Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard, had a great piece in the New York Times Book Review Sunday – The University’s Crisis of Purpose
She writes “Universities are meant to be producers not just of knowledge but also of (often inconvenient) doubt. They are creative and unruly places, homes to a polyphony of voices.” I love this characterization of universities, and these are the very reasons why I love my job, and why I wanted my job in the first place. But it also creates a bit of a conundrum when I work collaboratively with people who are not in universities, but working in institutions where a polyphony of voices is not seen as creative and generative but dangerous. “Unruly” for many institutions (including K-12 schools) is often read as uncooperative, not a team player, and thus, not a practice that is rewarded. So when I’m sitting with a group of folks in various settings and begin to feel uneasy about the intense focus on the here-and-now or the “truths” of such-and-such practice, I live the impossibilities of the work we do in universities, “…to be practical as well as transcendent; to assist immediate national needs and to pursue knowledge for its own sake; to both add value and question values,” as Faust puts it.
Faust argues that perhaps the university has become too intertwined with the market world and the immediate demands of society and has forgotten about our work as “critic” and “conscience” for society. She refers specifically to the economic crisis and her wondering if “universities – in their research, teaching, and writing – have made greater efforts to expose the patterns of risk and denial? Should universities have presented a firmer counterweight to economic irresponsibility? Have universities become too captive to the immediate and worldly purposes they serve? Has the market model become the fundamental and defining identity of higher education?”
I wonder myself, and I also draw parallels with education.
Universities find themselves accepting contracts to write test materials, score tests, and engage with school policies that continue to narrow the nation’s public education curricula and “purpose.” We (broadly defined) are perhaps “too captive to the immediate and worldly purposes” of education and will droves of writers in ten, twenty, thirty years be wondering where we were and what we were doing while this crisis crippled our public school systems?
It’s very hard, at least for me, to figure out both how to be friends and colleagues with folks in the K-12 system, be supportive of public education as a parent and professor, and still do the “job” that I truly believe in, which includes intelligent, informed, and public research and criticism of a system that continues to fail droves of kids and families.
Sometimes I find myself acquiescing to expectations of the system that is broken – and I hate it. Sometimes I find myself engaging deeply with the kind of critique and critical consciousness work that is my passion, and someone else hates it (and sometimes this includes a friend or colleague who is deeply committed to and embedded within k-12 education) – and I hate that too.
Faust’s brief piece reminded me of why I love what I do. Even when my actions may seem and feel contradictory as I weave between and stumble among the important purposes of a university at large, and one faculty member finding her way.