Tag Archives: liberal arts colleges

Back-To-School Lit

Steve Volk, September 13, 2015

They arrive on our electronic (or real) doorsteps as punctually as the back-to-school adverts, and seemingly in the same quantity. Late August and early September in the United States is the season when the public is called on to contemplate the world of higher education… most often, what’s wrong with it. Today’s (Sept. 13) New York Times is devoted to higher ed. It includes an insightful piece on college tuition by Adam Davidson, a thought-provoking article by Annie Murphy Paul on whether college lectures discriminate (“A growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students”), a terrific essay by Edward E. Baptist on the challenges of “Teaching Slavery to Reluctant Listeners” (“Whenever we dredge up the past, we find that the rusty old chains we rake from the bottom are connected to some people’s present-­day pains and others’ contemporary privilege”), and Syreeta McFadden’s contemplation on “Teaching Martin Luther King Jr. in the Age of Freddie Gray.” Read them.

Eva Hesse - Exhibition Catalog. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Eva Hesse – Exhibition Catalog. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Along with these types of stories in the New York Times one encounters a raft of articles that chronicle a student arrival at college for her first semester, describe high schoolers teetering on the cusp of the college-decision-year, follow parents unsure of whether they can afford the university that has plucked their daughter’s heartstrings, and sermonize on how higher education has sold it soul.

And then there is the burgeoning journalism (back-to-school lit, I call it) that falls into the subgenre of “What’s-The-Matter-With-Kids-Today,” a nod to “Bye, Bye Birdie” of Broadway fame (“Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?”). These are the articles that lament the “The Coddling of the American Mind”, the rise of intolerance on campus, or, in the latest to appear, and in which Oberlin takes pride of place (The Atlantic, Sept. 11, 2015) , the spread of a new “victimhood” culture, an argument first described in the research of two sociologists.

There is much that can be said about the issues raised in these latter articles, and I would hope that faculty, staff, and students can discuss them further in a variety of settings. Here, I will only say that while many of us are confused or upset or angered by what not only appears to be, but is in specific instances, a fundamental disregard for the principles of academic freedom, we should also be aware of the context in which these articles continue to appear. Not to discount some of the arguments made, nonetheless the tendency in some of the reporting to generalize a relatively few examples of specific behaviors into a new student culture raises the question of how widespread these trends are within higher education. Similarly, to dismiss what scholars have found to be real and significant barriers to some students’ learning (what scholars have termed “microaggressions” ) by decrying or ridiculing the fact that a few students have deployed the concept in ways that are no longer recognizable or defensible, does not encourage a deeper understanding of what are important issues, and principles, for those of us who teach and interact with students on liberal arts campuses. Nor do these articles open the way to a productive discussion of the subject, something which is desperately needed. (Those looking for a well-researched introduction to the topic of microaggressions, for example, should consult the work of Derald Wing Sue of Teachers College, Columbia University – you can start here and here – or Kevin Nadal of John Jay College, CUNY – try here.) There certainly is much which we can, and should, discuss, including what I would term the emergence of a “safety” narrative on some campuses (usually elite, selective colleges or flagship university), but the seeming intent of the back-to-school-and-the-liberal-arts-colleges-have-all-gone-crazy articles to ramp up outrage against the education that takes place in these colleges should be interrogated along with the behaviors they describe.

Richard Bosman, The Signal, from the Olive Press Print Portfolio II, Woodcut. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Richard Bosman, The Signal, from the Olive Press Print Portfolio II, Woodcut. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

We (the approximately 130 residential liberal arts colleges that remain) are a tiny percent of the overall higher education framework in the United States today (just over 2%, to be exact). There are nearly 20 million post-secondary students in the U.S. today, and many are struggling with debt, thinking about future employment, juggling studying with jobs and families, and just trying to learn in a political environment which disparages teachers and belittles actual knowledge. While writers in the Atlantic enjoy skewering liberal arts colleges as hotbeds of “political correctism” and left-wing students run amuck, and while we can share the anxiety of those wondering how any but the very rich will be able to afford a university degree, we are, in fact, doing many things right, and the back-to-school season is a good time to remind ourselves of this. Even researchers who have launched the most serious critiques of higher education for not adding to students’ capacity to think critically (Arum and Roska’s Academically Adrift, for example) have concluded that liberal arts colleges are getting it right.

So, what is it we do (and, I could add, why does it seem to make our detractors so angry)? To help answer this question, I turn to my polestar in these matters, John Dewey, and to a lovely article that the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1989 (“Education as Socialization and as Individualization”). In the article Rorty offers an explanation of why liberals and conservatives see the purposes of education so differently. Conservatives, he suggests, stress the importance of education for socialization while liberals argue in favor of education for individualization. (Interestingly, he observes, in the United States, education up to the age of 18 or 19 is mostly a conservative stronghold; it’s mostly about socialization, “of getting the students to take over the moral and political common sense of the society as it is.” Higher education, on the other hand, has been mostly a liberal’s domain, about encouraging Socratic skepticism, a place where “we hope that students can be distracted from their struggle to get into a high-paying profession, and that the professors will not simply try to reproduce themselves by preparing the students to enter graduate study in their own disciplines.”

Ernest C. Withers, The "Little Rock Nine" first day of school, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Ernest C. Withers, The “Little Rock Nine” first day of school, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Dewey’s approach, Rorty writes, wasn’t based on either conservative or liberal precepts. He offered “neither the conservative’s philosophical justification of democracy by reference to eternal values nor the radical’s justification by reference to decreasing alienation.” For Dewey, the promise of an education was its democratic value as an on-going experiment engaged in…by us. Dewey asks that we “put our faith in ourselves – in the utopian hope characteristic of a democratic community…” For Dewey, hope, “the ability to believe that the future will be unspecifiably different from, and unspecifiably freer than, the past – is the condition of growth.”

We, on campus, have been thinking much about both the value and valence of hope, as we pondered the words of Bryan Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, who was on campus last week and continue to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me in our reading groups.

For his part, Rorty sadly observed that there now are certain aspects of the U.S. educational establishment that Dewey couldn’t have foreseen, but that we should not hold this against his vision of hope. Dewey “could not have foreseen,” he wrote, “that the United States would decide to pay its pre-college teachers a fifth of what it pays its doctors. Nor did he foresee that an increasingly greedy and heartless American middle class would let the quality of education a child received become proportional to the assessed value of the parents’ real estate.”

Rorty is a Deweyan, and, as he put it, “We Deweyans think that the social function of American colleges is to help the student see that the national narrative around which their socialization has centered is an open-ended one. It is to tempt the students to make themselves into people who can stand to their own pasts, as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Susan B.] Anthony, [Eugene] Debs and [James] Baldwin, stood to their pasts. This is done by helping the students realize that, despite the progress that the present has made over the past, the good has once again become the enemy of the better. With a bit of help, the students will start noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surroundings. With luck, the best of them will succeed in altering the conventional wisdom, so that the next generation is socialized in a somewhat different way than they themselves were socialized…To hope [this way] is to remind oneself that growth is indeed the only end that democratic higher education can serve and also to remind oneself that the direction of growth is unpredictable.”

Diego Rivera, Open Air School (1932), Lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Diego Rivera, Open Air School (1932), Lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

There are politicians and pundits, and, yes, some administrators, who, when reading the back-to-school lit which will make its way to their desktops, think that higher education is too important to be left in the hands of professors, let alone allow the students to have a voice in it. But I think of what it is that we have done and what we should continue to do. And I am reminded of what the Civil War historian, James McPherson, pointed out in his 1975 book, The Abolitionist’s Legacy (Princeton): an extraordinarily high percentage abolitionist leaders were shaped by their colleges. In a sample of 250 antislavery leaders, nearly 80% either had college degrees or spent time in college. This, at a moment when less than 2% of the overall population was college educated. If we are doing what we should be doing, our students, even those who might not get everything right as they attempt to cope with the world around them, what they bring with them, and what they are learning, will succeed in “noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surrounds” – and try to change it.

The Empathy Gap (and can we address it?)

Steven Volk, March 8, 2015

Some years ago (April 25, 2011) I wrote an “Article of the Week” on empathy in response to the research findings of Sara H. Konrath, Edward H. O’Brien, and Courtney Hsing suggesting that college students are becoming less empathic, and significantly so. [“Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis,” in Personality and Social Psychology Review 15.2 (2011): 180-198] In a meta-analysis of 72 samples of American college students, the researchers studied four aspects of “interpersonal sensitivity” including empathic concern (EC), or sympathy, over the misfortunes of others and perspective taking (PT), the capacity to imagine other people’s points of view. (The other two aspects were the tendency to identify imaginatively with fictional characters in books or movies and personal distress, the anguish one feels during others’ misfortunes.) The study found that EC scores declined by 48% when comparing students from the late 1970s/early 1980s and those in 2009; PT scores went down by 34%. For both, the sharpest decline came after 2000.
EC-scorePT-scoreFirst, what are these characteristics and why should these declines be concerning? Psychologists debate exactly what “empathy” is. Some argue that it is a cognitive mechanism by which we can imagine the internal state of others. Other contend that it is an affective construct and question whether people’s emotions are matched directly to another’s affective state, whether empathy is primarily a manifestation of sympathy, or whether people empathize to reduce their own stress about another person’s situation, i.e., more about self-concern than other-concern.

Primatologists and neuroscientists have also entered the discussion, speculating (to on-going challengers) that mirror neurons may be partially responsible for the ability to understand the behaviors and feelings of other people. In other words, our neurons can actually help us experience what another is feeling without language. Primatologist Frans de Waal’s research suggests that primates are biologically driven to behave in ways similar to those nearby (a kind of “contagion” effect) whether they think about it or not. (Here’s an example: take a look at the picture below and tell me what it makes you do.) But, simply put, when researchers talk of “dispositional empathy” they are talking about the tendency to react to other people’s observed experiences.

Day 55 Yawn. Michael Shane (cc)

Day 55 Yawn. Michael Shane (cc)

People who have higher “EC” scores tend to exhibit more prosocial behaviors, including volunteering, letting people into line ahead of them, donating to charities, etc. (Other factors are also involved. Paul Piff, a psychologist at Berkeley, recently reported on a series of studies that found that people driving luxury cars like BMW’s and Audi’s were 3- to 4-times less likely to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks than those driving less expensive cars. Just saying.) Similarly, higher Perspective Taking scores are related to prosocial outcomes including low social dysfunction (e.g. social anxiety, boasting, verbal aggression), and more other-oriented sensitivity.

So, when the research suggests a highly significant decline in EC and PT scores between 1979 and 2009, and a sharp fall after 200, there is reason to be concerned.

 What does this have to do with us?

I know I’m not alone in observing student behavior (both at Oberlin and elsewhere) and wondering: seriously? They can seem so fine tuned, so hyper-sensitive to the (very-often-only-imagined) concerns of others that they will carry out public acts of self-flagellation and self-shaming. At the same time they can also be utterly ruthless as they take down, call out, and verbally eviscerate others whom they accuse of similar (?) acts of insensitivity or perhaps have actually made a mistake. No mercy will be shown. What is notable, at least for me, is the lack of carry over between admitting one’s own short-comings (even if they are imagined) and skewering others for theirs. It’s enough to remind me of “Bye Bye Birdie” where the parents lament, “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way. What’s the matter with kids today?” Is this the empathy-gap that the research has disclosed?

Before we go too much farther, we should probably remind ourselves that, at one level, we weren’t any different. Our students are late adolescents and as many developmental psychologists remind us, their concepts of moral reasoning are still emerging. I can’t adequately represent this argument here (and I’m not a psychologist), but from the perspective of moral cognition, college students are moving from a dualistic worldview that sees absolute right and wrong, toward a recognition of multiple and potentially valid perspectives, and, ultimately, to a contextually relative approach to judging the adequacy of moral stances. If we accept the moral cognition approach, we must also accept that one of our primary tasks as teachers is not just developing our students’ content mastery, but engaging our students with content in meaningful ways that facilitates their ability to make complex moral judgments. In other words, rather than looking the other way when we see examples of moral reasoning (and ethical behavior) that make us want to hold our heads and cry, we want to be thinking of how to address these issues in class or with students outside of class.

way-too-many-f-sBut if we return to the research, maybe we are correct in saying that today’s students are different. Affective theorists say that emotions, rather than cognition, are at the base of moral development. Martin Hoffman, for example, argues that empathy is the primary moral emotion, and that empathic capacities – “psychological processes that make a person have feelings that are more congruent with another’s situation than with his own” (30) are at the base of developmental change. Thus we are back to considering the impact of the three-decade drop in students’ empathic concern and perspective taking – and we’re also back to considering the importance for late adolescents of college as a place where such developments can occur… or not.

Why now?

I’m even less competent to throw out sociological answers for why this decline is happening than I am in understanding the psychological factors that determine moral and ethical development. But, if it hasn’t stopped me before, why should it now?

We can look at a number of factors, none of which you will find too surprising. Personal behaviors mirror societal behaviors, and we (and our students) ping-pong back and forth between righteous fury and faux indignation, between Ferguson and “Viet Cong.” As Julia Turner’s “Outrage Project” in Slate put it, “Over the past decade or so, outrage has become the default mode for politicians, pundits, critics, and, with the rise of social media, the rest of us.” We move from outrage to outrage, and can often hardly recall what it was that produced so much stomach acid just last week.

Beyond a doubt, social media has had a dramatic and negative impact on empathic concern. Not only has it led to the development of a “call-out” culture, but its echo-chamber tendencies takes what might have been resolved, or at least defused, by a face-to-face chat and amplifies them into an example of moral outrage that requires that everyone chimes in and spills a bit of their own bile.

I’m also quite sure (although I lack the research evidence) that the replacement of actual political organizing – door-to-door canvassing, workplace organizing, street-corner leafleting – by on-line petitions has had a strong impact on the decline of our students’ (and our own) empathic concern. Those “older” forms of organizing require you to actually speak with people with whom you might disagree, and therefore teach you to do so in a way that can be heard.

Nor is it just about outrage. Surveys of in-coming first year students at colleges and universities report an increasing percentage of those whose “most important goal” is getting rich, and a declining percentage who would chose “helping others in time of need” as an important goal. Which takes us back to BMW’s in the crosswalks.

And what about us at liberal arts colleges?

The world of higher education is now deeply immersed in conversations about the benefits to be gained through a greater use of online resources in teaching and learning, or of a fully online education. Strong advocates of online learning point to the “student-centric” value of instruction that can be highly tailored to individual learning needs or to the fact that online learning can be more engaging than sitting in a lecture hall with 600 other students listening to a professor drone on in a barely incomprehensible manner. My concern here, however, is not the larger discussion of online vs face-to-face education (other than to observe that negative learning experiences can come in many different modes). Rather what does the research on empathy suggest about online learning?

In a recent article in Liberal Education, William Major suggests that the classroom is an extremely important social experience in which empathy can develop, something that cannot not happen online in the same fashion, and something that might help explain why empathic concern has been declining among college students. “Just as irony is virtually impossible over e-mail,” he writes, “the technological interface is the receding horizon of empathic learning.” Referencing the work of de Waal and others, Major suggests that face-to-face contacts trigger neuronal mirroring that is a fundamental part of learning and empathy, something that cannot happen when looking at others on a screen.

Neuron Fractal 1 - amattox mattox (cc)

Neuron Fractal 1 – amattox mattox (cc)

“Remembering, for instance, that mirror neurons are for sharing—transforming private action into ‘social experience to be shared with our fellow humans through language,’ according to neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni [Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others], we can think of the classroom as a system in which each student and instructor has the capacity to alter the whole at the neuronal level.” He suggests that we can liken the classroom to the “brain-as-web” in that it constantly reorganizes itself to create new pathways for learning. “Our ability to learn from each other… creates an infinite number of pathways when we are present to each other.” He suggests that when a class is really working – with everyone contributing, listening, engaging – what might actually be happening is a “curious intersection of biology and learning,” where students are in a sense nourishing each other. (Of course, the same thing can happen in reverse when things go badly.)

I really liked that image. When classes are going well, something happens that allows what we’ve always tended to call “its chemistry” to work. Maybe we were just looking in the wrong discipline – we should be thinking as neuroscientists instead! The bottom line here is that it is in these face-to-face, highly interactional moments that our students are not just learning about French or calculus or philosophy; they are developing their capacity for empathic concern. And that’s a concern for us all. Our question should be how we use all the advantages we have at a liberal arts college to help our students become more empathic, more morally engaged. (And when they’re not looking, we can also put our heads in our hands while we hum a few bars of “Bye Bye Birdie.”)