The headlines over the last few years have not been promising. Ferguson. Syria. Charlotte. Election. Walls. Red states. Blue states.
We know that the divisions represented by those headlines are anything but new, but if you’re like me, perhaps you’ve noticed a trend in recent years toward more entrenched mindsets and language geared toward zero-sum games, this or that media options, all lives or black lives or blue lives. You name it, and there’s a division.
Social science tells us that division is a natural human expression, one that enables identities to emerge.
“I want to be a nurse when I grow up” versus “I want to be a dictator when I grow up” = good division.
Division allows for expertise to emerge. For (good) orthodoxies to emerge, such as the orthodoxy of not injuring someone further during surgery, or the orthodoxy of picking up one’s litter.
And the Academy has, at least since the Victorian invention of bureaucracy, adopted what it sees as the kinds of healthy divisions into colleges and schools and departments and programs. FSU, as a state agency, finds in its culture an even more pronounced approach to bureaucracy because of its UNC system obligations and state functions and policies.
The brilliance of bureaucracy, of course, is that it encourages division of labor, allows folks with talent in areas of individual expertise to become really good, and to bring the gifts of that goodness to the larger organization and community. And it beats, I think, what happened before bureaucracy was invented, which was a system that tied together birthright (taking over the family shop) and social status (being born well enough to go to university, as an example).
But here we are in late 2017 and I can’t help but wonder if there’s some correlation, if not causation, between the culture we’ve allowed to overtake our way of doing things in the Academy and the students who have grown up to be bad cops, divisive media figures, rascal politicians, extremists, and sectarian thinkers. What are we doing in higher education that is producing those folks — regardless of the politics? Or, if we’d prefer our culprit to be someone else, why are those someone elses (social media, religious groups, whatever) not being transformed by the experience of higher education?
I’m being mean on purpose. And broad, probably to the point of being unhelpful.
But here’s the core of the argument: the Academy is modeling for generations of students the divisions we want them to overcome in the “real” world.
You can be a nurse, but not an actor (can you imagine nurses with bedside manners that have been steeped in the empathetic work of the theatre?)
You can be a social worker, but not an accountant (can you imagine? Social justice accounting? Sounds like something we need.)
You can be an artist, but not a businessperson (can you imagine? Artists who don’t think of starving first?)
You can be a biologist, but you don’t have to learn how to talk to people without using jargon (can you imagine the power of a scientist who can convey truth in an accessible way?)
I’m being facetious, too, as you know. FSU’s core curriculum begins to address these issues — and I don’t want to shortchange the good it does strive to do.
But our departments do it far less, and our colleges — even less than that.
Part of the factionalism in the institution is created by (necessary?) evils, like the SCH model, which creates gold mines in places like nursing schools, and has a tendency to incentivize other departments to circle the wagons and keep all the SCHs to themselves. I know in my own area of theatre, we could really benefit students by sending them to music for voice lessons and comm for acting reel production and psychology for research into human behavior and business for self-marketing and chemistry for how to make certain makeup applications work even better. The SCH model can prevent us from designing programs that do just that. When any chunk of our institution is under threat at a given moment — low-producing programs on one end and under-resourced programs bursting at the seams on the other — the incentives to work together cannot be as strong as the incentives to circle the wagons and store grain in the disciplinary silos that exist today. Nevermind the hybridization and vibrancy we could bring to the ecosystem if we made efforts, deep in our programs, to work together.
I’m not saying we’ll solve the world’s problems, but we will be modeling, for our students, ourselves, communities, and our peer institutions, a kind of harmonic synergy necessary to change the tone from vitriol, rancor, and protectionism to a different way of thinking. And ecosystems can start with event the tiniest of seeds.