The (broken) promises of Higher Education

Growing up, I didn’t know a lot of people who had degrees, certainly not advanced degrees. College professors were fancy, brilliant, suede-elbowed folx whose world would never intersect with mine. I’m not a first generation college student but in many ways, I felt like one. Arriving on campus at a large state institution my freshman year made it clear that I was way out of my league in every way – academically, socially, culturally. And I’ve been playing catch up ever since.

As an undergraduate student, the few courses taught by professors were intimidating, unapproachable, and boring. I had some awesome grad student instructors so I assumed something flipped when you took a full time position as a tenure track faculty member. Did they give you transparencies and a pack of wet erase markers and say, “Go forth and be as dull as possible”? This assessment held true in my master’s program as well. Professors were just not regular people. The first time someone asked me if I ever thought about getting a PhD, I thought what I assume everyone thinks: I could never write a dissertation and why would I?

A few years later when the opportunity for doctoral studies presented itself, someone close to me said, “there’s no way you could be a professor.” And despite having the job title for ten years, I know with certainty that she was right.

I am a learner. Everything I know about the world, about literature, about mathematics, about art, about people, about inclusion, about disability, about psychology, about behavior, everything I know, I learned in college. I didn’t read any “classics” in high school – not Gatsby, not The Outsiders. I only knew families that were constructed mostly just like mine and people who looked like me. College was my Miracle-Gro, the food that fueled my mega bloom.

My time as a professional in higher education has been consistently challenging. A lot of what I believed to be true about higher ed simply isn’t true. I thought higher ed was a place of intellectual innovation – it’s just as compliance and assimilation based as K12 learning environments. But without those who have taught me in my 10 years as a college student, I would not have learned about the whitewashing of history, about politics, about the history of education, about special education law and policy. I kept going back because there is always so much more to learn, so much to unlearn. There have always been financial hardships in higher education and the pandemic is bringing that to light. The solutions we thought we could count on are entirely impossible in an environment where the very model of our environment puts everyone at risk. Yet, I cannot wrap my head around the damage of cutting programs like sociology, psychology, women and gender studies, creative writing, African American Studies. I teach teachers but how can we prepare teachers without a broad liberal arts base?

There are a number of reasons why we’re in this position – financial mismanagement, state and federal underfunding, primarily – but the answer cannot be to cut programs that provide fundamental and foundational learning for a democratic citizenry. The humanities are critical.

Becoming inclusive educators requires an understanding of why people do what they do, how people interact in groups and in social contexts, how to be antiracist, antiableist, antimysoginist, inclusive of identities and experiences other than your own. We have to unlearn gender roles and white supremacy in order to dismantle them in our classrooms, schools, communities. We need the humanities.

It’s not enough to prepare people for a profession. We cannot prepare teachers in isolation without robust knowledge of writing, critical thinking, human development, systems, politics, literature.

I have never fit in in higher education. I’m a terrible writer and a mediocre scholar. I’m a work in progress as a teacher educator, constantly challenging norms and pushing back on traditional practices. You may want to call it imposter syndrome, but I know it’s really that I am an imposter. When I was that naive freshman from rural Kansas, I only saw the beauty and the creativity and the opportunity in higher ed and I wanted to soak up every little piece of knowledge I could. So many smart, cosmopolitan people! I can’t imagine my life today without all those who have taught me along the way, who teach me still.

While much of the shine of higher education has worn off by now, I remain deeply committed to the power of a liberal arts education. It’s time we all get in this fight, the fight to ensure our universities are offering diverse and inclusive course content with many voices amplified. Now is the time for MORE Women and Gender Studies courses, MORE African American Studies courses, MORE sociology courses, MORE creative writing courses. It’s going to take all of us to ensure that the humanities are not yet another casualty of the pandemic.

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