Reflections on Dire Circumstances in Higher Education and Society–Proposed BA Program Using Transformative Education for Disenfranchised Learners and the Public Good

The background and discussion paper for my recent presentation at the 4th Annual Conference can be found at: http://4thannualconference.wisrville.org/files/2012/08/Transformative-Education-in-the-face-of-Dire-Circumstances_-third_version.pdf That paper proposes an expanded role for WISR–in the face of a significant void left by a deteriorating American higher education today–a void that is a result of deepening societal, cultural and economic ailments that have been the concern of the 99% movement. WISR must return to that part of its original mission in 1975 which saw it as becoming one day a Center and Model for Experimentation in Higher Education.

In this paper, I’ve tried to reflect on the state of inequalities, and what Giroux calls the culture of cruelty, in today’s society. I examine the history of American higher education, especially the last fifty years, and reflect on how the state of affairs in American higher education has deteriorated from being in danger of corruption by powerful special interests to its current circumstance of seemingly having lost almost all of its intellectual integrity and moral compass. Higher education seems to be viewed and appreciated mostly as a tool for vocational preparation and as a tool to produce and disseminate knowledge for the highest bidder. Seldom is the “public good” mentioned, much less served by academic institutions. Furthermore, despite the emphasis on vocational preparation, more and more, college graduates are unemployed, underemployed and weighed down by a mountain of student loan debt–they face the prospect of lives not so much as respected professionals as indentured servants at the mercy of those whose wealth and power place them beyond public accountability. More than ever, American higher education needs new models, new alternatives. Programs are needed that are financially accessible to all young adults, especially those from lower-income backgrounds and disenfranchised communities. And, middle-aged and elder adults need access as well. Furthermore, mere admissions to an institution does not qualify as meaningful access. Meaningful access entails transformative learning for the individual student and nurturing the student’s likely contributions to the “public good”: 1) education and training for immediate employment, 2) broader knowledge and skill development–in liberal arts, writing and communicating in one’s own voice, understanding of the uses and limitations of science and technology, the ability to use rather than be used by the internet and new media/technology, critical and imaginative thinking, how to make use of community-involved methods of action-inquiry, and economic and politcal literacy, 3) experiencing the passion for and commitment to active citizen participation informed by a deep concern with the “public good,” 4) know-how in building bridges to the next important steps in one’s life, both for economic survival and for the pursuit of a meaningful life. The proposed further expansion and development of WISR’s BA programs would provide that kind of meaningful access–in the interests of individual students and the larger public, alike.