AAC&U News, October 2017

"Whose American Dream?"

Lynn PasquerellaDespite research indicating that Americans with a four-year college degree out-earn their peers by 98 percent, many in the United States remain skeptical with respect to whether a college degree will enable them to achieve a better life than their parents—the hallmark of the American Dream. No longer considered a guarantee for upward social mobility, colleges and universities are instead being positioned by critics as sites of exclusion and elitism. Thus, in her recent Washington Monthly article, “Why Democrats Should Dump the Idea of Free College,” columnist Anne Kim argues that since many working-class voters don’t believe that college is the best and only path to the middle class, by insisting that college is the ideal path upward, “You’re essentially telling people they have the wrong dream.”  

The question of whether higher education can recapture the elusive American Dream is the focus of AAC&U’s 2018 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. Given the burgeoning economic and racial segregation in the academy, there is a heightened sense of urgency among champions of access to educational excellence around identifying ways to address the challenge of a loss of public trust in higher education. Yet, while those of us in the academy may eschew populism and its condemnation of life in the ivory tower, as Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell notes, “We are losing when it comes to the basic justification of what we do. We are losing on defending universities as forces for good.”

Countering public skepticism and negative perceptions of colleges and universities as elitist and separated from the practical matters of everyday life will require institutions of higher education to interrogate the extent to which current structures and practices perpetuate this class divide. The question is whether colleges and universities are willing to transition away from the “expert” model of knowledge generation to publicly active scholarship, which enacts democratic engagement designed to promote a more equitable society by partnering with K through 12, business, industry, and citizens to take up some of the most pressing legal, ethical, and social issues of the day.

Such a model holds the potential to break down barriers and establish a bilateral relationship between research expertise and local epistemologies, public and private, scholar and citizen that can serve to erode partisanship resulting from competing ideologies. However, this shift would require a radical rethinking of the hierarchy of value in the tenure and promotion process, recognizing the depth and breadth of contributions that extend beyond peer-reviewed journal articles.

Indeed, one of the most critical steps those of us in higher education can take in demonstrating our value is to ensure that we are effective participants in and communicators of the events of our time. If we hope to bolster the reputation of higher education within democratic society, we must have a visible impact on the communities in which we live—grappling with real-world problems alongside our neighbors, locally and around the globe.

The age of social media has provided unprecedented possibilities for members of the academy to shape public discourse on issues that matter to a broad range of individuals in our society. We must use these vectors to break free from the private language of specialized scholarship and bridge the expanse between scholarly immersion and enduring populist questions and endeavors, for as long as we continue to relinquish the opportunities that would extend our reach and leave these channels of communication to the media moguls, public discourse will continue to decline. 

Kingwell concludes that it is despicable to enjoy the fruits of academic success and not feel a profound sense of obligation “to demonstrate why our efforts have wider value than just our personal satisfaction.” Demonstrating that wider value is more critical than ever if we hope to stem the further reduction of the American Dream solely to economic opportunity, as disconnected from the ideals of democracy, rights, liberty, and equality.  

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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