To paraphrase Mark Twain: The reports of higher education’s death have been an exaggeration. American universities produce more research and relevant knowledge for the world at large than any other institutions I know of. Tuition may be too damn high, but over the long-run, undergraduate degrees are definitely worth the cost. But Penn State could be so much more. It used to be, I think.
As a historian, I’m always wary of those who aggrandize the past. Ten miles, uphill both ways (thank you Bill Cosby) and stuff like that. But doubtless there is some truth in saying that the Penn State experience used to be more complete for undergraduate students. Whether it’s Andy Nash nee-Nagypal and Ben Novak offing verbal jeremiads on Radio Free Penn State about the disempowerment of the student body and faculty vis-a-vis university shared governance, or the pathetic affectations of the typical student today as he or she trots (or doesn’t) from class to class, all over campus it seems that the essential value proposition of the living-learning community has eroded to an incredible degree. And that, my friends, is the real cause for worry when it comes to the future of learning in this great nation.
Take a look at this graph. In the tech business, we’d call this a scaling problem.
More than big-time college sports, the military-industrial complex, or the influence of corporations on higher education, the simple fact that American universities have grown at fantastic rates over the past fifty years is why, today, my peers and I walk around in love with Penn State but leave wanting more when it comes to the actual academic experience and the school’s living-learning community.
When he was president of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson offered the following insight about living-learning communities: They are valuable, he said, not because they provide simply a process of the classroom, but a complete process of life.
Though Penn State student organizations like THON, CCSG, and Onward State provide the practical and semi-professional experiences students crave, there’s something major missing in the living-learning experience at Penn State today. This isn’t a problem unique to Happy Valley by any measure, but with the continued troubles I anticipate for Penn State in the coming months, the need for us to prove ourselves exceptional is, in my measured opinion, overwhelming.
The sense of community in the classroom, and the ability for instructors to inspire a love of learning and provide a core base of relevant knowledge, seems more in jeopardy than ever before. Yet the need for education is clearly greater than any time in our history; there is incredible demand for it the world over, and America continues to fall behind other countries as our national advantage in education evaporates.
But none of us — students, faculty, staff, and administration included — are doing all that we can ensure that the next generation of undergraduates experiences the same precious molding we have enjoyed as Penn Staters.
Inspiring a love of learning and creating a true living-learning community should be the primary goal of Penn State when it comes to undergraduate education — the very mission on which this great university was built. But as the university continues to grow and technology changes the way we relate to information and each other, the question remains: How can we keep the sense of community and the spirit of learning alive as enrollments continue to expand?
With Onward State, I tried to help. I view the creation of a shared public space as the crucial first step in establishing any sort of lasting community, and as the graph included above demonstrates, this has become exponentially harder as the school has grown. Even though we have developed an increased general appeal over the past few years, there’s still a whole different segment of the student population that other outlets like The School Philly reach but we can’t.
Focus needs to be returned to the colleges’ primary mission of undergraduate education, and the university needs to take a more active role in this process of creating the living-learning community. But such a network can’t exist without the active participation of individuals. Students and faculty must first want to be connected with each other in some way that’s more meaningful than the rote academic relationships which seem to exist now. Reviving the Penn State living-learning community, and working actively to solve the scale problem must be a primary goal of our community as we go forward. Everything else, in the long run, is just noise.