I’m in Ohio for the long weekend (yay!) meeting my new niece (YAY!), and I’ve happened across Steven’s Pearlstein’s “Meet the parents who won’t let their children study the humanities.” It’s the sort of piece that almost has me at moments, but largely leaves me rage tweeting to the swirling indifferent winds of the internet and two of my friends. So, before you proceed, a caveat: I’m typing fast, during a likely very brief baby nap, in a house of chaos and sleeplessness.
Why am I so angry? What can be done? To the latter question, I think, there are simple solutions. Mute me. Restructure the institution of higher education. Build an entirely new social order.
The former is hard to parse. Part of my rage stems from the pervasive tide of millennial news coverage that vacillates along a spectrum from the position I’ve seen best summarized here and in Pearlstein’s article. “Millennials!” journalism is a new take on an old stance. You can hate the kids or hate the parents, but you must always presume that the ills of the 21st century are rooted in family structures (here you must invariably assume a mythic norm) and never broader economic systems. Blaming family structures is cheap, easy, and multipurpose. It works if young people overachieve to compete in increasingly strained college admission markets and it works when they commit violence in schools. Millennials are all trophies or violence-in-video-games, depending on the week and the news cycle. They’re rarely humans with complicated lives who, like all of us, strive imperfectly to please impossible masters.
My rage, though, goes a little deeper. It’s tied to my own trajectory as a relentless humanities grad turned first-year student teacher and advocate. I dedicated much of my life to the humanities, and I don’t doubt their value. I’ve also dedicated years to teaching college freshman, and that means I see the kids who don’t progress beyond the first year. I see their brief encounter with higher ed, and it terrifies me.
Since 2009 I’ve worked at VCU’s Department of Focused Inquiry. We’re a big faculty that carries a lot of identities, but most centrally we’re focused on equity in outcomes for students at VCU. It’s our mission to reduce retention disparities across VCU’s many diverse student populations. That is a difficult mission, and fraught. Our students enter the university with a huge range of advantages and disadvantages, ranging from their academic preparation, to their full time jobs, family care commitments, and their full comprehension of what university culture will entail. Our students are beset on all sides with social, psychological, and economic forces that push them in directions that they may or may not want to head. Our job in FI is to be one force (among all of these) that pushes students in the direction of academic success.
The hardest part of our job is often that we are just one force among many. We are constantly confronted with challenges for which there is no institutional or academic solution. How many times can you negotiate the deadline of a paper for a student who works 40 hours a week? For a student with children? For a student readying for deployment? For a student struggling with untreated mental health issues? What about a student who is simply lonely and stressed and scared?
The reality is our students are profoundly vulnerable. Few have meaningful financial stability. As enrollment continues to grow nationally, many are first generation college students without external guidance on how to navigate a FAFSA much less choosing a major. I myself am already a second generation college student, and my schools (both where I studied and where I now work) offer majors in disciplines my parents have never heard of. Students often enter school without a clear sense of where they’re heading, and while that can be an exciting experience for some, it’s terrifying for others.
I think it’s time we accepted that some of this terror is reasonable. Students are proceeding forward with only one certainty: financial commitment. They will, a vast majority of them, borrow their way forward. They will do so knowing that their degree does not guarantee a job. They do so knowing they will spend years, decades even, paying it back. They do so knowing we distribute housing, food, legal security, and healthcare inequitably. All of this students know, and often their parents know it more, having lived it longer.
Those students who don’t make it beyond the first year know all of this and more. They know the pain that comes with finding a dream to be unsustainable. They know the dread of stereotype threat. They know disappointment. They anticipate shame. They lose access to what resources the school provided. They lose what community they’ve built in the first year. They leave without what economic benefit a degree might offer, and they leave with the debt of that first year.
This should be a lengthy rant on why we need to defer more students to community colleges for the first year. That is a rant I will write at some point, because I believe in it deeply. I believe it it despite the fact that such a rant is an argument against my own employment. However, I’m on a time crunch. This house sleeps, and I only I possess the wherewithal to restock on diapers.
In the meantime: it’s 2016 for a while yet, and full range of costs associated with school is perilously high. It would behoove all of us to allow students and families to treat college as something other than 4 years of self exploration or the impassioned pursuit of one’s loves.* When we shame parents for blocking the path to a humanities major, we shame the symptom and not the problem. When we’ve built a culture that supports students and families with housing and health care, when we look to our community colleges as leaders in equitable education, when we’ve actually achieved equitable outcomes for our 4-year college students, when we’ve made those 4-year colleges affordable, and when we actually fund the humanities (thus creating jobs for humanities graduates), then we can champion the humanities degree as an equally viable choice for all.
In the meantime, we should not be coy about our true message (here, I suspect, lies my true rage). When I see humanities scholars lamenting parental interference in major recruitment, I wonder if those same faculty are willing to invest hours in the professional mentorship of all their undergraduate majors. I wonder if those departments make job placement data available to parents, of if they simply post a list of famous people with English degrees on their website (amazingly, this is not hyperbole). I wonder if those faculty advocate for students each year tuition is raised. I am not employed in a humanities discipline, but the bulk of my extended social and professional circles is so employed. While I rarely hear humanities faculty talking about pathways to professional development, I do often hear them hoping to up the enrollment of classes predominantly taught by adjuncts. This, sadly, is how we are taught to survive in a strapped job market.
What can we do? Sara Goldrick-Rab has a short run down on ways we can support financially struggling students. She is much much smarter than I, and holds the twin powers of Research and Data in her grasp. She herself recognizes her proposal is only a start. Was it jest at the beginning of this post to imply we need a whole cloth restructuring of the university? Probably not. I’m unwieldy that way.
*It might also behoove us to remember that some people do in fact love accounting, which is both a fascinating field and a reliable source of income. This may seem shocking, but drama-pitying the accounting majors among us does not actually make the humanities seem inviting or appealing.