Saturday, January 8, 2011

What to do... What to do... College kids stump me.

Of the 20+ books I've read since starting this quest, this one is hands-down the toughest to take action on.  Therefore, I figure, it offers the greatest potential reward once I discover what's to do. At least that's what I tell myself.   

So, Action First: 
What if I take the bus(es) to my local Western Washington University's Viking Union and simply act like Nathan-the-anthropologist, see what develops?  I'll take a stroll around the campus, hang out at the student center, and just let conversations happen naturally.  My big question:  Do the students here contribute to their community(s) - or at least wish to - or are they, like those at AnyU in My Freshman Year, focused on fun and future $$ to the point where civic contribution isn't ever on their radar screens?  I'll bring my laptop and a book so I can work if need be, but I harbor a sneaking hope that I might get the spirit of Reading-for-Change moving there... Why not?

Or... Why??

Community - or, more to the point, lack thereof - in American university settings is a consistent theme in My Freshman Year: What A Professor Learned from Becoming A Student.  In it, anthropologist Rebekah Nathan hypothesizes that the sheer number of choices students are given results in highly individualized schedules and living situations, so that few people are ever together for a substantial portion of each day.  Add that to the fact that over 1/2 the students work, and what you get is fairly inevitable fragmentation, little sense of community. 

In her conclusion, Nathan (pseudonym for Cathy Small) offers some hope:  Although students may act one way in the aggregate, individual students may well share a view of college not simply as a place to party and a means to make money one day, but also as a means to become wiser, better-informed citizen/community members.  She suggests leveraging the students in such subcultures (environmentally-engaged and social service-minded students - not just those volunteering to put it on their resumes) to help renew a sense of community. 

On the other hand, she does an excellent job of showing us how much more expensive it is to go to University now than it was back-in-the day, and notes that while in the 1910's about 15% of high school grads went to college, in the 1960's about 48% of them went to college, and now over 71% do.  This means more students with the need to work to put themselves through school, more students who need remediation (since now not just "the cream of the intellectual and/or economic crop" are included), and more students with a "careerist" focus, expecting college to provide specific job-related training alone, thus rejecting the liberal arts/citizenship angle altogether.

Finally, Nathan suggests that universities should stand apart from politics and business as keepers of the liberal arts legacy, but wonders whether they will.  She asks - with students - what is the point of universities nowadays?  And she insists that the best we can do is make our own individual sense of what's at stake, what they should be or do, known.

This made me wonder: What do I really want the world - or at least my corner of it - to look like in 10-20 years?  If little else, this book prompted this relatively profound question, plus a (typically) stellar conversation with my incomparable book group (really, everyone should be so blessed, and I'm working with them to try to figure out what makes this collaboration of individuals so above-and-beyond every other book group I've been part of), so it was worth the "meh" reading experience.

Incidental Action:  I need to go check w/my school district to see if I can offer a course that balances school-based learning with service to the school community and neighborhood.  Yes, that's the action that's sticking right now.  If college students are already pretty much set in their patterns of self-centeredness or outward-centeredness, then our only hope is to help them find a balance in high school so that once they emerge from the "liminal" state that is college, they will be inclined to re-connect with community and world in a way that serves all beings.


p.s.  Promised prose snippet here, so you can confirm that Nathan's ideas and research are conveyed fluidly.


Dana KBS said...

You manage to make Nathan's point more eloquently than she did. As I read this one, I kept thinking about our own corner of academia--grades 9-12. Do the attitudes Nathan describes begin in high school, with fragmentation, choice, and tracking? Do they reflect a greater societal shift toward the individual--no great surprise? And, since the book was researched/written (?i think?) in 2002, it can't have gotten MORE community-oriented in the intervening years.

If the opposite of fragmentation is to do it? :-) D

Chelle said...

A very thoughtful review! I enjoyed reading what your got out of it.

One thing that stuck with me while reading and that I have found true in college is that you can't force a community into being. You can't force integration and expect it to stick outside of the classroom. What you can do is remove barriers and facilitate means for a community outlet.

I'm of the opinion that college students today are under way more pressure than they were even 10 years ago. The Internet has changed everything. With two more weeks of winter break left I've already been assigned 600 pages of reading for the first day of class. This is only possible because we are required to check our university email. I've received emailed assignments at 5pm that were due the next morning at 8. Just a couple examples of today's student pressures but really, after classes and my job and my home life I hardly have any room for extra curriculars. I volunteered one semester for a few weeks but I simply cannot give the commitment it takes to volunteer AND be a successful student. I realize this is just my experience but I wanted to share that there are good reasons why students may not appear community oriented.

Laurie said...

D - I will ponder whether/not the opposite of fragmentation is integration... Feels reasonable yet not perfectly apt yet to me... AND stay tuned (next week, and I'll email all the bookgroupies) for my tale of my trip to Western, and my current read Citizen You, which offers research to refute Nathan's observations about disengaged, non-civic-minded college students. (Well, and look at Chelle above - It's what we posited: Not lack of interest, but lack of time may be the rub.)
And C - Thank you so much for your helpful personal perspective. I had NO idea that profs. were using technology so shadily as to assign reading just hours before class! And you're required to check U-email while on break? Again, my gratitude for these enlightening - and somewhat surprising - facts.
Yet I read on your blog that you find gratification in helping people find just the right read, and I note that the profession you've chosen is one of service to community. So, from my perspective, you're out there disproving what Nathan hypothesized based on her particular experience. Many thanks for that as well.

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