The one HUGE piece of the puzzle missing from conversations about education.

When those committed to neoliberal ideologies–politicians, public school and higher ed. administrators, commencement speakers, and parents–speak about the purpose and importance of obtaining college degrees, they generally tend to exclusively pick from a “preapproved” word bank. This word bank consist of a narrow range of words: future, job, training, employment, bosses, planning, income, friends.

This “philosophy of education” is at odds with what professors see as the purpose of obtaining college degrees. When speaking about why their courses are important and why higher education matters, a professor’s word bank consist of an infant array of beautiful words: reading, thinking, writing, challenging, growing intellectually, discussing, curiosity, learning, making a difference, asking questions, history, biology, anthropology, theories, perspective, relativism, books.

I regularly talk with my students about the emotional demands of college – meaning having to unlearn so much and think in new and sometimes somewhat uncomfortable ways. I’m only today (as a result of the idea for this blog post) understanding no one told them college would challenge their worldview and really require hours of hard work.  

Students come to college unprepared for the academic demands of college in most cases. This is not new. College has always been different, has always required a transition period, and students have always been unprepared. And students coming to college specifically looking for a credential (vs. specifically looking to learn) is not new, at least since and where higher education was/is democratized.

Yet, much of the frustration both professors and students feel manifests because each group has sometimes very different expectations of each other and society gives each group dictates that do not align.

Students are told to attend college for a good job (and often don’t actually get that job to their bewilderment). 

Professors are told to challenge students and expand their minds (and get pushback for doing so). 

These are vastly different goals. No wonder professors are always asking each other “why don’t college students read,” “why don’t college students complete their assignments?”

Anti-intellectualism exists partly because students are trained to think it’s all about jobs and completing a few more check boxes. They are not raised in a culture or society that promotes real, sincere education.

Focusing on the educational crisis as a crisis of underprepared students and a crisis of expense complete skips the vital piece of the puzzle. Colleges can prepare those who are underprepared – that’s what they do – that can do it if they have societal support and if society gives students the correct message about why colleges ideally exists.

(Tons of other factors including how a student is raced, gendered, how much money they have, access to childcare, etc., of course, also exists as part of the educational crisis – sadly, most people are not given a fair chance.)

Tuition is way too high. And it is NOT related to salaries for professors. You would be physically sick if you knew how little professors make – most are in poverty – most are not paid for most of their labor – but fortunately/unfortunately most people in faculty positions in higher education are accustomed to being “starving artists” and being very critical of capitalism. 

The educational crisis will only begin to be solved with society internalizes and then students internalize that college is supposed to be hard. (This naturally requires a complete overhaul of the K-12 system.) That college needs to be hard in order to preserve knowledge and promote a kind of “progress.” 

As technology creates a near-jobless society, education might be more important than ever. Students struggle in college often through no fault of their own because society does not tell them honestly what college is. As technology expands, how we think about jobs, economics, and the future will change, too.

Nonetheless, I will continue to challenge my students – the vast majority ultimately welcome the challenge and upon reflection, appreciate it. 

Andrew Joseph Pegoda