The crust of the biscuit, the place where the rubber hits the road, the lick log in learning, is the exercise of free will that breeds personal responsibility. And nurturing responsibility in its manifold dimensions is the purpose of a university. An intelligent person, and an enlightened organization, know the meaning, application, and reality of Henley’s powerful observation as he looked down at his leg without its recently amputated foot and declared to the joy of leaders like Nelson Mandela , “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Only a thoughtful individual or a powerful learning organization can, or is willing to, make this claim.
Victor Davis Hanson in a recent National Review post asks, “Is the Modern American University a Failed State?” It sounds good, and it’s easy pickings. According to the Higher Learning Commission, the purported failures of U.S. higher education are a litany of efforts to play the blame game.
One: Legislators at the state and national level carry the burden of creating policy and laws that put the fewest obstacles and greatest opportunities between teacher and student. When they fail to exercise that responsibility effectively, universities are compromised in their power to modulate responsibility for learning. Bill Brady, a state senator in Illinois is proposing legislation to privatize public universities. The discussion that follows may be one of the most important narratives that faces higher education in this century because it takes responsibility for success from the statehouse and puts it, like a baby in a basket, at the front door of the schoolhouse. If it has a clarifying effect on the execution of responsibility to improve learning, it will be a powerful dialogue.
Two: State boards of higher education only infrequently steer the flow of responsibility for learning on the interaction between teacher and student. In effect, all that’s needed to create an educational institution is a field to stand in, a tree to provide shade from the heat of the sun, possibly a hill for a windbreak, and two people: a teacher and a student who together make a commitment to learn. Everything else is overhead. Plato knew that. The reports, the processes, the road paved with good intentions, and every other complexity for sustaining the learning environment that supersedes the power of an enlightened conversation is dead weight rather than an opportunity to educate.
Three: Trustees, or other fiduciaries, have the responsibility to assure effective utilization of resources, human and material, in the learning that occurs when the faculty member and student meet. This responsibility is most apparent in the hiring of the senior executive of the institution(s), according to the Association of Governing Boards. To the extent that they are able to wisely focus and exercise that responsibility, learning will occur.
Four: Faculty, and staff who support teaching and learning, have the responsibility to systematically present ideas and insights and then test and grade students to record the change in knowledge and understanding that has been effected. The necessities of the production of creative, scholarly and intellectual insight, service to the community, and other actions that inform teaching and learning, are positive and absolutely essential, but always subservient to the responsibility of changed behavior, abilities, exhibited through learning. The American Association of University Professors thoughtfully articulated the centrality of this idea over a century ago in a 1915 declaration that still holds water, but has been too frequently eroded by responsibility-shielding modifications over the past century, at times turning a calling into a job.
Five: Families of students, immediate and extended, own a responsibility to their offspring for creating expectations of performance that carry into university and work life so that just showing up, hard work, good intentions, and even adherence to rules, regulations, and guidelines do not always warrant a trophy or high praise, or even a passing grade. True or not, over-parenting is thought to build a bubble in which kids live, according to Alice G. Walton in Forbes. Walton says we are creating a generation of narcissists. The implication is that kids are self-centered and don’t accept responsibility for outcomes. These are not like most of the students I teach, thankfully, but they seem to be the norm in the popular press. And, to some extent, they are products of the household where they were raised.
Six: Students must accept responsibility for their actions and for learning. Responsibility is exercised on the street at night for social propriety; in relationships with others for showing mutual respect; and most importantly from my perspective, in the classroom for learning and achievement. Everybody wants to be successful but not everybody wants to work at it, and students must accept the locus of control for the fruits of their labor, or lack thereof, according to The National Center for Public Policy.
Seven: University leaders must lead. Learning, and anything that enhances it, should be paramount as it is the current and power of the river of responsibility. Anything that dams it up should be eliminated.
Success in higher education is not assignable to one individual or organization through trickles of responsibility, but to the river of responsibility that flows from many places to one.
The educational environment established between teacher and student makes a place of learning work. Nothing else will create it and nothing can stop it.