Saturday, August 04, 2007

College and Place

Residential education is near bankruptcy. This could be said for many areas, but especially economically. Many colleges, especially Christian ones, are finding it harder and harder to keep up with the demands of maintenance, room allocation, and rising utilities. To raise tuition much higher, though, would effectively kill any chance of solvency--especially for schools with small endowments, or poorly managed ones. With the onslaught of online education, residential collegiate experience may cease to exist. Many are beginning to see that they can get the career training/higher salaries that college offers for a fraction of the price--and can stay close to friends/family, plus start working on their futures right from their very own computers at home (which, invariably, have faster connection speeds) or the local library. Hence the pride that some institutions furtively take in being called "party schools". The residential experience, by itself, does not offer enough any more for many to justify a $100k+ investment that will take years to pay off. Debt, in other words, is killing traditional higher education.

Residential colleges need, quickly, to rethink their very foundations. Since more and more are choosing to stay closer to home, or to save their room/board fees to rent an apartment where they want to live/work, I think it would be wise for residential institutions to put their best foot forward in this very instance: place.

Residential colleges, part of the Enlightenment fabric, have bought whole-heartedly into the idea that place does not matter. There is very little study of the places where colleges are located, since every place has been (for a long time) assumed to be just like any other place. Some institutions even perpetuate a hatred (usually implicit, sometimes not) of the place they are located--religious institutions, with their dualistic hatred of Creation, are particularly prone to this. Many offer majors in fields that have no economic footing in the surrounding area (within, say, 50 miles), implicitly offering the opportunity to "escape" the surrounding landscape. Why?

Part of the American heritage, for better or worse, is that when the going gets tough, the tough leave. Whether for reasons of economic or religious oppression, many have left their long-established homes for an American restart. This, of course, is not a bad thing: immigration, legal or otherwise, has been an important and formative part of U.S. history. However, when transplanting places, the dominant attitude has been to scorn any thought of the older place--note the perennial efforts of career politicians to limit any other languages than English in public discourse, despite the fact that the United States has no official language. Immigrants are often looked down upon for bringing some of their customs and culture with them, being viewed as "un-American" or being asked why they didn't just stay where they were, the assumption being that the smaller, more familial aspects of their culture is what was the problem, instead of overbearing political and religious (that is to say, abstract) systems.

This translates, very easily, into our own hatred of the local. The grass is greener elsewhere, so why not go there? It creates a perpetual homelessness, physically and spiritually. So why go to school to learn how to bring wisdom (that is what education is after all, right?) and healing to your place, when you could much more easily learn how to run the system that brings immediate gratification, even if your children will have to pick up the bill? (On another note, this may be why our culture is in the sexual/abortion state it is in: sex is immediately gratifying, children run the risk of never being gratifying, but instead end up like ourselves.

Internet education, for all the positive possibilities I think it has, plays right into this culture. Place, ultimately, is an unnecessary inconvenience easily overcome by the application of technology. In fact, the place you want can be easily created by developing an avatar, or a persona as a blogger. Residential colleges, especially Christian ones, have the possibility, not yet explored, to resist this dangerous and deathly cultural trend. These colleges can be about the health, well-being, and prosperity of the communities that surround them, both human and non-human. The residence halls can become places where human life flourishes, instead of diminishes in a drunken and pseudo-erotic stupor. The town-and-gown clashes must cease, with the (often) arrogant institutions of "higher" learning not working in a top-down way to "improve" the locale, but instead working with and, most urgently, for the local population to give educated answers to pressing local questions, whether they are scientific, artistic, or cultural/religious. This does not mean, however, that institutions should change their century-long alliance with the federal government to a just-as-corrupt-or-corruptible local government. Instead it means working with the actual people to bring education to all those around who would make the own lawns greener, instead of always coveting their neighbors. Do this, and higher education will live and possibly flourish in ways that are mutually beneficial to their communities, refuse this and in ten years (or less) we will see residential higher education become a dusty footnote in the educational history of America, read online and usually skimmed over.

No comments: