw a range of white supremacist, alt-right, and neo-Nazi groups converge on the town, ostensibly to protest the removal of Confederate monuments. The rally’s true purpose, however, was racist fear-mongering and violence. The night before the rally, a throng of white men carrying tiki torches and shouting such slogans as “Jews will not replace us” wound its way through the University of Virginia’s grounds. The rally itself was marked by dozens of attacks instigated by the alt-right and white nationalist groups, including the severe beating of an African American man in a nearby parking garage as well as the death of one counterprotester (and injury of several more) when a white supremacist sped his car through a crowd of antiracist demonstrators. One of the most emblematic images from this orgy of hate and violence was a close-up photograph of a rank of the tiki-torch marchers, in the center of which walked a young man wearing a polo shirt with the logo of the white nationalist group “Identity Europa,” face contorted in anger while screaming whatever slogan the marchers happened to be proclaiming at that moment. Social media users quickly identified him as a current student at the University of Nevada–Reno. Within days, other college students at the rally were identified on social media, including the president of Washington State University’s College Republicans. In the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville, these institutions struggled mightily with both the backlash against these students and fallout within their campus communities. Lost in the immediate hubbub over whether those students would be allowed to graduate or if they could even be safely enrolled in classes with students of color, however, was any reckoning with the fundamental question at issue here: are these the ends we seek in higher education? To put it bluntly, is it possible for a learner to both successfully move through the academic and intellectual spaces of a college or university and march in support of violent white nationalism?

And if it’s possible, should it be?

With that question in mind, let’s once again ask: What are the ends of higher education, currently constituted? There is a wellspring of tradition from which we (speaking generally) draw when we describe the virtues—indeed, the necessity—of higher education. Sometimes we say it’s an agent of social mobility; the nineteenth-century politician and advocate for public education Horace Mann famously declared that “education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance-wheel of the social machinery,” and we’ve since evoked that sentiment countless times. Sometimes we cite statistics contrasting the average salary over the entirety of one’s career between high school graduates and holders of a bachelor’s degree. If the boldly mercenary nature of such arguments makes us uncomfortable, we retreat onto loftier grounds. Higher education, we claim, produces new knowledge—it fosters innovation and progress. Yet that argument often returns us to the economic realm, as we tend to couch those things as necessary for “the twenty-first-century economy and workforce,” for example. And then we’re back into a frame of reference that sees higher education as primarily a skills-training venture, where we produce cogs in the machine, but those cogs have more polish. While the marketability angle may appeal to students and families (rightly) concerned about their future economic prospects, it’s not often the place where faculty want to plant our flag. So we fall back onto the “common good” argument: higher education is an engine of democracy, that there is a clear connection between higher education and our larger society, and that higher education thus produces important “civic outcomes.” Again, none of this is necessarily wrong. But neither is it enough.

Is it possible for a learner to both successfully move through the academic and intellectual spaces of a college or university and march in support of violent white nationalism?

We don’t often explore, for example, exactly what the connection between higher education and civil society really is. Is it a positive, beneficial connection? Or is it a connection that works to the detriment of one or both parties? How desirable is fostering “innovation” when what’s being innovated is a new missile guidance system or the outlines of a labor regime that produces cost efficiencies by degrading the working conditions of human employees? What is the point of creating new knowledge if we are not teaching students (and ourselves) how to use that knowledge or to inquire into its fundamental nature? The college students marching in the ranks of white nationalists at Charlottesville, for instance, believed their education had helped them acquire a lot of new knowledge. One of them, a history major, spoke enthusiastically about the “values” of medieval Europe, which he portrayed as an exclusively “white civilization,” when he described how he had become a white nationalist. But that image is not in accordance at all with what the historical evidence, as well as scholarship in medieval studies, tells us. This student may have felt like he had learned “new knowledge,” but instead it was no more than a superficial and ultimately illusory claim. This points to the larger dilemma we face: if we couch our aspirations for higher education simply in knowledge creation, we cede any role in the subsequent, and all-important, processes of weighing, analyzing, and acting upon that knowledge claim. Is that what we’re about? Knowledge may be power, but power is easily twisted and weaponized. Simply introducing knowledge into the public sphere and then abdicating any role in what happens to it afterwards is at best highly problematic; at worst, it’s wildly irresponsible.

If we couch our aspirations for higher education simply in knowledge creation, we cede any role in the subsequent, and all-important, processes of weighing, analyzing, and acting upon that knowledge claim.

This is even more the case when the discussion of higher education conflates, as it so often does, knowledge and skills. When figures identified as thought leaders suggest the real value of higher education rests in its ability to teach new skills to the rising generation (as well as current job seekers who’ve been left behind, outsourced, or downsized), they cast knowledge and knowledge creation in purely instrumental terms, rendering the work of higher education almost completely transactional in nature. Sure, there are platitudes about “deep learning” and “meaningful connections” thrown into the mix, but that instrumental logic remains the dominant trope. This creates a real problem for those of us engaged in articulating and defending the larger value—the intrinsic public good—of higher education. Challenged by the abstract nature of arguments about social contracts and civic connections, we shift to a language we think will be taken more seriously by administrators, politicians, and cost-conscious parents: the language of marketable skills for the “new economy” and of terms like “nimble” and “agile” and “multiple competencies.” But in doing this, we cede the terrain of the debate; we’ve implicitly declared higher education’s real value is transactional and market oriented when we use that language. We’ve sacrificed our larger vision in favor of short-term relevance. While it might be an eminently understandable move, it’s certainly a dangerous one. The “Unite the Right” marchers at Charlottesville were certain in their “knowledge” of how the world works, because they saw no reason not to be. In a larger discourse that treats knowledge as a fixed commodity—a skill set—one has either acquired or lacks, there’s no room for questioning.

That’s the danger of framing our work and our students’ journeys in higher education as discrete processes that have summative, measurable outcomes that are achieved when the student “completes their education.” Because what we’re really saying is that students have either acquired the necessary knowledge and skills or they haven’t, that they have either succeeded or failed, either gotten “what they needed” or failed to do so. Those binaries, in their dismissal of habits like self-examination, critical thinking, and questioning, mistake training for education. The results of such framing are what we see in these fraught times: bigotry and hate wrapped in righteous certitude, the theft of the public sphere, the commodification and marginalization—and thus dehumanization—of ever more people.

Read the rest in Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, available now from West Virginia University Press.

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