Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Paracosm of Higher Education

David Brooks may not be everyone's favorite op-ed columnist, especially when he takes on higher education, but this week he's writing about the tremendous power of the particular. He speaks to politicians wishing to be everyman - or every voter's man - and makes the claim that it doesn't work.  Look to the particular, even if it means losing a few votes. At least the ones who relate to the choices you make will be there for you.

Brooks talks about the pull of paracosms. I had to look it up, and found it's "a fantasy world invented by children; can have a definite geography and language and history; fairyland, fantasy world, phantasy." Brooks plays with the definition in talking about the New Jersey that Bruce Springstein created in his music. A world now more real to us fans than anything we'd recognize as the "real" New Jersey.

People love their paracosms, whether they be Hogwarts or Thunder Road. My colleagues in higher education, they love the lovely, mythical, magical place we invented and share in our minds and conversations. The quiet, reflective, slow, thoughtful places where a few, privileged students sit at the feet of the wise and tweedy and listen in rapture. I love that paracosm. I'm old enough to remember that place. I believe it still exists, not just in our minds, but at places like Harvard and even at University of Washington Seattle, where the wealthy and very smart are educated.

If you're not wealthy or very smart, you may cling to the paracosm but you can't live there. It's a fantasy. The reality is much duller, tougher, more expensive (from your perspective and income bracket) and not very flexible to your work schedule. But, and here's the crux of this post, even if we can't live in a fantasy world, we CAN shape the real world to be a place where we are happy and our needs are met. It would just mean that the reality of our learners come closer to matching the desperately held paracosm held in the minds and hearts of higher education. 
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