The first essay in a forum on what higher education needs now
The promise that accompanies the start of the academic year comes, this fall, with a rising sense of foreboding. Controversy and crisis abound. Over the next two weeks Current will publish a series of features addressing the current state of the university. Our overarching question: What does higher education need now?
1984 is more than the title of George Orwell’s dystopian novel. In the part of the world where I live 1984 represents the year the Orwellian nightmare became reality—or, in the words of the Wall Street Journal’s John Hoerr, The Wolf Finally Came (a nearly 700-page rehearsing of the demise of the steel industry). By 1984 the damage done to towns in western Pennsylvania built around steel was fatal.
Nearly ten years ago a colleague and I took some students on a weekend retreat in the nearby milltown of Aliquippa, PA. John Stanley, an officer with the Anglican Church Army and a native Australian, was our speaker. He had worked in Aliquippa for ten years, primarily with those suffering addictions. After his Friday night talk he invited us to attend the meeting of the Aliquippa Ministerium the next morning. He said he was going to propose they hold a funeral service for Aliquippa. My colleague and I decided to attend what we thought would be an unusual meeting.
After dispensing with normal business John presented his idea to the twenty-some members present. He said, simply, that ever since he arrived in town all he ever heard about was what a great place Aliquippa used to be. Citing the work of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, John said that though the town had died, it had never had a chance to grieve what was lost. And as long as there was no grieving for loss there would be no possibility for a new future—for the town to revive.
There was silence. The first few pastors to speak objected. They said they were trying to convince people Aliquippa could live—not that it was dead. Finally, an older African-American pastor spoke. In measured words he said, “I worked in the mill for thirty years and have pastored in this town for twenty. No one ever asked me what I thought about what happened. I want to tell my story, tell what was lost. I’m in.” That seemed to be the catalyst people needed to get on board with the idea. The reason a funeral service for a city seemed so plausible was because these towns really had died. No reviving. No replacements. No hope.
In 1984 cultural seer Wendell Berry penned an essay on the university. Almost forty years later, one might say that Berry put his finger on the death of the university—a death not as immediate as the steel industry, but maybe just as profound. As you would expect, Berry does various things in this essay. But for our purposes he points to two foundational cancers that untreated will certainly bring death to the university. Ironically, the two things Berry points to have become so fundamental to the way we do higher education that they seem almost non-negotiable.
First, specialization—of departments, curriculum, faculty, and more. Berry claims the university has created a language incapable of speaking across disciplines. It removes the “uni” from university. Instead of developing students focused on the centrality of “truth-telling” as a vocation (Berry’s phrase), we have buried our students in an abstracted, specialized language incapable of serving the common good. Forty years ago he was raising this warning.
Second, Berry says that modernity’s highest value—objectifying learning—reduces learning simply to what he calls disciplinary abstraction. This kind of abstraction, says Berry, makes evaluating the truth claims of literary texts seem anti-intellectual and practically impossible. We are no longer able to try on the truth claims of texts for ourselves. The modern research university, Berry says, has made these things seem irrelevant.
Here’s my thesis: The industrial mill town and the research university are clearly children of modernity. Modernity has failed us, and her children are on life support. In the Northeast and Midwest, mill town and college, city and university, business and education, are intimately intertwined. Mill towns and universities stand as a monument to the failed modern-industrial vision that fueled the U.S. for more than a century and a half. And we continue to live in denial.
By the 1980s the damage that such a failed vision had wrought was immense. Throughout the Northeast and the Midwest town after town struggled to recover from the gospel of modernity that promised flourishing and had, in fact, delivered a form of it for decades. But that gospel turned out to be transitory and the rotting altars that fill these thousands of towns testify to a project failed. Great wealth was produced, beautiful campuses constructed, buildings were birthed, neighborhoods launched, majors generated. But today, in place after place, only boarded-up storefronts, deteriorating houses, empty dorms, and gutted faculties remain of a bygone era.
Walter Benjamin, a brilliant young German-Jewish philosopher of the 1920s (who tragically died trying to escape the Nazis) charged that modernity’s industrialism appeared incapable of acknowledging or giving due weight to all the suffering it had imposed upon humankind. His views on the suffering called forth by modern industrialism were forever linked to his analysis of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, which he compared to “the angel of history.”
In the painting the angel is hovering over a world in ruins, which Benjamin attributes to modernity’s industrialism. The angel gazes at it with pain-filled eyes, in view of the suffering below. The angel, having spread his wings to give a blessing, is unable to do so because a gust of wind from failed progress below pushes him far away. Because of the gust he can’t see the promise of the future but only the crushing burdens laid on the people by the promise of the future. This, says Benjamin, is what we call “progress.” And it goes on in spite of the profound suffering it inflicts. Imagine the angel with its wings spread over industrial towns and universities trying to heal and bless.
In my time as a professor I’ve been sent to represent the college at conferences built around the polarity of town-gown several times. These conferences were generally focused on two things: the hassle of out-of-control students for neighbors and neighborhoods, and the aloofness of colleges to the real needs of the community, especially its economic well being. (Think of West Virginia University students burning sofas in the street after big football victories.)
Isn’t it ironic that these two children of modernity, town and gown, business and school, both teeter on the edge of collapse while we scratch our heads and wonder why we don’t get along better. Modernity sold us a dream: that if we put all things in service to industrialism and capital life would be good and our future secure. But we’ve found just the opposite. Corporate industrialism makes a totalizing claim—all must be in service to it—and yet after a century and a half of devotion we’ve found it wanting. Isn’t it fair to ask if that devotion has been rewarded? Are our families sound? Are our neighborhoods healthy? Is our media reliable? Are our schools serving the civic good? Do our political structures seem secure? How about churches? Businesses? Art? And technology: Do we control it or is it the controller?
Town: vanquished. Gown: vanquished. And our hope? That a new industry with lots of jobs will locate in our town. Or that we will be the first to the table with a couple of new specialized majors that will bring an influx of students. Idols have an enormous appetite that can never be satisfied.
In the face of the distress we’ve been left with I’d like to propose a reimagined project. I’m suggesting reviving the best parts of the liberal arts colleges tradition as a way to address the town-gown fracture that is also a failed child of modernity. I am suggesting that reimagined liberal arts colleges could be the vehicle to address the town-gown divide that I’ve been describing.
Of course, those familiar with the history of the liberal arts college may justifiably say, “Look, the liberal arts college, especially the American version that was central to American higher education in the first half of the nineteenth century, was not only a child of modernity but has also been fundamentally remade in the image of the modern research university.” So we need to look a little more deeply.
First, while the modern research university model, imported from Germany, has become one of the primary carriers of modernity’s vision for life, the university is not a completely bad thing. It certainly should not be avoided at all costs. It has both strengths and weaknesses. But it can be totalizing with regards to how we’ve done higher education, and its impact for over a century on liberal arts colleges has been profound.
To over-generalize, liberal arts colleges have tried to maintain a core curriculum of some sort, a core of values education, while importing the research university’s model for its specialized majors. And the demands of those specialized majors have become so immense that it leaves very little time for what Berry was looking for in a university education. They have become abstracted carriers of careerism and specialization far removed from the concrete, down-to-earth realities of their host communities.
I heard once that many business departments taught entrepreneurship by actually starting businesses in the community as a sort of a learning laboratory. I thought that sounded like a great town-gown initiative, especially in a deeply distressed community. I made an appointment and went to bounce the idea off of the faculty member who taught our entrepreneurship class (long since gone from the college). After suggesting the idea and getting a blank stare he finally broke the awkward silence and said, “Brad, I don’t know how to start a business. I wouldn’t know where to start. It’s just part of my teaching load. I simply teach the textbook and figure the students will have to get real experience starting businesses on their own.”
Liberal arts colleges in our region were primarily founded as denominational colleges intending to propagate their sect by producing clergy and community leaders familiar with and committed to a particular social imaginary consistent with their community. Having a liberal arts college in your town in the pre-Civil War era not only brought some prestige but also meant that your children would not have to leave their families and communities to prepare for civic leadership. Geneva College, for instance, was lured from western Ohio to western Pennsylvania in the 1870s by a German pietist group called the Harmonites. They were starting several businesses and manufacturing operations in Beaver Falls. The Harmonites wanted a Christian college in the town to produce moral leadership for their businesses.
Industrial cities and towns—like universities and remade liberal arts colleges—were the embodiment of modernist logic. Towns were abstracted places to work. They were not built on what makes work meaningful and human but on what makes it profitable. As the president of United States Steel famously said amid the demise of the steel industry: “We don’t owe our workers anything but a fair wage and our host towns nothing but to pay our taxes.”
The abstraction of education that Berry critiqued fits this model perfectly. The person stuck in the blue-collar world of town simply had to walk up the hill and get a degree. Or as a former small college president said when asked by a community activist about the college’s lack of involvement in the town while it was being decimated by the closing of big steel: “We’re not going anywhere. The college is staying. But we do education. We don’t have any way to help with the demise of the town.”
I’m contending that the town-gown divide is not primarily about students and staff being unwilling to engage a town, or about townspeople resenting and ignoring a college. Rather, I’m contending that it’s the modernist abstraction of work and learning that makes each seem irrelevant to the other. So I’m not simply trying to fix the traditional town-gown divide. Instead, I’m championing the reimagining and re-embracing of the local community as possibly the only way left to save real liberal arts education, while at the same time contributing to the uplift of abandoned industrial wastelands. Let’s admit it: Both are on life support.
But why the liberal arts colleges? What is it about this particular structure that makes it attractive for this task? There are at least three things.
First, the liberal arts college was clearly birthed from a different vision for education than the modern research university. It tries to maintain a core curriculum as a foundation for what Berry calls “truth-telling.” It can call on its own history to revive a different vision for a re-imagined curriculum. And because of its denominational heritage, it can more easily embrace a distinctive project.
Second: When they began, liberal arts colleges were local projects. They only made sense to a locale and a region. They were often the pride of a town and its staff were leading citizens in the community. The logic of the college had to fit the logic of the community.
Third: Colleges are conservative by nature. They only make comprehensive changes when their existence is threatened. Many liberal arts colleges face that very specter in our day. There’s nothing like a threat to your existence to open you up to change.
If that’s a dour assessment, the good news is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Colleges all over are making new efforts to connect with their host communities in ways that benefit both. These efforts may seem to be scattered, disconnected, or piecemeal, but there’s a lot happening. What is needed is a more intentional, localist vision that can help put the pieces together. I will commend three models that suggest a way forward for this reclamation project.
The Oberlin Project (which formally ended in 2017 after achieving many of its goals) was a remarkable linking of one of America’s elite liberal arts colleges with its town and surrounding area. Their model was not primarily curricular. But here are a couple things that are amazing and usable. First, they developed a partnership with local farmers and food producers in an attempt to generate 70% of the food used on campus locally. In the process they protected 20,000 acres of green space and farmland and gave struggling local farmers an immediate source for selling their products. They also forged an intentional joint educational venture with their local schools and local community college to provide a wider array of educational possibilities. The heart of their concern was environmental impact, and it had a local focus.
Albion College (MI) is a church related liberal arts college that, like many others, has significantly secularized. Their driving concern in linking town and gown was a dramatic decline in enrollment. A consultant found that the main barrier to maintaining their enrollment (having dropped from 1900 to under 1300) was that prospective students and parents didn’t like the small industrial town where the college was located. They began their strategy with the symbolic move of the president from the countryside back into town. Faculty were given incentives to buy homes in town and renovate them. Alums with resources were encouraged to invest in buying and renovating storefronts in town and opening new businesses. For a time the business department relocated its classrooms and offices on main street (a fifteen minute walk from campus) in a renovated building. An abandoned, historic theater was renovated as an auditorium for campus and community events. A scholarship program was established to bring ten students from the local school district a year, all costs paid, to campus: a win-win initiative.
Like these other two schools, Geneva College has a number of things in process, though as of yet has not put these into the broader framework of the reclamation of the liberal arts college through connecting with town. In Geneva’s county there is a three-college coalition led by the local Penn State branch that includes a community college and Geneva. Under the leadership of this coalition a building on the main street of Beaver Falls (where Geneva is located) has been purchased and remodeled to become a center for teaching and entrepreneurship. Called the “B-Hive,” it is an innovation hub ready to serve the distressed mill town and the surrounding region. The college is also closely connected with city leadership: the city manager, the mayor and the Director of Community Development are all Geneva grads and have taught both part-time and full-time at the college. In addition, the college has a living and learning community called City House that is now in its eighteenth year of trying to link college students and community by having them live a mile and a half from campus in a large house in the middle of a Beaver Falls neighborhood. As is the case with the other colleges I’ve mentioned, there are many more potential links. What has yet to develop, however, is a broader framework for linking the education delivered by a small, regional college with the mutually beneficial cross fertilization of so many dimensions of town life.
As noted earlier, colleges are conservative institutions; change can be glacial. But might we be in a moment when the danger confronting small liberal arts colleges is so real that they may be open to a historically directed change? As real as those dangers are, there has been little substantive change in decades. The old saying seems affirmed: “When the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail!” Colleges continue to fight the cut-the-budget battles, and to desperately-search for enrollment fixes—as if with more money and students somehow we’ll recover what’s been lost.
We can’t solve the town-gown fracture by simply trying to be people of good will or by generating more effective or compelling initiatives (as good as they may be). What we need is to reimagine a local community in which college and town make sense to each other. Or to put it more strongly: colleges and towns that can’t imagine either being well if the other isn’t thriving. The models are out there. The times are perilous. Might we develop a compelling desire to re-establish an education built around Berry’s vision of truth-telling for the common good? An education that sees its own mission rooted in the wellbeing of its community and region rather than in the launching of abstracted careers?
Bradshaw Frey is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, PA. An earlier form of this essay was delivered as the keynote address at the 2023 Drive-In Workshop sponsored by Geneva’s Master of Arts in Higher Education program.
Photo credit: Jai Sanders, All Saints Chapel, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee