The Future of American Colleges May Lie, Literally, in Students’ Hands
A friend of mine who works at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict, in Minnesota, recently told me a story: Her book group read Anna Lappé’s Diet for a Hot Planet, one of many recent books to focus on the vulnerabilities of the industrial food system and the threats posed by climate change. The book’s treatment of the topic held few surprises, and the solutions offered were equally well-worn and deceptively simple: Buy fruits, vegetables, and meats locally, and cook them at home.
My friend’s big surprise came when the students in the group started talking about the solutions—and found themselves stuck: “Almost all the students said they didn’t know how to cook,” she told me, “and even the young, single adult employees in the group admitted they lacked both the know-how and motivation.”
What makes this story even more poignant is its setting: at sibling colleges founded by monasteries, where self-sufficiency and sustainability were once a central ethic, as outlined in the Rule of St. Benedict. The Benedictine women and men here, along with many of the older alumni, can still remember when they milked cows, plucked chickens, and picked potatoes grown on the monasteries’ surrounding land. Bread, furniture, preserved food, ceramics, and other daily necessities were produced by monks, sisters, and students on the campuses. While some remnants of that life still exist, much of it is gone.
I can’t help being reminded of that story when in my daily work as a Chronicle writer I hear the chorus of complaints about the state of higher education. You’ve heard them, too: Higher education is broken; it needs reinvigoration and reinvention to get students out the door and on their own as soon as possible. Lawmakers say colleges need to make students employable and to create jobs. Some critics say colleges should use technology to scale up; others go so far as to bemoan the physical campus as an unnecessary, expensive burden in an online world. In that cultural and economic climate, liberal-arts colleges have been at pains to articulate their usefulness. They have emphasized that they teach students how to think, how to be engaged, world citizens—not merely how to do a job.
I agree that a liberal-arts education provides those intangibles. But maybe it’s time that instruction—at least at some colleges—included more hands-on, traditional skills. Both the professional sphere and civic life are going to need people who have a sophisticated understanding of the world and its challenges, but also the practical, even old-fashioned know-how to come up with sustainable solutions.