Liberal Arts Education and Hope

In the midst of the vitriolic political discourse the United States is currently facing, there rages a debate as to the purpose of education generally and higher education specifically. Many seem to think that higher education should be an avenue to teach skills for jobs and careers while others see higher education as a means to teach mores, critical thinking, and the assist in students’ meaning making capacity. While the debate has not centered on a ‘winner’ the skill based education side seems to have the edge.

A recent study seems to indicate that a liberal arts education – the idea that higher education can teach mores, critical thinking, and assist with meaning making capacity – may yield positive results for liberal arts graduates (outside of just salary). This could be a huge victory for the liberal arts side of the debate, yet the article (and study) seem to miss the major point of one side of the debate. While the study focuses on graduates leadership capacity, orientation towards lifelong learning, and the like, proponents of skill based education do not even value those things that a liberal arts education hopes to instill in students.

The idea that an education should lead to better people is opposed to the idea that education should lead to high paying jobs (though they don’t have to be opposed). The debate will rage on and this study will embolden supporters of a liberal education but fail to impact those that believe a liberal education is not necessary in today’s global society.

Education, though, has to be about making individuals better versions of themselves. Education needs to teach individuals to think critically, the ability to sift through facts and figures, and the idea that two opposed views could be correct is incredibly valuable in today’s hyper-polarized society. The United States election of 2016 saw this debate play out on a national scale as Democrats and Republicans were yelling at one another, assuming the worst of the other. While this is not all explained by the philosophy of education, it certainly is embedded in it. A liberal education is ever more important in this complex 21st century. We cannot simply hope that graduates learn skills to do a job (though that is important – I want my doctor and electrician to know exactly what they are doing) we need to also hope that our graduates can think critically and hold opposing viewpoints. Education – a liberal arts education at that – is the only hope we have to begin to break down the divisiveness that our country currently is faced with.

Changing Mindset

When I tell folks that I work with or interact with that I work with fraternities and sororities, their first question is almost always “are you affiliated?” to which my response is “no.” This short exchange is always comical to me as the reactions to my answer range from surprised to shocked. And to be honest, I am surprised that I keep being assigned to this type of work when I do not have any affiliation.

Yet, this past weekend I was afforded the opportunity to facilitate at a weekend retreat for the interfraternal community that I work with in my first professional position. I was anxious heading into the weekend, as my knowledge of fraternities and sororities is limited even though I have worked with the community on two campuses.

The weekend was draining. As an introvert, it is hard to have to be on in facilitator mode for 12 hours each day. Yet, it was a weekend that I felt started to change my mindset. Most of my concerns and hesitations in working with the interfraternal community centers on my lack of affiliation and lack of knowledge of the community. Yet this weekend illuminated how I can do good work with this community and help those students develop into more impactful leaders.

The weekend retreat utilizes Peter Block’s book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, as a way to engage the students in conversations on creating change within their community. It is a text that is not about fraternities and sororities, nor higher education. But it contains valuable lessons for leaders in organizations, whether undergraduate students or elected officials. Facilitating those discussions was a positive experience and saw me engaging with students who are thinking critically about their experience in their fraternity/sorority. They were receptive to my probing and reflective questions. They left those discussions thinking differently about their experience and the role they play in creating a more positive interfraternal experience.

Having engaged in this experience, I am now seeing my ability to educate these students, in spite of my lack of affiliation. My skills in facilitating and educating are transferable to this setting. While I cannot relate to their experience in a fraternity/sorority, I can make them think critically and evaluate what role they have in creating positive change. I had to rely more on the students I was learning with to share their stories in a different way than if I had an affiliation. Facilitating this leadership retreat was mindset changing, as I started to see the impact I can make.

I will never be fully comfortable in a fraternity/sorority setting, but this weekend was what I needed to begin to make me feel more comfortable in the role I play in educating these students.

Teaching Discourse

Part of my morning ritual is to turn on the news and watch a half hour of CNN, just to get caught up on the days events. For the most part, this is a helpful aspect of my morning ritual, yet all too often there is a segment or two that devolves into two guests shouting at each other. The shouting is mind numbing, not because it is early in the morning but because the shouting commenced because the two individuals have no respect for one another and a hatred of facts. The shouting matches are ever more disturbing each time I watch them, because they all follow the same script. The loss of a respect for ideas and varying viewpoints is troubling, particularly as our nation grapples with issues that require thoughtful and solution focused policy.

The educator in me finds this rather troubling. In my own experience working with collegiate students, I find the same troubling lack of respect for different ideas. My own hope as an educator is to expose my students to multiple perspectives on a given topic and to allow them to interrogate those perspectives in a civil and critical manner. Yet, the students I have worked with go to their basic instinct which is to simply criticize and wright off a perspective from which they disagree. It took most of the fall semester to get 20 first year students in a leadership course to be comfortable with critically investigating an idea that they disagreed with.

This critical interrogation of ideas is missing from our society. Looking at our political climate, there is a dualistic, ‘with-us-or-against-us’ mindset that permeates through todays political climate. There are some bipartisan efforts being worked on, but those are few and far between. As a society, we seem to have lost the basic respect for our peers and a desire to move forward together by finding consensus.

For educators, reteaching this respect for different view points and critical interrogation (which I view as the act of analyzing and discussing an idea) is critical to the work being done in and outside the classrooms. Students need to be okay with engaging in ideas that they may seem detestable because when they are in the ‘real world’ and outside the comforting walls of the classroom, they will be forced to work with ideas and perspectives that they may disagree.

How do educators reteach respect for different view points and critical interrogation is beyond me. There is no ‘perfect’ solution, but the themes and values embedded in those two ‘soft skills’ are essential to the survival of the Republic in which we live and the health of public discourse.

Springtime in a College Town

The sun is shining bright and the blue sky is full of large puffy white clouds. The windows of my car are down as I drive back to campus after grabbing some things from Walmart. I enter the Mile Square, which is where most of the undergraduate students at Miami University live. The eccentric house signs took a back seat as I notice students of all sorts doing yard work.

Yes, undergraduate students are doing yard work on a beautiful spring evening.

Of course, this is not the yard work that often comes with a nice spring day. Instead, the students are setting up tents and fencing off parts of their yard with orange construction fence or rope. Newly laid hay covers some of the more worn lawns, and students line up on the porch of one house, cash in hand, ready to purchase a green and white t-shirt.

Now, were I new to Oxford and Miami University I would think that the Miamians are jumping on the Michigan State bandwagon as the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament is starting up. Instead, I am firmly aware that this yard work and green and white t-shirts have nothing to do with March Madness or a nice spring day. Green Beer Day is a few hours away and students are eagerly awaiting the start to their debauchery.

Green Beer Day is a Miami University tradition that has students wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning to drink, have breakfast, and continue drinking for the rest of the day. Always the Thursday before spring break, Green Beer Day is a long standing tradition here at Miami. The students are enamored with the tradition and want nothing more but to engage in the holiday.

The entire town of Oxford is fixated on the tradition. Local bars have been gearing up for the holiday at the start of the spring semester. Walmart and Kroger have ‘Green Beer Day’ cakes and goodies in their respective bakeries. Bagel and Deli, the local late night drunk food location, has been selling the green and white Green Beer Day shirts for the last two weeks. The entire University community is aware of the impending holiday and the implications that come with it. Student affairs educators and the rest of the University community do their best to provide alternatives to the drinking holiday and educate students on healthy practices. Yet, the tradition goes on.


Holidays like Green Beer Day are a part of the greater collegiate culture. Michigan State had their NCAA tournament debauchery occur after any loss (or win) with couch burnings and (more recently) bagel throwing. Ohio University has ‘fest-season.’ I could pick any institution of higher learning and find a similar event that leads to unnecessary and unsafe binge drinking.

But why? For years colleges have faced this problem. They have implemented countless educational measures and policy changes to combat the problem. Yet the problem persists. I cannot help but think that nothing will soon change unless our laws and culture around alcohol change. But that is a larger societal issue, and one that no college will be able to face alone.

 

What’s Student Learning?

The past few weeks have seen me (and the countless other student affairs graduate students) engage in a variety of practice interviews. While these have been incredibly helpful, the one lesson that is sticking out is the consistent piece of feedback which comments on my constant talk about supporting student learning; one practice interviewer even went so far as to say that was the theme of my interview. While I am excited that I have this overarching theme in my interview answers, I still wonder what exactly is student learning and how does student affairs measure that learning.

In George S. Blimling’s new book Student Learning in College Residence Halls: What Works, What Doesn’t and Why they talked about student learning and what it looks like; specifically George Blimling (2015) stated that the principles of student learning are:

(1) engaging students in active learning, (2) helping students develop coherent values and ethical standards, (3) setting and communicating high expectations for student learning, (4) using systemic inquiry to improve student and institutional performance, (5) using resources effectively to achieve institutional missions and goals, (6) forging educational partnerships that advance student learning, and (7) building supportive and inclusive communities (p.18-19)

These principles, as outlined by Blimling, are helpful in conceptualizing how student affairs educators can support student learning; no matter the functional area that the educator works in.

No matter where we work, who our students are, and what our funding structures look like, it is essential that student affairs educators create environments where student learning is at the core of our work. To have this learning focused practice, educators should do the following:

  1. Develop measurable learning outcomes for all programs and initiatives. Being clear on the purpose of the program/initiative will allow the student affairs educator to focus their efforts to support student learning. Using those learning outcomes to guide program development and implementation will strengthen the support for student learning. In addition, these learning outcomes need to be shared with participants to ensure they are aware of what it is they are learning.
  2. Partner with faculty. Student affairs educators are firmly aware that learning can (and should) occur outside the classroom. Thus it is essential that student affairs educators develop meaningful partnerships with faculty to support student learning. Not only do academic affairs normally have more resources to support student learning, invested faculty can increase student involvement and engagement.
  3. Infuse opportunities for reflection for students. Students today are ever more focused on “what’s next” and the “value added” of the experience. Whether or not you are troubled by that, that is where are students are at. Thus, it is imperative that we slow experiences down and provide meaningful reflection opportunities for students to engage in. Reflection is a powerful tool in supporting student learning, and something that needs to be instilled into the practice of student affairs educators more often.
  4. Utilize research and assessment to guide practice. Scholars around the country are developing new ways to better support student learning. Using this new information to guide practice is essential to best support student learning. This is not to say, though, that every single thing published that seems like a good idea will work at your campus; taking pause and reflecting on whether this research makes sense at your campus will allow you to avoid jumping down a rabbit hole of implementing best practices, only to see them fail.

Supporting student learning needs to move beyond simply talking about it. We need to actually support student learning. Changing our practice as educators will be one way we move our field forward to better integrate learning opportunities into our work.

Works Cited

Blimling, G.S. (2015) Student learning in college residence halls: What works, what doesn’t, and

why. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Book Review: The N- in You

In The N- in You, Dr. J.W. Wiley discusses the link between diversity, social justice, leadership, and language. It was an interesting read all around, as Dr. Wiley has a great gift at writing and talking about issues of diversity, social justice, leadership, and language.

The way Dr. Wiley broke up the book into different chapters on offensive words (e.g. retard, gay) was a great way to approach the broad subject and focus the writing. Of particular interest to me was Dr. Wiley’s commentary on racism and not hating the hater because of how Dr. Wiley presented the ideas and how they were different than ideas I had already heard.

Yet, I finished The N- in You wanting more. Dr. Wiley glossed over the leadership portion of his text (or rather overstated how much focus leadership would have in the text) as the leadership moments were just being an active bystander. Additionally, the discussions of non-inclusive language were nothing I hadn’t already encountered in my graduate studies in student affairs.

All in all, this was a good book but left me wanting more. It provides some useful insights into the practice as an educator that every educator should read.

5/10.