Questioning the Value of Higher Education in the General Education Classroom
Students, parents, and the public need to understand the value of higher education if colleges and universities are going to rebut the omnipresent hostility to the enterprise that we see almost daily in the media and our legislators. The opportunities to refute charges of diminishing return on investment, “wokeness,” and financial excesses, however, are myriad, and they include making sure that our general education curricula make clear to students the long-term value of the courses we ask them to take and the skills we help them develop.
The AAC&U’s recent annual meeting in Washington, DC (held in conjunction with the biennial national conference of the Association for Undergraduate Education at Research Universities [UERU]), included rich presentations and conversations on the contemporary state of higher education in the United States. The UERU keynote presentation by Tia Brown McNair, AAC&U’s vice president for diversity, equity, and student success and executive director for the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Campus Centers, encouraged attendees to move from well-intentioned but often hollow “equity talk” to the hard, complex work of engaging in the “equity walk.” The AAC&U’s plenary presentation by Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, further emphasized the complexities of the current state of higher education and the issues that faculty, students, and campus leaders face. Allen’s presentation extended views that she has articulated elsewhere, such as in a recent Washington Post column:
On campuses these days, too few people understand basic concepts of academic freedom and free expression and how they interact with the equally important commitment to making sure that students can “learn free of discriminatory harassment,” to quote the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). Because of that, we do not know how to protect intellectual freedom and establish a culture of mutual respect at the same time. But this must be our project.
The positions articulated by Brown McNair and Allen resonated alongside the attendees’ awareness of the December congressional hearings that targeted antisemitism, free speech, and DEI efforts at elite institutions. They swirled around the conference’s many sessions on topics related to general education and the needs of undergraduate students like the snow that blanketed Washington, DC, on the conference’s last day.
Helping our students achieve their academic and career goals has long been the central mission of most US colleges and universities, especially those non-elite institutions that educate the majority of US undergraduates, but our undergraduate curricula are also structured to promote the general and civic education of our students: we need our colleges and universities to support the development of citizens able to engage in critical and civil discourse about complex issues. And one of the key reminders the AAC&U meeting provided was that there are loud public voices asserting that our institutions are not doing a very good job of that, despite detailed evidence to the contrary that was also shared at the event. The question for those of us leading and teaching out of the national spotlight is, “What can we do to try to confront these challenges—to help strengthen the ability of our students, their parents, and our communities to articulate the value our colleges and universities provide?”
I would argue that, as one strategy, we should adopt a version of Gerald Graff’s “teaching the conflicts” to our general education literature requirements and in other general education courses that students typically take in their first two years of college (or that they complete as dual-enrollment high school students).
Specifically, if we focus a general education literature course on texts that center on the university, we can enable students to engage in a deep consideration about the value of higher education. I am not advocating either that we use this class to indoctrinate students into a particular view of the academy or that we use the class as an opportunity to subject students to a semester-long diet of nothing but insider snark (like the wonderful novels by Julie Schumacher, for instance). Instead, we should present students with a range of perspectives from characters who view the university campus from different vantage points and who find different reasons for being at a college or university. Such a syllabus might include a little bit of satirical snark (like Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, or David Lodge’s Changing Places), but it would focus more prominently on the experiences of students and staff as well as faculty. Such a course might include the following:
- James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), which provides opportunities to discuss (among many other topics) the relationship between education, religion, and cultural identity.
- Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night (1935),which focuses on intrigue at Oxford in the early 20th century, but which also provides opportunities to discuss women’s higher education and, perhaps more importantly, the attitudes of university staff toward the academic enterprise.
- Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963),which considers the lives of some Vassar alumnae during roughly the same time period. It raises the possibility that the college education the characters received has “ruined” them, rendering them unable to fit into the roles expected of them in mid-20th-century US society. You might also consider McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (1952), the subject of a recent A.O. Scott article in the New York Times. Scott reminds of the relative timelessness of our current moment, noting that US higher education has long been “menaced from the outside by rampant anti-intellectualism and from within by administrative bloat.”
- John Williams’s Stoner (1965),which depicts the life of a first-generation farm boy who arrives on campus to study agriculture in 1915 and instead becomes an English professor who lives his entire life on campus.
- James Kudera’s Fight for Your Long Day (2010), whose main character is an adjunct English professor struggling to cobble together a living. Discussion of it at the general education level could be particularly rich, especially if the faculty member is themself a contingent faculty member.
- Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (2012), which focuses on the experience of the undergraduate student athlete but also considers the perspective of the president of a small liberal arts college, discussion of LGBTQ issues, and, of course, baseball.
- Jennine Capó Crucet’s Make Your Home Among Strangers (2016), whose main character is a first-generation Cuban American female student determined to graduate from an elite liberal arts college. Her commitment to her goal, even as she sees her education altering her relationship to her family, provides an opportunity to address the role that a college degree plays in economic advancement and cultural identity.
- Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018), which follows two Irish students as they move from their small town high school through their undergraduate years at Trinity College in Dublin, showing how they mature and change (and reminding older readers why we would never wish to relive our early 20s).
- Weike Wang’s Chemistry: A Novel (2018),in which a Chinese American female graduate student’s academic and personal lives implode.
- Brandon Taylor’s Real Life (2020),in which a gay, Black, southern male confronts issues of belonging and purpose as a biochemistry graduate student on a large midwestern campus.
This list is certainly not complete. There may be better combinations of novels for the student demographics on our individual campuses (and there are a number of already curated lists of university-centered books that could provide more inspiration), but it creates a sense of the possible conversations that such a focused syllabus could initiate. These texts isolate different tensions and problems within the university that could generate productive classroom discussions and student projects. And these discussions would help students clarify for themselves what they value about their university education and what they expect their time on campus to be like. These discussions won’t always be easy, but they are becoming more necessary every day.
Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the former dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.