The Future Of Higher Education Series: Trouble In Paradise

As Art Director here at Siera, I do everything from creating new presentation templates to discussing which color of yellow is right for our web palette. One of the things I like most about working for Siera and getting to know its founders, Pat Wagner and Leif Smith, is the discovery of kindred spirits, fellow travelers who question the status quo of education. In this series, I’ll address the trajectory of higher education in a personal context. If you’d like to connect with me, send a message to bronwen@patternresearch.com.

Photo Credit: Fairuz Othman 2010. Licensed under CC BY 2.0. http://www.flickr.com/photos/mdpai/4284326208

Goddard College, a small liberal arts school with campuses in Plainfield, Vermont and Seattle, Washington, has a student-centered philosophy similar to the Sudbury model. Goddard students are allowed to design their own curriculum. They work with an advisor to craft a study plan for the semester, dividing coursework into five chunks called “packets.” With each packet, the student submits a cover letter describing the pieces contained within and giving some insight into their process. The advisor provides a letter of response, usually citing a few areas where the student could more deeply explore their subject. Most of the work takes place off-campus after the weeklong residency during which students and faculty to attend lectures, view peer presentations and meet with their advisors for the coming semester.

Sounds pretty great, no? Goddard was paradise on paper, finally the answer to my search for higher education’s answer to the Sudbury model. But with greater freedom comes greater unpredictability. I was on the losing side of this coin flip for my first semester advisor. He was new to the school, in his second semester of advising at Goddard when we met. He lacked the experience of many others on the staff, experience that—as a first-year student—I desperately needed. We did not achieve a meeting of the minds during the residency, a rift only exacerbated once I began my off-site work. By the skin of my teeth, I completed my semester portfolio, though quitting seemed a viable option as often as finishing.

My second semester advisor could not have been more different. We shared a prioritization of the student in the learning process, and she embodies the idea of teacher as guide, instead of teacher as instructor. She broke down many of the assumptions I’d constructed about Goddard during my previous semester, but my confidence in the system was shaken and I determined to leave the program. Because of this process, I’ve identified a need for well-articulated expectations in a learning environment that includes an evaluative component. As is so often the case in life, absolutes are not the answer. Buddhism and Taoism both advocate the search for a “Middle Path” between irreconcilable paradoxes. The unrelenting, seemingly arbitrary rigor of public school was not a good fit, but neither, in some ways, was the ambiguity of Goddard. Here lies the crux of my search: to sniff out the elusive balance, a school that allows for free choice, but is not undermined by unclear expectations leading to crippling uncertainty.

In one area of my life, at least, I need search no farther for this balance. My job as Art Director at Siera mixes concrete direction with the right amount of autonomy. To find an educational experience that is expansive in scope and measurable for student and teacher, I suspect I’ll need to chalk up some more life experience. As my search continues, I look forward to traveling to other countries and observing how people with a social context different from my own shape and share learning of our vast, yet shrinking world.

In the next post, I’ll set my sights closer to home. A lot of us go to college to increase our ability to land a high-paying job. Yet with student loan debt in America rising to all time highs, is a college degree more of a burden than boon?

Next up in The Future Of Higher Education Series: Is Student Loan Debt Too High A Price To Pay?