Way more than luck

In the company of everyone, I’ve been listening to Steve Jobs’ commencement speech to the Stanford graduating class of 2005.  Against the background of our humming anxiety about whether students are going to stop paying for their education and hang out auditing our open content for free, his story of learning calligraphy as a freelancing, freeloading, highly engaged college drop-out is full of institutional terror and promise. What if everyone does this?

Given today’s understandable emphasis on his thoughts on love and death and risk and creative professional passion, Jobs’ careful account of the context of his adoptive family story for his college drop-out decision is easy to miss. But as I’m also a one-time college drop-out, this question of how students’ decisions are framed by family hopes and aspirations seems important to me. I know that it’s far harder for students to front up to their families to explain a change of direction than it is for them to quietly stop coming to our classes.

So as we crank open the jaws of higher education to take in more and more students to achieve miraculous levels of degree qualification by 2025, or whatever our target horizon might be, we need to think about what it means that we’re also ratcheting up the proportion of the overall cohort who are the children of those for whom university education was a remote prospect.  It’s an understatement to say that they show up with baggage.

When they arrive, we do very little to help them explain to us whose hopes they bring to their enrolment, or the ambivalence they might feel about these hopes. They all want to convert this ambivalence into success, for sure, but at least part of the time they also want to flee. We give them very little time to talk about this because we’re so busy trying to ensure they don’t show up on our attrition data, and we’re pumping funding into programs that secure their loyalty transition so that we can instead shuttle them into our completion data.  Under the regulatory circumstances in which the human story of attrition has been warped into institutional performance data, we find it hard to speak of the fact that systemic underpreparedness or poor personal timing might mean that we should be supporting them to transition out, even for a while.

Eventually I went back to college, and the rest is you-know-what, and here we are.  But if I had attended my own graduation, I’d have wanted to hear the future mapped out with the bracing clarity of the other haunting commencement speech from 2005, David Foster Wallace talking to the graduating class at Kenyon College, three years before his death.

David Foster Wallace tells a far tougher story than Steve Jobs. Instead of offering inspiring accounts of his capacity to pluck success from failure by being creative, authentic and bold, as Jobs does, he tells them about the “boredom, routine, and petty frustration” of adult life.  In a long story about how it might be possible to handle the flow of ordinary life—in the supermarket, in traffic—with imagination and compassion towards others, rather than exhausted pent-up rage, he suggests a way of thinking about the value of  an arts education as an enhanced capacity for choosing what to think about:

Twenty years after my own graduation I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea. Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.  It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

Because if you cannot exercise this kind of control in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

So it’s not quite the same as “stay hungry”, if that’s the kind of thing you want to hear. But David Foster Wallace’s gentle closing wish that we should all have “way more than luck” is the one that works for me.

3 thoughts on “Way more than luck

  1. Fascinating. Of course, the UK is solving this problem by getting rid of non-traditional students, which is a problem for my institution, which has 45% mature students and 99% state-educated, 80% working-class, 50% ethnic minority, and a huge proportion studying part-time.

    More worryingly, our leading Prof of Education gave a lecture which harnessed Geertz (somehow) to outline a new vision of teaching. Students, she said, should no longer be treated as having their own cultural contexts and identities. To her, this limited them to individual cells and prevented aspiration and ambition. To me, this meant taking no account of their histories, and refusing to afford them their identities. A British-Caribbean student, or a female from a conservative Islamic background will often have struggled against institutional discrimination and varied cultural tropes to get here: treating them all as identical tabula rasas seems a) inhuman and b) educationally derelict.

    One of the problems of large institutions dealing with non-traditional intakes is that it’s easy for students to be forgotten about and left to drift. Our class sizes are huge, for instance, and it’s hard to be heard. Getting and keeping students is so often about developing a personal bond between staff and student, yet the financial and systemic context work against the likelihood of that happening. Some colleagues propose new media as a solution, but more than a few students see it as a way of economising on staff contact time and keeping them at arm’s length.

    We are trying to develop links with families: parents come to Open Days and inductions, and we do our best to expound the humanist values of education, and to stress the students’ dependence on family support to aid retention. The university is very keen on retention for exactly the managerialist purposes you list, but we academics are seriously keen to keep our students too – though it’s also true that there are plenty of students lacking the intellectual and emotional skills required, who have been admitted more to help us than for their own benefit, which I find profoundly cynical. The onrushing consumerisation model won’t help: UK schools have encouraged dependence rather than pro activeness, and students-as-customers will be nudged to think of us as certificate-providers rather than critical friends.


  2. PV, sorry I didn’t reply sooner — winging my way back from the northern to the southern hemisphere. But now that I’ve emerged blinking into the Australian sunshine, this is just to say that I’m really interested in your institutional strategy of engaging with families, not just with students. I’ve often felt this could be at odds with trying to encourage students to see themselves as independent adult learners, but your approach sounds like it has found a way to do this. The other factor that has been important to me is recognising that students who are parents are often very influenced by their children’s support of their studies, or otherwise. I wonder if there are examples anywhere of good practical approaches that are taken to enable students to share the stories of their context for learning. As edtech folks keep saying, “context is king”.


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