“In class and outside it, in casual conversations with other students and intensive bouts of reading deep in the bowels of the library, a light still goes on for no reason anyone can supply , and a young person or a whole class suddenly see as poem or a work of art illuminated in a new way.”
Yes, there are many problems in higher education. There are serious questions about sustainability, cost, and whether American higher education prepares our students to participate in the 21st century economy as fully employed citizens. Yet for all its problems, I still believe in higher education, the liberal arts, and the power of living and learning on a campus.
Which brings me to a specific memory from my senior year of college. That fall, I took a seminar about history and protest where we read Robin D.G. Kelly’s Freedom Dreams. This text explores the black radical immigration that provided the vision for social movements that defined the twentieth century. It’s a remarkable text, but one I struggled with during the week we discussed it in seminar. By the end of college, dreams for me always seemed pie in the sky, on a collision course with my goal to become self-sufficient and hold down a job with health insurance, one of my parents’ primary aspirations for me. Looking back, I have to laugh at my rigidity as it was dreams that inspired me to make a conscious choice to embrace my queerness as a teenager – consequences and privilege be damned – and to aspire to go to a place like Smith College in the first place. For so many thinkers, especially the ones in Kelly’s text, dreaming was dangerous, a luxury, a privilege, but it was dreaming that was instrumental in effecting the social changes we enjoy today. Which brings me to the students I work with at Hampshire.
Yesterday, I saw a student wearing a patch on her jacket that said ‘my education is endangered.’ That struck a chord with me as I am not sure my cohort of Smithies would have thought of our educations as anything less than essential to our development as citizens of the wider world. And the liberal arts are endangered. Recently, Florida Governor Rick Scott suggested that we don’t need more anthropology majors. Libertarian champion Peter Thiel has a program to encourage the great minds of this generation to drop out of college to become entrepreneurs. What would these men think of the work our Hampshire students do? As frivolous? As foolish? As impractical?
Dreaming is essential for our students’ self-directed work. Vision propels Hampshire students to undertake an ambitious course of study without the structure or safety of a major. I love watching students transform amorphous ideas into sets of questions, and sets of questions into manifestos, films, ethnographic studies, and built structures. These are experiences that will translate into important social transformations.
Beyond social change and the greater good is the empowerment that comes from careful study and consideration of big issues, of philosophy, of history, literature -among other subjects. Like the quote that begins this post states, when the light goes on for students, it’s a rush none like any other. I can recall so many moments in my own education where the material came to life for me, shifted my thinking and assumptions all for the better. But better than that were the questions I wrestled with where there was no easy resolution, when I felt frustrated, fought with myself, and forced myself to push my outlook into new territory. The Kelley text is a prime example, as I still wrestle with the dreams my students have. At what point do dreams need to be pushed, nurtured, re-directed, or killed?
For me, dreams and higher education now go hand in hand. When I work with students starting on projects, I like to ask them what their dream project is, what they would do if they could do anything at all, and then work with them to negotiate down to a manageable project, with reasonable sets of expectations. When not constrained by judgement or time, my students dream up so many amazing questions and projects. Questions and projects that could change the world. Of course, ‘curing cancer’ is not practical for a capstone project, but goals and dreams keep students going, keep them motivated. I know the saying goes that necessity is the mother of invention, but I’d also like to think that dreams are the mother of invention, too.