Universities are not giving students the classes or support they need

Interactions with his student neighbours have convinced Harvey Graff that they crave a supportive, broadly based, interactive education

May 17, 2022
Ohio State fans
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Higher education websites and publications all but drown in hand-wringing over the crisis of the humanities in particular and of the university in general. Chest-beating follows about the “purpose of higher education” and the battle of “earning versus learning”; even about “student-centred education”, a slogan from the 1960s. Yet lost in all this, paradoxically, are the students themselves.

Despite having retired, I continue to have almost daily contact with students in Columbus, Ohio’s University District neighbourhood, where I still live.

I talk to many Ohio State University students on the sidewalks, often as they walk their “pandemic pups”, study on their front porches or drink beer in their front yards. In doing so, I have gained an understanding of at least part of a student generation that is lost in ways that are often overlooked by commentators clashing over which “great” or not-so-great books they should be required to read.

Within a relatively narrow age range, my student neighbours are diverse in origin, gender, ethnicity, areas of study; ambitions; and social attitudes. But what unites them is their sense of isolation and loneliness: their overriding sense of disconnection, not just from the nearly 1 million people with whom they share the nation’s 14th-largest city, but also from the massive, 65,000-student mega-university only three or four blocks away from their rented rooms.

Some of my undergraduate professors in the late 1960s invited me to their homes with their families, offered to nominate me for awards and pored over guides to graduate departments while I was in their offices. My graduate adviser invited me to babysit for his young children. We played squash weekly. We hosted our favourite professors for dinners, serving cheese fondue or lasagne on a tablecloth spread on the living room floor in our tenement 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 limited the number of in-person classes and face-to-face peer interactions they might have. But the sense of separation and loss predates 2020 and will continue.

The more knowledgeable, mature and self-confident still find their way, often in conjunction with close friends. But they learn quickly that they cannot rely on the institution to which they pay tuition and fees. Causes and effects inextricably intertwine in the absence of meaningful and useful student services, the complete separation of advising from the faculty (replaced by non-faculty advisers trained to do no more than check off boxes) and a campus-wide, faculty-student cultural separation that far exceeds what institutional size by itself necessitates.

I am simultaneously distressed by students’ surprise that my wife (also retired) and I are interested in them as people and delighted by how they light up as we proceed from icebreakers about the weather and upcoming exams to what professors they should look up, what courses they should consider taking and how to combine majors, interests and possible career paths.

Occasionally, they ask me what academic and general-interest books they should read, especially if they are standing in my book-filled house. Sometimes, we talk about things to do in the city and affordable food and recreation. We also talk about trash collection and recycling, city noise ordinances, alcohol consumption levels, parking restrictions and the like. Neither their landlords, with legal responsibility, nor the university, with educational, ethical and self-promotional responsibilities, provide basic information on such topics.

Most of the students want to know, and to do, the right thing. One very bright young man, a 22-year-old triple-major with a dog in training to serve special needs, said to me one day, “You know, we’re young, and we need help.”

Some contacts expand. I’ve become “senior adviser” to a junior majoring in systems engineering and his “team”. They are developing online platforms and apps to help self-publishing authors promote their books. They know the technology and are researching the entrepreneurial aspects. I am teaching them about books and showing them how to revise their writing. We are actively learning from each other, becoming good friends despite 50 years between us.

The lessons are critically important. Neither academic “experts” nor “deans of students” nor journalists interpret the relatively thin data about student aspiration in meaningful contexts that link the time in higher education with life experiences. This generation is not receiving the supportive, broadly based, interactive education they need and want.

The remedy lies in connection and reconnection: of subjects, themes and disciplines across universities, regardless of whether we call it double majors, sensible electives, or multi-, cross- or interdisciplinarity. It must be built on rethought advising and student-faculty relationships. At its base must be an education that combines academic with civic education and real-world issues.

“Learning” and “earning” must be distinguished but not opposed. The myths of the golden age of core curricula and “great books” must be replaced with a required introduction to the history of education and of youth. Broad-ranging local, national and comparative studies courses would integrate the arts, humanities and social sciences. For the UK, these might include modern classics such as Peter Laslett’s 1965 book The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age and Eric Hobsbawm’s 1964 Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour, alongside Shakespeare and Dickens in their historical contexts. For the US, perhaps Herbert Gutman on workers or slaves, alongside W. E. B. Du Bois’ 1903 The Souls of Black Folks, The Great Gatsby, or Catch 22. Exemplary possibilities flow from women and minorities of all kinds.

Crucially, this education must take place not just in classrooms and lecture theatres, but also in dorms and living spaces, both on and off campus. Offering anything less is to fail to prepare young people for the lives they long to live.

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history and Ohio Eminent Scholar at The Ohio State University. His new book Searching for Literacy will be published this summer.


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Reader's comments (4)

Coming from a generation after Professor Graff and studying Engineering, I would have been very surprised to visit the houses of my lecturers. As a staff member, I always kept in mind that although being an academic was a generally pleasant way to earn a living, it was still a job. I have always kept my family and my work separate - students need to feel part of a community but this does not extend to my home. It might just be a difference between subjects but I have hardly ever been to the house of a colleague let alone a student. As I near retirement, I intend to make it just that and will not be applying for emeritus status but look forward to increasing my life outside academia to 100%.
Interesting comment above, and the story itself. I was in the home of many of my professors, as an undergrad and postgrad - and parties were held, and mixed social/learning events. In my current job (now in the UK) there is none of this and I would get horrified stares from colleagues, at the least I think, if I did invite students into my home, or vice versa. This is the changing nature of the world as much as academia. It is true that the isolation aspects needs addressed. Going online for ALL lectures, for instance, as some Universities wish to do, is silly. Students need interaction - it is as key to their development as the actual information we impart.
I agree that we need to build student community and belonging and use our campuses for students to regain the essential skills they lost during the pandemic. But I absolutely disagree with the blurring of boundaries. We have to have boundaries and safeguarding.
No one said that we don't "We have to have boundaries and safeguarding." What do you propose?