The Student: A Short History

Image of The Student: A Short History
Release Date: 
September 12, 2023
Yale University Press
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“Roth poses the provocative question, ‘when exactly are students supposed to think for themselves . . .?’ Of course, that’s an open question.”

The category of student is a historically situated, socio-cultural construction. Michael Roth provides a concise chronicling of the transformation of that category and the institutions within which it has resided. This arc starts in the European medieval period and runs through the present day.

To begin, the concept of student with an exploration of diverse and archetypal forms of learning: Confucius (learn to live in a social harmony that honors ancestors and tradition by following a master); Socrates (self-awareness, curiosity, and critique are foundational to personal freedom); Jesus (devotion, piety, and followership in the formation of a community of believers who undergo an intellectual transformation or rebirth).

Enter two key figures that help shape analysis and discussion. The first is Emmanuel Kant and his idea that the student’s pursuit is an enlightenment that breaks past the constraints of immaturity (i.e., adherence to a shallow conformity to tradition). For Ralph Waldo Emerson, not only was the goal intellectual liberation, but also a way of living that demanded resistance to entrenched and often unquestioned norms.

Discussion, then, turns to a consideration of the evolutionary transformation of child to apprentice to student. In the medieval period (and much later to be sure), the category of dependent child was short lived, and then they got to work. Trades were learned through apprenticeship. The apprentice-student experience is at once material, practical, and social. Not only do they learn a set of skills, but they do so embedded in a web of craftspeople, as well as clients.

What we would today identify as a student first emerged in the 12th century around loose networks of scholars associated with monasteries and church schools. It was only in the 1400s that there were actual universities, albeit religiously focused.

Yet it is not until the late 1700s that we see the first glimmer of something approximating a modern student in pursuit of their own understanding of the world rather than purely through the distilled lens of an authority figure. Coinciding with this turn, universities also take on a new role; that of research in pursuit of knowledge production. The relationship between teaching and research, along with pedagogy and curriculum differed across European countries where the goal was the formation of independent thinkers. In America, by contrast, student autonomy was constrained thus allowing students to remain in a state of arrested intellectual development.

Roth poses the provocative question, “when exactly are students supposed to think for themselves . . .?” Of course, that’s an open question.

That question, however, was put under a stress test in the 1960s and 1970s when American campuses become a microcosm of the deep political, social, economic, cultural divides in the country. Roth notes that while campus culture may have been roiling, faculty remained underwhelmed by students’ aptitude for independent thought.

Roth, then, addresses what he sees as the foundation for independent thinking; namely the ability to read and write well. Both are reflections of a student’s cognitive skills. The inability to write well suggests muddled and disorganized thinking. Good reading and writing also require an expansive grasp of language. If students have not read extensively, their vocabulary suffers. They will find it hard to clearly articulate their thoughts, analyses, and interpretations of the world around them. Roth is, thus, a major champion of what are often pejoratively referred to as “soft skills.” That pejorative moniker reflects a growing anti-intellectualism that has been brewing in America for some time.

Starting in the early 1980s, American universities began to transform and corporatize in what might be termed the neoliberal turn. The neoliberal university emphasizes narrow technical mastery over broad, global mastery. It embraces vocationally oriented disciplines over those that deeply explore the human condition. Out with the humanities and social sciences and in with business and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). This turn to the narrow and technical has gone a long way toward crushing intellectual curiosity.

Of course, all this was happening against a much broader cultural shift away from higher education as a public, civic good to one that is a private good for personal advancement. Rather than mounting a critical analysis of the history of this neoliberal turn and its profound implications for learning and knowledge production, Roth settles into a kind of nostalgia for a type of ideal student of bygone years (if ever such existed).

Roth closes with a consideration of how a student should pair themselves with the right higher education institution that will help them fluoresce as students—achieving intellectual autonomy. This breaks down to three principles according to Roth. The first is to discover your intellectual passion. The second is to increase your skills in your chosen field. The third is to learn how to share those learned skills with others. This is very high-minded, indeed.

This ending feels hollow, unfortunately, for it does not capture the reality and complex dynamics faced by the vast majority of students in America’s colleges and universities.

What are those institutions? They are largely underfunded, underendowed community colleges and regional comprehensive public institutions. There the full weight of the neoliberal wrecking ball is revealed. They are adrift in a sea of political and economic volatility. Even West Virginia University (WVU is the state’s flagship public university) is poised to make deep programmatic cuts in the humanities. Thus, even large research universities can find themselves underfunded and underendowed, which makes them vulnerable to declining state funding. Further exacerbating the situation is a decline in high school graduates. Simply put, there are fewer high school graduates in the pipeline. Even the WVU’s of the world are not immune to the ravages of the current political economy of higher education.

Who are those students? They are often underprepared and lack any model of or language for their higher educational experience. If they do manage to graduate (approximately one third do not) they will do so with considerable debt.

This is a far cry from the elite private intellectual environment in which Roth has been socialized as a student and later as a professional educator and administrator. His ending is, perhaps, a good one for students in elite private institutions. It does not, however, provide much of a roadmap for the vast majority of students struggling to get by.