Strengthening Public Trust in Higher Education: Generosity and Democracy in Challenging Times

tags: higher education, colleges and universities

Scott Richard St. Louis is a student with interests in scholarly communication and public history, among other areas of research and practice. His peer-reviewed scholarship has appeared in The Michigan Historical Review.

This essay discusses Kathleen Fitzpatrick's Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019)

In an era flooded by unremitting cascades of loquacious arrogance, there is an urgent civic need for scholars of the humanities to advance still more constructive reflection on their obligations to communities off campus. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Digital Humanities and Professor of English at Michigan State University, begins her candid look at the challenges facing higher education in the United States with an illuminative recollection of “what has come to feel like an emblematic moment of university life”. A number of years ago, Professor Fitzpatrick assigned an article to her graduate students in anticipation of an upcoming seminar. Upon opening the chosen day of conversation, she was greeted with a punishing barrage of “fairly merciless takedowns, pointing out the essay’s critical failures and ideological blindspots. Some of those readings were justified, but at least a couple of them seemed, frankly, to have missed the point”. What follows would be laughable for its sheer gracelessness, if it were not ultimately so bleak in its implications. Upon asking her students to slow down and offer her first a summary of the author’s argument and goal for the work at hand – certainly a reasonable request – Professor Fitzpatrick was met with a confounded silence.

Is her anecdote the opening of so much tiresome grumbling about a younger generation of adults? Not at all. On the contrary, Fitzpatrick’s original reaction to this bizarre scene was to blame herself: “my initial response to the silence was to start wondering whether I’d asked a stupid question … It only gradually became clear to me that the question was … oddly unfamiliar, that everything in their educations to that point had prepared them for interrogating and unpacking, demystifying and subverting … but too little emphasis had been placed on … central acts of paying attention, of listening, of reading with rather than reading against”F. Here, we have a perplexing challenge. The professor, attentive and self-aware, has done her work admirably. Her students, diligent and sincere, have prepared for class as best they know how. What, then, is to blame for this breakdown of communication and understanding in a room full of sophisticated readers?

Those whose experiences in similar settings resonate with the insights of Rita Felski in her monograph, The Limits of Critique, or of Lisa Ruddick in her essay for The Point, “When Nothing is Cool,” will find much to enjoy in Generous Thinking, as the preceding quotations reveal. Fitzpatrick references both authors – and, of course, many others – while shaping her unique argument in the introduction. With engaging and straightforward style, Fitzpatrick starts in the graduate seminar and moves outward, contributing to a vigorous literature on the importance of the humanities – indeed, all of liberal education – to democracy itself. Most importantly, Fitzpatrick contends that the “university has been undermined by the withdrawal of public support for its functions, but that public support has been undermined by the university’s own betrayals of the public trust”. Her goal in this book is therefore to “provide one pathway toward renewing that trust” by elaborating on her “desire to see universities and those who work in and around them – faculty members and administrators, in particular, but also staff members, students, parents, trustees, legislators, and the many other people who affect or are concerned about the futures of our institutions of higher education – develop more responsive, more open, more positive relationships that reach across the borders of our campuses”. Indispensable to the achievement of this aspiration is the willingness “to cultivate a greater disposition toward … ‘generous thinking,’ a mode of engagement that emphasizes listening over speaking, community over individualism, collaboration over competition, and lingering with the ideas that are in front of us rather than continually pressing forward to where we want to go”. This book does not come up short on ambition with regard to its audience and objectives; as such, “it doesn’t carry with it the scholar’s usual desire for completeness”. Rather than aiming presumptuously to offer the last word in an ever-changing landscape of debate, Fitzpatrick instead strives to shape a conversation about how universities might carry out their work more transparently – and thus, more sustainably – in an age of social and political tumult. That the frequently opaque internal dynamics of university life contribute to its precarious civic status at this particular moment is no surprise to Fitzpatrick: “there’s a widespread [mis]conception about what we do … we waste taxpayer resources by developing, disseminating, and filling our students’ heads with useless knowledge that will not lead to a productive career path, and – this part is true, but for reasons that the university alone cannot control – we leave them in massive debt in the process. And nowhere is this misconception more focused than on the humanities”. Change is in order. Where to start?

Read entire article at Society for U.S. Intellectual History

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