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THE ECOLOGY OF TEACHING

The Heart of Students, and the Soul of Education

Hector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners. Hector is a regular essayist for Community Works Journal.

I received a most gracious email from a colleague the other day: "Thanks, Hector, for all you do to shepherd students along through the systems. I trust they are eternally grateful for the kindness, energy and personal investments you make in their successes!"

Earlier, I received another: "Thanks, Hector, for once again being on the front lines with students and advocating for them."

And yet another note said, "Your dedication to your students is admirable." Someone else, in conversation, said, "You treat the 1% student as you do everyone else—that's admirable."

I of course immediately fell for the accolades—I'm human; they made me feel good. Any person would likely feel the same. I was beaming. My ego was stroked and I felt as if these comments separated me from my colleagues and I was somehow operating at some higher plane. You start thinking that perhaps you're the only one making deep, meaningful connections with students. You start imagining that, at some level, you could be better than others.

But you know you're not better than anybody else and put the brakes on and say, Wait a minute. What's going on? Why are they saying these things?

Once the initial glow faded and I started to really think about the comments—and looked at myself, intensely searching for answers about the relationship between the language used to describe me, how I initially felt, and the reality I am living as a teacher in an elite liberal arts college in the Northeast (it's important to say it like that since so much is being bantered about the liberal arts, elitism and costs), I came to realize that these comments are not descriptors of me, someone that is doing a very direct, simple job, a traditional job—teaching—but, rather, these comments sadly describe how far we have moved from our responsibilities as educators.

The University of today has lost its way and is floundering. Let's deconstruct the comments and see how.

The first comment is complex: Thanks, Hector, for all you do to shepherd students along through the systems. I trust they are eternally grateful for the kindness, energy and personal investments you make in their successes!

Here, the teacher is somehow a shepherd, someone who "tends to watch over carefully," as a shepherd does over the most vulnerable of our creatures, sheep. Students are sheep, without a mind of their own, no sense of who they are and what they're doing? If the answer is yes, then how did we get here, to this point, that we experience students as somehow less than? Once children, as young adults they have been created as such, sheep that flock together and then must be guided through our chutes?

We assume that our system is so complex that's it's nearly incomprehensible to the student; we now have systems, plural. In these systems and their mechanisms we essentially construct discipline, which fosters, primarily, dependency; it weakens the obsequious student who is blindly shepherded towards authority. This is an incredibly false construction caused by higher education's intimate relationship with the economic system; these systems mirror each other.

Paul F. Campos, in "The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much," argues that, "...far from being caused by funding cuts, the astonishing rise in college tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education. If over the past three decades car prices had gone up as fast as tuition, the average new car would cost more than $80,000."

So something else is going on. What? Says Campos:

Salaries of full-time faculty members are, on average, barely higher than they were in 1970. Moreover, while 45 years ago 78 percent of college and university professors were full time, today half of postsecondary faculty members are lower-paid part-time employees, meaning that the average salaries of the people who do the teaching in American higher education are actually quite a bit lower than they were in 1970.

By contrast, a major factor driving increasing costs is the constant expansion of university administration. According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.

Why this expansion? Why this Draconian control of labor?

It has to do with a narrative that is delivered by academia (university administrators and their accolades, those that control the story): the world is so complex, so fraught with challenges, that each discipline, by design, is so very difficult to comprehend; we need expert guides. Everything is so complex, we're told, we need more administrators managing more programs; we need more programs designed with increasing complexity to meet our challenges. We keep moving the deck chairs, re-arranging the order of things to adjust to the ever increasing complexity of problems and challenges.

Education is therefore not a teaching and learning problem, it's a management problem—the challenges are there, from course creation to assessment, to tenure and promotion. It's about management, not teaching. That's what we're being told—and if not told directly, actions speak louder than words. We need more, and higher paid, professional managers of education.

It's not surprising, then, that one lowly teacher then becomes a shepherd—a totally new construction in higher education.

Then comes the second half of the sentence, namely that the student should be "eternally grateful for the kindness, energy and personal investments you make in their successes!" I should be the one that's eternally grateful since these students are paying in excess of 60K a year to sit with me.

Education is a funny thing; it's an interesting business model: you pay me a lot of money to have me discipline students into obedient consumers. If this wasn't true, it would be a script for a Hollywood movie, at the very least. Students hardly complain; when we say jump, they say how high. We keep students' attention on the notion of success we've constructed for them, which does not mean that I've been successful at realizing something about myself, rather it is synonymous with material wealth, acquisition, the right high paying job with the right title.

This shepherd is being thanked for guiding and carefully watching students move away from themselves, through a complexity that need not be since it's totally plastic, and towards material wealth, rather than to a deep, abiding understanding of what moves me, what passions I have, who I am. Thus, I am shepherding—we are shepherding—students towards unhappiness, a society towards self-destruction.

"Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world," says biologist Edward O. Wilson in The Social Conquest of the Earth. "The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life."

We all have a hand in this—but education reigns supreme in our insistent walk towards destruction.

Wilson also says that, "The genetic fitness of each member, the number of reproducing descendants it leaves, is determined by the cost exacted and benefit gained from its membership in the group. These include the favor or disfavor it earns from other group members on the basis of its behavior."

An "ethic of simple decency towards one another, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are," will take us further towards our dreams, says Wilson. But in order to do so, education has to help all of us turn inward, not towards objects of desire.

Thus we come to the first and most prominent problem of higher education today: it has nothing to do with enlightenment, with the self, with recovering one's sense of being, turning inward; rather, it has everything to do with leaving the self behind and attaching memory and desire and dreams to externalities, objects, value given to acquisition and power, only. We are exacting great cost from our group, gaining little if anything at all.

And this is not absent in community service work, either. Are we doing community work because it feels good or because it will bring each of us closer to ourselves and each other? Is there a reflective/reflexive quality to our community work? Are we doing community work because we want to save someone, a community, someone we see as needing shepherding or are we doing it because we want to shepherd ourselves, guide ourselves back into who we are beyond the plastic nomenclature of institutional mythologies about success and power? What role does listening play in community work?

A student says to me, "I want to help the world be a better place."

I respond: "How have you helped yourself know who you are, first?"

Which brings us to the second comment: Thanks, Hector, for once again being on the front lines with students and advocating for them.

In a system that has increasingly grown in false complexity, at great costs, human and otherwise, this shepherd somehow works on the "front lines." Imagine please: a front line at an elite liberal arts college with a 60K a year price tag. What does that look like? I have no idea. There are no front lines here—not (almost) anywhere in higher education in the United States. From the public school to the most elite of our ivies, we luxuriate in the four year college experience, even if we take 6, 7, or 8 years to complete (another subject, which has to do with socio-economic divide). We are extraordinarily privileged, so how is it that we think of what a teacher among students does as the front lines?

Because we have grown to believe that any intimate interaction with a student beyond the one to many delivery of information is way too intense, way too much work. Expediency, excellence and efficiency—the three E's—are what guide us. Our job as teachers is simply to deliver the information in the most pragmatic, productive way possible, and asses the student's reception of that same information. Everything else is,well, you know, way too complex and way too much work—I don't have the time to sit with them and listen to them.

So the student finds herself needing an "advocate" for her feelings, her thoughts, her desires and longings, her needs; she needs a mentor, a new position in academia that is synonymous with the shepherd, which is code for someone who is willing to spend endless hours listening to students every complaint, thought, anxiety because the student's own advocacy, the student's power to do so by searching inwardly, discovering herself, has been effectively severed by education's scheme, compressed and repressed by endless hours of busy work she's been told are the means by which to work through Byzantine mechanisms. The individual is then forgotten along the way and begins to be measured by how well she can fit into a cog in the hierarchical economic system motivated solely by consumption. The more she has a capacity to consume, the more successful she is thought to be. We tell the student—rather we sell the student on the notion that this is how we create meaning in our lives.

Finally we get to "dedication" and to the notion that I admirably treat those that reside in the 1%, economically speaking, and all others the same.

Dedication: complete and wholehearted devotion, especially to a career, ideal, etc.

Why would anyone labor at a career or a practice or an art and not have a wholehearted devotion to it? Unless, dedication refers to an absence; that is, that some are dedicated to certain things, others to others. Which means that some are dedicated to the efficient, productive and profitable delivery of stark information and some are dedicated to the inner lives of students, to the intimacy that teaching and learning requires. Which will move us from our depressing state of affairs?

These different meanings to dedication insinuate that there is a hierarchy of needs that runs along economic lines, such as the 1% needing opportunity, access, adventure, etc, and others, the less fortunate economically speaking, need funding, counseling, mentoring, basic skills work, etc. This is the very physical, psychological and spiritual divide in higher education, particularly in our elite schools.

I sat in a stupor after reading Jeffrey Sachs' speech, at Columbia University, April 2nd, 2015, "What is a Moral University in the 21st Century?" Sachs argues quite cogently that the University, here Columbia—though he's speaking directly to all of us—has fallen into a "libertarian position" morally speaking; that is, says Sachs, "We are not here to agree; we are here to accomplish our tasks, whether to get a degree, uncover a new law of nature, invent a new device, produce a work of art, understand the past in a new way, or heal a patient in the University’s vast medical complex.  We are here to keep focus, and to keep moving.  Individual members of the community are encouraged to hold strong views, often trenchant and controversial ones." Thus, let us focus on our contractual agreements, keep schools safe and civil—nothing more. This breeds selfishness—and competition; it disenfranchises.

This is a University that has lost its moral footing. For Sachs—and many of us—"there are transcendent moral purposes in society.  Voluntary contracts may lead us badly astray, even to the threat of our own survival and the survival of other moral beings."

Sachs goes on to say that, "the sum of individual behavior is not enough to meet human needs, unless guided, molded, and constrained by a larger moral purpose." This is what really got to me: we have forgotten, in higher education, that our purpose is to mold citizens, to help raise young kids into adults. "What is good for the individual," says Sachs, "is not necessarily good for society."

Sachs again, about our challenges:

We should encourage a re-moralization of U.S. society at large, to pull back from an America in which inequalities are at all-time highs, in which everything is for sale, in which Wall Street commits financial crimes and then pays fines as a normal cost of doing business, and in which the U.S. Supreme Court cannot tell the difference between anonymous corporate campaign giving and free speech.  If ever there were a demonstration of the collapse of US public morality, it is the Supreme Court’s disastrous moral failure in Citizen United and related case law

We're in a crisis in higher education if we have to point to a few individuals and hoist them up as "shepherds," as "admirable" because we're paying attention to the wellbeing of students, because we're acting morally and working with transcendent moral purposes.  

A re-moralization of U.S. society is not going to happen if we push students away from themselves, if we demand that they park their angst and fear somewhere and just take the information we're imparting. This just makes matters worse since it suggests a lack of care, an inability to recognize that a student's life matters, that a student already brings into our classrooms philosophies and ideas—and that it's our responsibility to let these live, to use these as ways into difficult and challenging ideas, to test them through inquiry.

We must help the notion that different voices can help to solve problems because we have all the resources we need to tackle our challenges—but we may not have the will.

But how can we have will if passion and desire are directed towards material objects and the importance we give tasks and degrees, not what a person can imagine? This is the moral conundrum.

 



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