Monday, July 25, 2005

The Money Gods

I’ve taken to reading junk novels when I fly. Squished into a seat a few sizes too small with limited opportunity for movement, I feel like a prisoner. My limbs go from numb to aching and back to numb again. The physical discomfort ceases when we reach our connection city, but the invariable delays infuriate (and if you live in a small college town like Champaign, Illinois there will be delays between connections).To keep a level keel I need something to distract me from the drudge of travel. Paperback novels do the trick. I hardly read them otherwise, except to complete the book I started on the flight and during an infrequent family vacation. It is a change of pace for me.

On the way back from San Francisco last week I started The Testament by John Grisham and finished it last night. It’s not a great book, by any means, but it is different from his formulaic stories about lawyers in Southern towns. As I was getting into the book, I realized that one of the draws of the story was the black and white morality play embedded within. Money, and there always seems to be fabulous amounts of the stuff in Grisham stories, provides the road to perdition. All the characters who pursue it, by making undeserved claims on the gigantic estate that provides the source for the title of the book, are thoroughly awful people, leeches on society, making no positive contribution whatsoever. The only pure characters in the story are the heroine, a missionary serving the Indians in the outreaches of Brazil who happens to be the bastardized daughter of the billionaire who has left the entire estate to her, and the recovering alcoholic lawyer whose job it is to find her and get her to sign the will. It’s easy to identify the good guys and the bad guys in this story. Then reading the book becomes a repeated exercise in asking what’s next and in trying to piece together the jigsaw puzzle plot.

It occurred to me over the weekend, in between reading sessions, that we should reflect on the role of money in the minds of our students. Quite seriously, the way the pursuit of money acts on their psyche might very well be the determining factor in how these students perceive the college experience. It might not be there quite as overtly as in the Grisham story, after all the money we are talking about comes down the road, after the education has been completed. But its presence is surely felt for example, to get a good job get a good education, choose the major by noting the starting salaries in the field, and measure the return to college by the difference in lifetime earnings between a grad and a non-grad.

Of course, real life is not as simple as a Grisham novel. Many of our students come from families of modest means. The students’ interest in money reflects an aspiration for improvement, to have a better life than their parents have. Certainly that is not bad in itself.

But as I’ve indicated in previous posts, the alienation that many students feel has at least part of its roots in chasing the money gods. If we are to overcome the alienation, we need to offer something else in its stead. Recently I’ve heard frequent mention of Maslow and “self-actualization,” a somewhat old but certainly not outdated notion. (Jack Wilson mentioned Maslow in his plenary address at the WebCT conference.) I think that an emphasis on self-actualization is a good thing and requires going beyond the courses students take to a look at the full student environment. (And that is why, contrary to what Jack Wilson argued, I don’t think we should encourage students to assemble a portfolio of courses taken from many different institutions to provide evidence that all degree requirements have been fulfilled.)

How does a campus encourage self-actualization in students? One way is to promote student clubs or groups where the work is the essence of what these organizations are about and where the work is perceived as leading edge, requiring creativity, and of some consequence to others, but also where doing the work fills a social need of belonging to something bigger than oneself. We have several examples of that on my campus, one of best is ACM. Until they built the new Seibel Center, I used to walk by the ACM office a couple of times a day in the Digital Computer Lab where my office is located. The ACM office would always be crowded with students who seemed to be interacting with each other. For those who self-select into this environment it seems a marvelous opportunity. But what about other students who choose not to participate in such clubs?

In the documentary Declining by Degrees, there was some mention of Living and Learning Communities, where the students take many classes in lock step and get to form a bond with each other and with their teachers as a consequence. This may be an especially good thing for first year students, particularly at large public universities such as Illinois which can seem impersonal and distant. But Living and Learning Communities are impractical as a total solution because campuses such as ours don’t have sufficient housing stock to keep upper class students on campus and, in addition, as students get further into their major the ability to stay lock step with other students becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.

My view is there needs to be a systematic, shall we say campus requirement, to a “service learning” activity that would in part be aimed at filling the student need for self-actualization. While most service learning programs on a campus such as mine reach outwards toward the less fortunate in society, it is my view that the bulk of this work should be directed inward, toward the learning of other students on campus. This is why I’ve advocated for having more senior students serve as mentor/teachers for more junior students, under the direction of faculty members who regard the student mentor/teachers as extensions of themselves in instruction. It is really the only way that I can see for the majority of our students to get serious mentorship themselves from faculty members, who otherwise are too busy to have such relationships with students. And it is probably the only across the board approach to providing self-help for campuses facing tight budgets .

Does this mean the student chase of the money gods will end and we’ll all become socialists? We’re not even close to that now and I don’t think it will be likely in the future, even with a vigorous program of service learning on campus. But if we were to go down this path it would mean that will have an overt strategy for countering the student alienation and for offering the students a broader sense of self and how to achieve their own personal growth. In the meantime, let’s not be taken for money god chasers ourselves and let’s continue to discuss how we might make Maslow more relevant in the pursuit of undergraduate education.


Downes said...

My view is there needs to be a systematic, shall we say campus requirement, to a “service learning” activity that would in part be aimed at filling the student need for self-actualization

You know, when you force people to take part in "self-actualizing" activities, they cease to be self-actualizing activities.

Lanny Arvan said...

Yes, if it is one of many largely invisible upon entry requirments, that is the likely outcome.

Antioch College,, has the service learning as a featured part of the program. The entire curriculum is designed to make that work. Antioch has been around for some time.

I know of no public university that has taken this type of approach and no university whatsoever that has given the service learning an inward direction.

I don't know if what I'm suggesting can work, but it seems clear that if it can there needs to be a commitment level to the service learning like there is at Antioch.