Liberal Education

Shaping the Public Narrative about Teaching and Learning

An urgent crisis is before us. A huge gap has appeared between how the public perceives higher education and what academics and researchers at colleges and universities know to be true.
It is imperative that scholars and educators take the lead in closing this dangerous—and highly politicized—gap.

The politicization of education

Evidence of the public relations gap is everywhere. Massive cuts to higher education budgets in states like Arizona, Illinois, and Louisiana, among others, can be regarded as attacks on the academy itself.1 Recent legislation in Wisconsin and proposed legislation in Missouri and Iowa seek to end tenure at public colleges and universities.2 Interventionist bills in Connecticut and Florida suggest that legislators now feel emboldened to bypass the collaborative problem-solving process and impose educational reform by legislative fiat; sometimes the resulting legislation draws on disciplinary expertise, and sometimes it does not.3 Politicians and others may find support for their actions in a stream of recent books and op-eds suggesting that the educational system is in a state of free fall. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which concludes that undergraduates don’t learn much in college.4

At the same time, public discourse in the United States has eroded to such a degree that to call it anti-intellectual is to misrepresent it. We have entered the “post-truth” era—a world without facts. Specialized news programming on cable television, radical transformation of public communication propelled by the Internet and social media, attacks on journalism as a profession and as an essential pillar of democracy, unrestricted infusions of cash into political campaigns nationwide, news feeds driven by computer algorithms that create curated echo chambers for individual users, and insular microcommunities whose members communicate only among themselves—these have led to a world liberated from scientific consensus and from the cognitive habits of mind that privilege logic, evidence, and research-based analysis.5 It’s no wonder that 2016’s word of the year, selected by Oxford dictionaries, was post-truth: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”6

As Neil Postman warned in Amusing Ourselves to Death, his book about the decline of public discourse in the United States caused by television and entertainment culture, “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”7 If current trends continue, the time of his prediction may soon be upon us.

The power of narrative

Powerful regressive forces are at work, threatening much of what is best about our educational system. These policies draw their legitimacy from a narrative—a particular understanding of learning, education, and economic development—that those hostile to higher education are actively theorizing and systematically disseminating across a wide variety of platforms.8 To borrow a formulation from literary critic Edward Said, writing about a different form of cultural imperialism, “the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them.”9

Edward Said, Marshall Ganz, Rebecca Solnit, and others have documented the many ways in which narrative helps create the social consensus that translates ideas into law, legislation, and public policy.10 Constitutional law scholar David Cole notes in Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law that “the campaigns for marriage equality, gun rights, and human rights in the war on terror were as much about molding public sentiment as shaping law, as much about a working outside the courts as pressing a case within them.”11

Academics must actively resist the current failure-based narrative about higher education and work to help shape a more informed, research-based public narrative about education in the United States. We have a great deal of public-facing work before us—a theme reinforced at the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ 2017 annual meeting, which focused on “Building Public Trust in the Promise of Liberal Education and Inclusive Excellence.”12 Specialized academic groups, like the Science Coalition and the Modern Language Association, have also noted this ominous development and have made public calls to their membership to address it.13 We cannot simply stand by, watch the higher education narrative be shaped by others, and then submit quietly to the consequences.

Rewards and recognition

The need for higher education to participate in crafting the public narrative means that academics can no longer afford to write and publish only for ourselves, in journals that only we read. We must actively translate disciplinary knowledge for a broad public audience. This public work must become a central part of what it means to be a researcher, scholar, and educator.

Reaching the general public will require creative thinking, new genres and communication pathways, and the efforts of our best minds. This expanded work might include open letters to students and parents, two-hundred-word summaries like those published by the New York Times to provide multiple angles on complex stories, memos to decision-making groups on and off campus, print vehicles not yet invented, and any variety of uses of new media.

For academics to effectively engage in this work, promotion and tenure committees must encourage, recognize, and reward it. At present, such work simply “doesn’t count” in promotion and tenure decisions. This must change. We must begin normalizing the idea of public outreach as an essential part of what we do as scholars, researchers, and educators who are in the best position to advocate for public policy related to teaching and learning. Our understanding of scholarship must include not only original research, but also accessible versions of that research for nonspecialized audiences, such as parents, legislators, and students. Research should not be considered complete without this outreach and translation. It is time for promotion and tenure committees to liberate academia’s powerful voices and support the faculty role in providing leadership for social change in America.

As academics, we have a moral and professional responsibility to help shape the public narrative about learning and education in the United States. Our colleges and universities must acknowledge that activities related to this responsibility are vital to our professional identities and must encourage their integration into all aspects of our work. We are experts in higher education, and our voices must be part of the national conversation about its future.

Notes

1. For information about recent budget cuts, see Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “State-by-State Fact Sheets: Higher Education Cuts Jeopardize Students’ and States’ Economic Future,” updated August 18, 2016, https://www.cbpp.org/research/state-by-state-fact-sheets-higher-educatio... for a discussion of how budget cuts constitute an attack on the academy, see Marc Bousquet, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York: New York University Press, 2008); for a snapshot of current perceptions of colleges and universities, see Pew Research Center, “Sharp Partisan Divisions in Views of National Institutions,” July 10, 2017, http://www.people-press.org/2017/07/10/sharp-partisan-divisions-in-views....

2. Colleen Flaherty, “Killing Tenure,” Inside Higher Ed, January 13, 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/01/13/legislation-two-states-se....

3. For discussions of Connecticut’s and Florida’s legislation, see TYCA (Two-Year College English Association) Research Committee, “TYCA White Paper on Developmental Education Reforms,” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 42, no. 3 (2015): 227–43; and Patrick Sullivan, “‘Ideas about Human Possibilities’: Connecticut’s PA 12-40 and Basic Writing in the Era of Neoliberalism,” Journal of Basic Writing 34, no. 1 (2015): 44–80.

4. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

5. For a discussion of the problems associated with Facebook’s algorithmic news feeds, see John Lanchester, “You Are the Product,” London Review of Books, August 17, 2017, https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/john-lanchester/you-are-the-product.

6. Amy B. Wang, “‘Post-truth’ Named 2016 Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries,” Washington Post, November 16, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/16/post-truth-nam....

7. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 20th Anniversary Edition (New York: Penguin, 2005), xix.

8. A wide range of publications document the scope of the national project of establishing this regressive narrative. See, for example, Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Vintage: Random House, 2013); Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor Books, 1999); and Marc Tucker, Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2011).

9. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1993), xiii.

10. See Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism; see also Marshall Ganz, Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (New York: Nation Books, 2004).

11. David Cole, Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 221.

12. Colleen Flaherty, “‘Regaining Public Trust’,” Inside Higher Ed, January 27, 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/01/27/academics-consider-how-re....

13. Nick Roll, “Science’s Communication Problem,” Inside Higher Ed, July 13, 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/07/13/university-leaders-say-th... Modern Language Association, Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature, May 2014, www.mla.org/content/download/25437/1164354/taskforcedocstudy2014.pdf.


PATRICK SULLIVAN is professor of English at Manchester Community College (Connecticut). His recent books include Economic Inequality, Neoliberalism, and the American Community College (Palgrave Macmillan 2017) and A New Writing Classroom: Listening, Motivation, and Habits of Mind (Utah State University Press 2014).

To respond to this article, email liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line.

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