With the nation at a crossroads, the larger purpose of higher education must be remembered and restored. Tribal colleges can help lead the way.
By Paul Boyer
I have spent my entire career in higher education, nearly all of that time with tribal colleges. As a young writer still in my early 20s—eager and idealistic—I believed that the colleges were a powerful and greatly underappreciated force for social justice. As a journalist by training, I wanted to tell their story.
Thirty-four years later, I still feel the same passion about the mission of these institutions. But I am increasingly dismayed about the state of higher education in the country as a whole. While America’s colleges and universities now serve more students than ever before and—as it is tirelessly repeated–a college degree is more important than ever, I worry that the larger role of higher learning in society is shrinking.
At the start of my career, it was still possible to talk grandly and in expansive terms about the essential role of colleges in a democracy. To say that an education was not only an economic but also a social good—a force for opportunity and equality—was to express an agreed-upon sentiment; to say that a college education enriched us culturally and ethically was to point out the obvious.
There was, of course, a vast gap between rhetoric and reality, as Native nations know all too well. The founding of tribal colleges in the early 1970s was a response to the systemic failure of mainstream institutions to enroll Native students or adequately address their educational needs. This was part of a what Carrie Billie, president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, recently described as “the systemic, generational inability or unwillingness to recognize the humanity of others brought to this land by the first colonizers and enshrined in the founding documents of this nation.”
But there was in this hopeful era broad agreement within the educational establishment—and even within much of the political establishment—that the nation was moving forward; that mistakes would be acknowledged and fixed; that doors, once closed, would open wider and that, with increased educational opportunity, the light of learning would grow brighter. I believed that expansion of education meant the commensurate expansion of wisdom, and even compassion. I thought we would become better people.
Today, this confidence feels almost embarrassingly naive. But, as the child of the civil rights era, I came by this hope honestly. I was raised to believe that change in a democratic society moved one direction only—steadily forward–because, surely, how could any functional nation knowingly move in reverse: from greater equality to less equality; from knowledge to willful ignorance; from civility to barbarism? Confident of success, my job was simply to accelerate this process of reform. As a writer, I felt that words—the sharing of information—would help fuel the locomotive of progress.
I need not dwell on all the ways my illusions have been tested in recent years and, especially, recent days. A foul mood of anger, mistrust and fear hangs over the nation like a cloud, fueled by national leaders unwilling to acknowledge suffering and heal wounds. As a journalist and educator, the fundamental disregard for truth is especially galling. If we are actively encouraged to believe that facts are fake and that scholars are liars, then how can we find common ground and fix mistakes?
This, then, is the moment when higher education is most needed and its full arsenal of weapons deployed: The lessons of the past must be remembered. The values of civil society must be taught. Complexity and nuance must be valued. The knowledge of all disciplines, both the arts and the sciences, must be brought to bear.
Yet institutions of higher learning find themselves at this moment of crisis badly weakened. Much of this reflects the nation’s persistent neglect of public universities; some state systems are so poorly funded—and even actively defunded–that whole departments are eliminated, with unsavory undergraduate instruction outsourced to underpaid adjuncts. Struggling to survive, educators allow the undergraduate curriculum to becomes a torn and neglected patchwork.
All of higher education is facing a more financially constrained future as a result of the pandemic. Campus closures and a hasty move to online instruction meant loss of students and income. But cuts to public education began long before the pandemic and reflect an intentional and often politically motivated strangulation of learning, enabled by an emboldened anti-intellectualism in the nation. Rising tuition (the result, in part, of reduced public funding), only fuels public resentment.
In response—slowly, sometimes unintentionally and frequently unwillingly—higher education has contributed to its own diminishment by pandering to the lowest common denominator. Why go to college? Because you’ll be worse off if you don’t. Why support higher education funding? Because it will make the nation richer. Why invest in STEM? Because the Japanese (1980s) or Chinese (today) will beat us if we don’t.
I fully understand the allure of these “bottom line” arguments. When funding is not forthcoming, when trust is lacking, educators will seek what appear to be the most practical arguments. And, for Americans, nothing sounds more pragmatic than appeals to wealth and power. Sensing this, I have, more times than I wish to admit, played the “must stay strong in a global economy” card when arguing for support to STEM education. I used to joke that I needed a key on my computer capable of generating that apparently compelling phrase.
But this strategy is a path to ruin. It tightens the noose around higher education, reinforcing prejudices, further limiting the role colleges and universities are allowed to play in society. Flattened by the rhetoric of careerism and nationalism, their utility measured in a few data points, colleges and universities no longer serve a larger civic purpose.
Higher education must reclaim its heritage. Institutions need to become more accessible and inclusive, fulfilling the mandate they (and the nation) embraced in the postwar and civil rights era. Educators should speak to the nation with integrity and moral authority, serving as advocates for justice even when—especially when—these messages are denigrated by the nation’s leaders. And it must reaffirm its longstanding mandate to prepare citizens, not simply train workers.
My father, Ernest Boyer, who served for many years as president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching until his death in 1995, was a passionate advocate for the liberal arts and general education. In College: The Undergraduate Experience in America he wrote that “we need educated men and women who not only pursue their own personal interests but are also prepared to fulfill their social and civic obligations. It is during the undergraduate experience, perhaps more than any other time, that these essential qualities of mind and character are refined.”
I thought of my father’s vision for education when I read a powerful statement by American Indian College Fund President Cheryl Crazy Bull, written in response to the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. “Their deaths are a painful reminder of the number of people who have been victims of systemic racism and invisibility,” she said. “We are angry and we stand in solidarity with our African American brothers and sisters. We know only too well the vulnerability of all people of color and the risk to our well-being that violence and chaos create.”
But then she, like my father, turned to the central role of education:
“One thing that I know to be true through my work is that creating equity in education is meaningful because Education is the Answer to all of the disparities and challenges that society faces. Through education, we learn the truth about history, gain a shared understanding of values and relationships, and develop skills for communication and engagement. We learn how to provide better law enforcement and health care, more meaningful jobs, stewardship of the environment, and an improved quality of life for people of color.”
To survive as a nation, we need a strong economy, of course, and students always want to know that their degree will have economic value. But as the fabric of society frays, as video cameras make the horror of racial injustice inescapable, as elected leaders bang the drum of fear and xenophobia, it is painfully clear that even a wealthy nation, deprived of wisdom and awareness is, like a blind man, fully capable of walking to the edge of an abyss and stepping off. Education gives us the sight we need to turn away from the edge and find a safe path.
Interviewing early presidents of the tribal college movement several years ago, I was time and again struck by the clarity of their vision and their willingness to speak truth to power with courage and integrity, arguing for the value of their institutions at a time when no one believed they would succeed. We need to maintain that courage. We need to embody that kind of integrity. We need to embody their devotion to others. If we don’t where, finally, will it exist?
Paul Boyer is editor of Native Science Report. He is the author of the Carnegie Foundation report, Tribal Colleges: Shaping the Future of Native America and Capturing Education: Envisioning and Building the First Tribal Colleges, which was published by SKC Press and named an Outstanding Academic Title for 2016 by the American Library Association.