The Audacity of Student Innovation


We arrive on the college scene thinking what we experience today is much like it has been for a long, long time. The past is forgotten, as are the origins of life in an academic community. Those of us who serve as faculty and administrators often assume the apparatus of governance has always been on the leading edge of change, creating a future for our campuses that is orderly, well-defined and carefully managed through process. It’s a nice idea, but not a reflection of reality.

Frederick Rudolph, in his book The American College and University: A History (1962) describes a very different pathway. By the mid-19th century, the classical curriculum was slowly evolving to include math, science and modern languages. This was an important accomplishment for reformers. Decades of effort eventually liberated the curriculum to address the needs and interests of a changing society. However, student learning and experience was still primarily limited to classroom recitation and memorization. History teaches us that students had a very different idea in mind.

Rudolph describes this period as a “battlefield.” The rigid design of the curriculum in the classics and strict moral discipline came into conflict with a growing student desire for the intellectual, social and physical. He writes,

When the students were finished they had planted beside the curriculum an extracurriculum of such dimensions that in time there would develop generations of college students who would not see the curriculum for the extracurriculum; who would not believe that the American college had any purpose other than those that could best be served by the vast array of machinery, organizations, and institutions known as student activities. To what had been a curriculum in the 1820’s was added a vital extracurriculum by the 1870’s. (p. 137)

Debating societies grew from student interest in the political dynamics at that time, and the desire to engage in intellectual discourse and exercise rhetorical skills. Literary societies rooted in Enlightenment philosophy celebrated reason and encouraged a broader exploration of the expanding body of knowledge. Literary magazines were established to publish writings and speeches of notable individuals in society. Libraries were developed by student literary societies that often exceeded the collections held by the colleges with more expansive subject matter. Students marked the occasion of their graduation by inviting a prominent speaker to the campus for a public address. The development of residential life and Greek-letter societies were instituted by students over the objections of college officials. Students initiated a program of intercollegiate athletics without the aid of administrators. In fact, repeated attempts were made to eliminate football due to cost and injury, including a threat by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to abolish the game by executive order if the situation was not improved.

The long list of innovations originally developed by students in the 19th century is now common, even routine in our institutions of higher learning today. Yet, the passage of time causes us to forget how all this began. And since that time, subsequent generations of students have shaped or reshaped the landscape of higher education as well. Most notably, the 1960’s ushered in a period of great change. Access to higher education expanded dramatically and societal shifts yielded growing student demand for broader cultural studies and an expansion of the canon of literature that remains controversial to this day. Throughout these periods of change, the give-and-take of interaction (sometimes conflict) among students, faculty and administration has yielded innovations that have stood the test of time, even as other ideas have fallen by the wayside.

So what’s next in this journey? What do you students have in mind now? Here are a few of my observations.

You seem to prefer working in teams. Many of us in the faculty and administration come from generations in which individual achievement defined success. This is a big change for us. Yet I think we can all agree the challenges we face as a nation and society are so complex that collective wisdom may indeed be superior to individual authority. I admire your intellectual humility. I think you understand human knowledge far exceeds your capacity to fully comprehend all that is happening around you. Your instinct is to seek the advice and counsel of others as intermediaries, and link together in partnership. Peer-to-peer interaction really matters to you.

What role should team learning play in our academic community?

You customize everything you touch. Your world is flexible and can be adapted to meet your needs and interests. You may have noticed I often ask you the question, “What are you studying?” I purposely avoid the question of “major.” The answers you give are interesting because you typically describe different disciplines you are combining to serve your particular agenda for learning and experience. The boundaries of the standard disciplines seem to have less meaning for you as you create your own interdisciplinary world and explore a widening array of interests.

How will our understanding of traditional academic disciplines evolve?

You care about more than your own success. I have been surprised by the number of you who are engaging in volunteer service, service learning and ministry. I think this is more than just résumé padding to advance your career. Some of you are considering time after graduation in service through the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, VISTA or City Year. Others are looking for opportunities in urban or international ministry. Some are looking to teach for at least a period of time in our primary and secondary schools. My sense is these experiences may not define your ultimate career path, but will provide an experience of service that is a reflection of the values you possess.

Is a culture of service expanding on our campus?

Pulling the threads of change in the midst of the process seems almost impossible, but I think there are strands all around us.

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5 responses to “The Audacity of Student Innovation”

  1. '10 Graduate says:

    What correct observations about the needs and expectations from current (and recent) students.

    I think that a service-minded student will be a successful student. As a teacher, I spend my entire day helping others. I do much less of my art and much more shoe tying and grammar correcting. I know that because of my experience at Central, I am finding joy in my career.

    To better the experience, Central needs to look at the faculty they have influencing the students. The faculty from the service learning center are helpful, encouraging, and understand the busy lives of students. They have realistic, yet challenging, expectations. A few other influences around campus leave the program slightly deflated, and I hope Central recognizes those individuals.

    The group mind-set is key, thank you for pointing that out. I am better prepared for my current situation than most of my colleagues because of the encouraged groups at Central.

  2. Adam S. says:

    Dear Mark,
    I found your blog through the _Chronicle_, and I’m so encouraged by the thoughtfulness with which you write. I am a graduate of Buena Vista University, and am now an adjunct-contingent faculty member in the Twin Cities area whose interactions with academic administrators have been almost exclusively defined by corporate-style top-down management coupled with the constant threat of lost benefits and lower pay. In my many experiences with administrators, this is the first time I have ever seen one even consider the fact that innovation could be a bottom-up process. What a breath of fresh air.

  3. retired faculty member from Central says:

    These are interesting insights, and they remind me that research participation with students (in small groups, or individually) were apparently among the most influential contacts in teaching that I experienced at Central for nearly half a century. While this may not speak directly to the group mind-set in some cases, in others it is evident and powerful.

  4. Carol Davis says:

    How interesting! I have had the feeling, and have been told by my friends who are now college professors around the country, that students have sort of devolved over the last decade. It seems that college is almost like a trade school in their minds — just another step they have to go through to get the job they want. Some say they are in greater need of spoon-feeding and only want to learn what they need for the next exam.

    After almost two decades of working to instill a desire for learning in my oldest daughter, I find that she and her college friends often focus on what’s going to get them into med school rather than what’s going to be interesting or what’s going to give them more of a sense of their world.

    At the same time, they are all proactive in volunteer activities, not for personal gain but because it is just something we should all do.

    Perhaps I expect a far more global attitude than most eighteen year olds can have; perhaps Central just has a different quality of students than other places. Maybe my time at Central created those interests and attitudes!

  5. retired faculty member from Central says:

    A thoughtful idea and one that has the support of many teachers at many levels. I’ve often thought that it could be beneficial to all concerned if there were to be a “draft” of all college graduates for a service period of about two years, not only for our military, but in all of our areas of service to society. The concept of a “Peace Corps-like” period of service at a nominal level of compensation has an appeal that might be very helpful as one enters “adulthood.”