Peer Review, Spring 2001

Vol. 3, 
No. 3
Peer Review

Reality Check: College Today: Do We Need A New Narrative?

Perhaps because the title of one of AAC&U's initiatives, Greater Expectations, has Dickensian overtones, I've found myself thinking about that venerable novelist's works. At first I entertained myself by imagining titles for other grant-funded initiatives as the economy worsens, like a project on the restructuring of academic financing called Harder Times, or a report on the maintenance and repair of facilities called Bleaker Houses. But on deeper reflection, I realized that the narrative form offered an interesting point of departure for thinking about another "text" that concerns all of us reading this magazine, that of higher education.

Works like Great Expectations and David Copperfield are classic examples of the Bildungsroman, which, as the Oxford Companion to English Literature tells us, is a "novel of education." If higher education was re-framed as a narrative, it would most certainly fall into this same genre. A young protagonist (the student) leaves home to pursue higher goals and ambitions than could be realized by remaining. The hero encounters competition and possible rejection (the admissions process), finds mentors and supporters (teachers and advisors), and navigates various challenges (courses and exams), before earning his or her own rightful place in society (graduation and a successful career).

Unfortunately, like most neat parallelisms, this one started wavering as soon as I gave it a bit more thought. The title Great Expectations is, of course, deeply ironic, as it is only by shedding his "expectations" that Pip attains emotional growth and maturity. His "education" leads neither to material advancement nor higher status, but back to his point of origin. Given that our most effective argument for a college degree these days is increased earning power, I concluded that this might not be the best literary analogy.

I turned to David Copperfield -surely a more straightforward tale of progress towards maturity and fulfillment-but found that it presented an even more vexing problem right from the opening line: "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must tell." If Copperfield questioned his claim to be the protagonist in his own story, how could I be sure that the student was the real hero of a college education? I had to admit that most of the modern theorists of higher education, from Kant and Newman to Boyer and Bordieu, believed that the central figure in the narrative of higher education was not the student at all, but an abstract, collective entity-rational society, national culture, the faithful community, or in this age of globalization, a de-localized ideology of managerial "excellence" and high performance. In fact, the only recent argument I could think of for liberal education as "an adventure" with a student hero was Allan Bloom's cranky polemic The Closing of the American Mind.

Determined to hold on to my literary conceit, I decided that genre was the problem. The outmoded Bildungsroman, with its unified citizen-subject, no longer had resonance. Given that today's students jump in and out of the narrative of education, attending two, three, or more institutions, while occupying several simultaneous roles (employee, consumer, parent, citizen), it seemed that something fragmented, non-linear, and with no clear main character was more to the point-say Finnegan's Wake?

Then it struck me: A whole new narrative of higher education is needed, one that hasn't yet been written! This new text would be transparent, popular, and accessible to all, and it would be multi-media to reflect the explosion of learning technology. It would have a collective, rather than a solitary individual, as its hero, and that collectivity would mirror the racial, class, and age diversity of today's students. Its "plot" would be experiential and problem based, with faculty and students working and learning together to solve the problems of their community, and it would never, ever have closure, to symbolize our commitment to life-long learning. But eventually it dawned on me my "new" narrative of higher education was essentially a remake of Gilligan's Island with a multicultural cast and a few more "Professors."

Undeterred, I'm working on a new angle -- "Higher Education: The Musical."

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