Higher education websites and publications are almost drowning in the grip of the crisis in the humanities in particular and the university in general. There are thumps about the “purpose of higher education” and the battle of “winning versus learning”; even on “student-centered education,” a slogan of the 1960s. Yet, paradoxically, lost in all of this are the students themselves.
Despite my retirement, I continue to have almost daily contact with students in Columbus, Ohio’s University District neighborhood, where I still live.
I talk to many Ohio State University students on the sidewalks, often as they walk their “pandemic puppies,” study on their porch, or drink beer in their front yard. In doing so, I have gained an understanding of at least part of a generation of students who are lost in ways that are often overlooked by commentators who clash over “great” or lesser books. that they should be required to read.
In a relatively small age group, my student neighbors are diverse in origin, sex, ethnicity, fields of study; ambitious; and social attitudes. But what unites them is their sense of isolation and loneliness: their overriding sense of disconnect, not only from the million people with whom they share the country’s 14th largest city, but also from the huge mega- university of 65,000 students. three or four blocks from their rented rooms.
Some of my undergraduate professors in the late 1960s invited me to their homes with their families, offered to give me awards, and pored over graduate department handbooks while I was in their offices. My graduate counselor invited me to babysit his young children. We played squash every week. We hosted our favorite teachers for dinner parties, serving cheese fondue or lasagna on a tablecloth spread out on the living room floor of our apartment.
In contrast, the functional separation of today’s students from their university and the community is palpable. These conditions have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has limited the number of in-person classes and face-to-face interactions with peers they could have. But the feeling of separation and loss predates 2020 and will continue.
The savviest, most mature and most self-confident always find their way, often in collaboration with close friends. But they quickly learn that they cannot rely on the institution to which they pay tuition and fees. Cause and effect are inextricably intertwined in the absence of meaningful and useful student services, the complete separation of council from faculty (replaced by non-faculty advisers trained to only tick boxes), and a university culture -student campus-wide. a separation that far exceeds what the size of the institution alone requires.
I am simultaneously distressed by the surprise of the students that my wife (also retired) and I care about them as people and thrilled with how they light up as we pass icebreakers on the weather and upcoming exams to professors they should seek out, which courses they should consider taking, and how to combine majors, interests, and possible career paths.
Sometimes they ask me what academic and general interest books they should read, especially if they’re in my house full of books. Sometimes we talk about things to do in town and affordable food and entertainment. We also talk about garbage collection and recycling, city noise ordinances, alcohol consumption levels, parking restrictions, and more. Neither their owners, who have a legal responsibility, nor the university, which has educational, ethical and self-promotional responsibilities, provide basic information on these topics.
Most students want to know and do the right thing. A very bright young man, a 22-year-old Triple Major with a dog in training for special needs, once said to me, “You know, we’re young and we need help.
Some contacts expand. I became “senior advisor” to a junior in system engineering and his “team”. They develop online platforms and apps to help self-published authors promote their books. They know the technology and study the entrepreneurial aspects. I teach them about the books and show them how to revise their writing. We actively learn from each other, becoming good friends despite 50 years between us.
Lessons are critically important. Neither academic ‘experts’, ‘student deans’ or journalists interpret the relatively thin data on student aspirations in meaningful contexts that connect time spent in higher education to life experiences. This generation is not getting the supportive, broad-based and interactive education they need and want to.
The cure lies in connecting and reconnecting: subjects, themes, and disciplines across universities, whether we call them double majors, sensible choices, or multi-, trans-, or interdisciplinarity. It must be built on redesigned advice and student-teacher relations. At its core must be an education that combines academic education with civic education and real-world issues.
“Learning” and “winning” must be distinguished but not opposed. For the myths of the golden age of basic programs and “great books”, we must substitute a necessary introduction to the history of education and youth. Extensive local, national and comparative studies courses would integrate the arts, humanities and social sciences. For the UK it may be modern classics such as Peter Laslett’s 1965 book The World We Lost: England Before the Industrial Age and 1964 by Eric Hobsbawm Workers: Labor History Studies, alongside Shakespeare and Dickens in their historical contexts. For the United States, possibly Herbert Gutman on workers or slaves, alongside WEB Du Bois’ 1903 black souls, Gatsby the magnificentor catch 22. Exemplary opportunities arise from women and minorities of all kinds.
Fundamentally, this education must take place not only in classrooms and lecture halls, but also in dormitories and living spaces, both on and off campus. To offer anything less is to fail to prepare young people for the life they aspire to live.
Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History and Distinguished Ohio Scholar at The Ohio State University. His new book In search of literacy will be released this summer.