Thursday, November 4, 2010

Rhetoric and Reality: What is a University?

I write this with a sense of sadness and hope. In recent days, the decision has been made by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) to close the Department of Education. The decision was made based on the future prospects of the Department of Education being a preeminent faculty and program. In short, because of an institutional mission focused on technical, scientific research, the contribution of education is marginal to CALS desire to be the world's greatest college of agriculture. I do not argue that the Department of Education's existence within CALS in unique, but I do want to challenge the assumptions made about the scholarship and contribution of education to CALS, Cornell, and higher education. We find ourselves in this most difficult situation because of a lack of understanding -- or a devaluing -- of education's role in shaping how and what we know. We, as members of the education community, are complicit in this confusion and thus must speak out and engage others to do all that is possible to call attention to education's role in our institutions and world. 

We don't have to look very far to see the disconnect between rhetoric and reality. Here at Cornell, we are doing a phenomenally poor job at recognizing the disconnect. Some striking examples of this failure to recognize the role of education have emerged in the days following the announcement of the Department of Education closing. The first deals with the recent gift of $80 million to support sustainability research and what we claim we're doing with this tremendous gift and opportunity. The second deals with the need for investment and support of the humanities. 

I have noted the contradictions and omissions in this work previously, but I feel the need to stress that education has a central role as part of this initiative. The exclusion of educators and scholars of education isn't something new. It has been this way. But what I want to stress is that now is a time when the Cornell community should truly reflect on what it is we claim to be doing and what actually occurs. As Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp said
"Achieving a sustainable world will require increased awareness, policy changes and an inclusive approach....And Cornell is ideally positioned to lead the current discussion and help shape the next generation of leaders."
Cornell is an ideal institution if we understand ourselves as such. There are academic silos that are so deeply entrenched in this institution that we can't even recognize that interdisciplinary means more than engineers speaking with chemists. Krupp continued,
"Great universities like Cornell need to speak up about global warming. There's an ethical dimension here....There's also the opportunity for Cornell to be involved in a way unique in American universities -- to create the examples and the constituents that make policy."
We do need to speak up about global warming, but as long as we try to deal with ethical issues as if they were technical issues, we'll continue to lament larger society for not "getting it" when we as a land grant institution have only done part of the work we are charged to do. We should be more than a factory creating information. However, what we're doing is feeding the "overapplication of scientific rationality to public policy making"(Frank Fischer, Citizens, Experts, and the Environment (Durham: Duke, 2000), p. ix). We don't take seriously that non-experts have something to say about an issue like sustainability. It doesn't show up in anything that we say, but Cornell continues to operate with the deficit model as a starting point. We have the knowledge and skills. We need to fix these problems. The way we do that is through scientific research. All of these statements are true, but I would amend them. I would say, 
"We have the knowledge and skills to contribute meaningfully to the work but not all. We need to fix these problems collaboratively with others, especially those who are impacted by decisions. The way we do that is through scientific research as part of a larger conception of scholarship that takes seriously local knowledge and the multiple forms of research within the Academy."
This is what I would like us to be saying and doing. This requires much more conversation and collaboration than we have seen or experienced. We may continually be building new science buildings for researchers to cross departmental boundaries, but if those scientists don't even know that there is a Department of Education, then we've failed as a community of scholars. We are a university, a "whole." But do we act like it. Gregory A. Petsko has captured this in an open letter to the president of SUNY Albany. To quote Petsko: 
I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I've just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today's backwater is often tomorrow's hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren't too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I'm willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and yourself the President of one. You see, the word 'university' derives from the Latin 'universitas', meaning 'the whole'. You can't be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.
This leads me to the second point that I found ironic in recent days. President Skorton, in his State of the University Address on October 29, has called for the hiring of new faculty members humanities. The article in the Cornell Chronicle notes that,
"Far from being irrelevant in the digital age, the arts and humanities not only teach the basic skills of critical and contextual thinking, communication and ethics but also have value as disciplines of research and critical analysis in their own right. And on a fundamental level, they teach us what it means to be human, he said." 
This comment is something I wholeheartedly agree with, and I would argue that much of what takes places within the field of education asks these deeply important questions about what it means to be a person in today's world. I would argue that the college and university administration have failed in understanding what it is that happens within the Department of Education. Yes, there are aspects of technical training with the department, but so much more than that takes place. Read through the description of the Adult and Extension Education program here at Cornell. Read it. This isn't technical training, and this is simply one program among others that will continue to lose support as the department moves toward closure. I believe that if others actually knew what we think about and do, they wouldn't be closing it down. Education is much more than simply teacher preparation (and by no means am I demeaning teacher education). What I mean to say is that education engages questions about what it means to be a citizen in communities, states, or the world. There is serious engagement with some of the most important questions about who we are and how we might live with one another in the future taking place within classes that will be cut from the curriculum without much concern.

To close, I want to paraphrase a new friend and colleague that I would never have met had it not been for an education course. In response to the frustration of the call for support for the humanities while killing education he wrote, 
"we need to redefine the scope of education to include the values and ideals that the president mentioned in defining liberal arts and humanities. it's the soul of the university --it's how we transform an elitist institution into something relevant to people across the state and the world. it's also how we connect every school, college and department in cornell." 
Exactly. Let us begin that work. We're meeting tonight with those who are wanting to be involved in the conversation about the future of education here at Cornell. We're meeting tonight at 5:00pm in 231 Warren Hall. Please come and invite others. You can find out more information at If you're not able to make it tonight, we're going to begin a community conversation about the future of education at Cornell on Tuesday evening at 5:00pm in 360 Warren Hall. The image below is the flyer we're passing around with the hope that we might have a truly inclusive conservation about education. With this in mind, please encourage and invite those outside of the field of education to participate. We want and need many voices. For too long we've all stayed insular in our work. We can no longer afford to do so. 
Click to enlarge.
We are a truly great university. Let us enliven the spirit of collegiality and collaboration. Let us be a "whole" in a way that draws from our diverse strengths to contribute to the work addressing some of the most pressing problems facing humanity and our time. If we want to be one of the best universities in the world, let us prove it through the meaningful work that changes the world for the better by being contributors to that work rather than dominating it because we feel we have the answers and others simply need to listen to us. Problems such as sustainability are multifaceted. They aren't only technical. There are political, social, and ethical dimensions that must be considered. We all need to be part of this work, including those who study education.

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