Jun 14, 2024

the how and the why, part 2

So we’ve looked at formation and freedom in the college decision process. I want to examine next the framework of readiness in higher education to get at formation in another way — what should four years make a student ready for? I’ve written about this subject before, but today I want to restate the strengths and add some of the weaknesses of this frame.

Education as readiness is a heuristic developed by the philosopher (and erstwhile politician!) Danielle Allen, most succinctly laid out in her essay called What Is Education For?. For the last several semesters, I’ve had all my students in every class read this essay for Week 2 discussion, alongside this blog post about mental models for students to think about their college experience. This is my small intervention to introduce Formation 101 for young people. It’s wonky and over their heads at first, but it creates a shorthand for us to unpack over the course of the term together.

Allen lays out “professional readiness” as the dominant model for much of higher education today, and she makes an extended argument that “participatory readiness” should include but ultimately supersede professional readiness. Job skills are important, she says, and yes, they create the crucial class mobility — for greater economic equality — that we need for realizing a more democratic society. But political equality, she says, is never achieved by simply equipping more people for more well-paying jobs. Citizens have to be actively enfranchised with habits and practices that enact shared freedom, and for that, education can be an ideal rehearsal space. The readiness to “participate” is what Allen calls for: civic agency, enjoining oneself to the means and ends of equality not just for oneself, but for the larger social fabric and in proper relationship to the nation state.

Allen describes three actions of the democratic civic actor that education should make students ready for: disinterested deliberation (think town halls, voting, and other deliberative governance), fair fighting (think protests and lobbying for causes), and my personal favorite, prophetic reframing (think rhetorical re-description of possible civic worlds, as in the speeches of Dr. King). Only true political geniuses regularly embody each of these three civic modes, but it’s critical for students to see the vital efficacy and tradeoffs of each one, both in history and in the present day. Unsurprisingly, Allen tells us that these practices are learned in the humanities and social sciences: rhetoric, history, political theory, literature, philosophy.

In my classroom, I use this essay to make a modest case for the liberal arts, even though that ship has kinda sailed. My institutions have been almost entirely about professional readiness. But it’s been both strange and oddly bracing to find that my students aren’t defensive about it or resistant to the liberating arts and participatory readiness. They’re not resistant because they’ve never heard this rationale. We’re starting over, at least in my settings. Usually one of them will say politely: Well, this sounds great, but given how much college costs, shouldn’t we be focused on the skills we need for jobs? We gotta pay bills. I see why this is their first-instinct response. But I say to them in return: Given how much it costs, shouldn’t you ask for that four years to give you something in addition to job skills? Some equipment for life ten, twenty years from now?

Even if you reject the idea of formation and think of college choice as a professional readiness proposition, I’d still argue that participatory readiness will make your kid more AI-proof than a narrowly scripted, industry-responsive, skills-led curriculum. It’s a tortoise-and-hare thing: They may learn the software to get them through the next five years, but what about after that? What ambitious projects might draw them, and what resources would they marshal to be ready?

So for my students, two kinds of readiness is an old idea that’s new, for them. But let’s talk about another conundrum. For my fellow professors, participatory readiness sounds all too easy, even already achieved. In my domains of engineering and design, the overwhelming trend of the last two decades has been to create literal “participation” at the core of our curricula. We mean it in a slightly different way, but for so many people in professional-readiness higher ed land, human-centered technology and design beautifully check the participatory readiness boxes. We ask people what they want! We consider unintended consequences! And most of all: we think about power!

“Thinking about power” has neatly swallowed a whole world of domains that create real readiness: the always-strange specificities of history, the global variation in poetic languages, the deep and wide realm of ethical reasoning, the vigorously debated ideas about the role of the state to provide for human affairs. The self-satisfaction of using a hand-wavey notion of power as an organizing principle ticks the boxes of participatory readiness for most people in my domains. Look for winners and losers, and you have won the day. It’s not just job readiness, they say; it’s alerting young people that power is always operative. Participatory readiness, done.

Do I need to say this? Power is always operative in civic life, but collapsing all contextual and participatory matters to transactions of power, with winners and losers, oppressor and oppressed, doesn’t help students deal with complex geo-political matters like what’s playing out in Gaza. In Allen’s terms, many professors are satisfied with encouraging students’ literacy in the “fair fighting” mode of civic agency — protests and speeches and demonstrations, with all the moral clarity they either reflect or seem to create — and meanwhile, the more slow and boring work of disinterested deliberation, and the more richly symbolic and subtle work of prophetic reframing, lie in atrophy. Professional readiness curricula, overlaid with a module here and there on ahistorical, monolithic ideas about power, just won’t suffice. Not for real participatory readiness.

There are signs of life in shoring up the deliberative side of participatory readiness. This civil discourse project at Duke is representative of some of that effort. Civics education is generally experiencing another reinvigoration; I see lots of people talking about it. But in pre-professional settings like mine, there’s a tinderbox mix of mostly-job-skills, plus the thinnest layer of power studies, that stands in too handily for participatory readiness.

And even if we fortify the means and methods of disinterested deliberation, even if we diversify and enrich the participatory with greater humanities, fine arts, and social sciences exposure, another conundrum presents itself. Deliberation presupposes contested visions of the good life among democratic citizens. How are those visions, those strongly-held first principles that are the bedrock of our lifeworlds, to be formed? That’s next.