I was never a fan of the nanny state, the public sector seeing itself as my keeper, protecting me from harming myself. I figured if I choose not to wear my seat belt and end up a quadriplegic, then that’s on me.
A couple of things make that less clear to me than it was.
First, the public will incur real costs if I paralyze myself, starting with the ambulance that shows up to help, and continuing all the way through a lifetime of increased reliance on social services, and reduced productivity. That is, however independent I may feel, I’m actually connected to others in webs of responsibility that are hard to shirk. That adds to the public’s right to keep me from doing stupid self-destructive things.
Second, that illusion that I feel of autonomy and independent agency isn’t universal. Working for universities that prioritize access and equity brings you face to face with that. Through no fault of my own, I have had it pretty good. I was never in foster care, have no felony convictions in my immediate family (we won’t talk about the cousins), and belong to demographic groups where people’s surface assumptions usually cut in my favor.
So it’s too easy for me to look at people who need help and assume they should help themselves, since usually I can.
This has implications for how people learn — things that we’ve been hearing about for a long time in K-12 but that only in recent years surface in higher ed. I’m used to school boards and childhood development specialists talking about the hierarchy of needs, that we can’t expect kids to memorize multiplication tables until after they’re adequately fed, sheltered from violence, and valued as members of some group. A century of two of free and compulsory public education, and you pick up a few things.
But only recently have I heard college and university campuses talking seriously about student issues like food security, mental health, and helping to meet expenses beyond tuition. I know that makes us late to what others consider obvious, but I take it as a good sign: we’re winning on the access side. Up until just a generation ago, the people who came to college included fewer of the ones who worry about these things.
Owning up to that is a critical step, before we can bring more of our students to the self-actualization we promise. I’m starting to think it’s prerequisite to raising our grad rates and closing our gaps. And the only way closer to our own best aspirations.
But is there also an educational opportunity here? That is, could we address those fundamental needs while improving learning for everyone, with wages for work-based learning at the college level, instead of just adding subsidized breakfast to lunch? Could we add peer-to-peer support and counseling to our emerging models of peer mentoring?
Worth thinking about. In other realms, the consolation for late adoption of a good idea is that you get to build on it.