At a fine panel on “The Civic Mission of Higher Education” last week, the panelists basically said:
- We should care about college students as whole people, considering their emotional and social well-being as well as their academic success. Engaging with communities benefits students holistically.
- Students should not only seek fulfilling and educational experiences, but also fight for justice even if that has costs for themselves. They must ask the really difficult and troubling questions.
- Graduate students and others heading for scholarly or intellectual careers face a terrible shortage of traditional jobs, but there are openings for more engaged intellectuals.
All that is true, but putting the three parts together is very difficult. In fact, I doubt that anyone can do it alone–asking profound and troubling questions, taking effective action, finding a relevant career path or calling, and obtaining personal satisfaction and fulfillment along the way. You can do all of that if you belong to a thriving political or social movement, but not if such movements are missing.
In other words, we cannot merely encourage students to ask and explore questions. They must also have a menu of available answers. Meaningful answers are more than ideas or theories. They consist of ideals plus strategies, current leaders and role-models, agendas, institutions, jobs, cultural expressions, and vocabularies, all wrapped up together.
For instance, if you went to Washington with FDR in 1932 or JFK in 1960, you thought you were building something new and great. You had ideas, leaders, agendas, and institutions all ready to embrace you. You could engage in debates within those movements, but you had a structure. In 2008 and 2012, young people voted for the candidate who supported the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, Barack Obama. But very few young people felt called to Washington to work for the federal administrative state. Its heroes are dead, its ideals are fulfilled or compromised, its vocations seem routine.
If you went to Washington with Reagan and the resurgent conservatives of 1980, you also had an agenda, ideals, theories, strategies, and living heroes. My sense is that the conservative movement does not provide any of that for young people today.
A subtle case is the Civil Rights Movement. In Freedom Summer, Doug McAdam shows that the 1,000 young white college volunteers who went to Mississippi in 1963 did not (for the most part) benefit personally from that experience. They tended to struggle with jobs, relationships, and psychological issues later in life. The Civil Rights Movement was certainly a structure that developed leaders. But for that purpose, it worked better in 1955 than in 1963. By the early 1960s, it was beginning to splinter, its dynamic and vibrant debates turning divisive and caustic. Also, an argument had broken out about whether white middle-class leaders has a place in the movement. I think the critics had a point, but for young white volunteers, the argument was pretty alienating. Most moved to the anti-War or Women’s movements, but the transition was tough.
Higher education cannot build social and political movements. Movement-building cannot be an objective of our institutions, which must be more neutral and deliberative than that. But we must reckon with the political and intellectual context in which we work. If our young people lack a choice of vibrant political movements, that will make our educational mission much harder.