Higher ed lessons for early childhood

This short essay is excerpted from our regular newsletter, Capita Ideas. You can subscribe here.

Graduation season is upon us and so I have been thinking quite a lot about higher education. Too many of us are burdened by debt, costs of college attendance are soaring, and, frankly, I am unsure the educations we have received are worth what we paid for them and the years of loan payments that resulted. In a recent letter “to an aspiring intellectual” my former professor and Duke University theologian Paul J. Griffiths distinguishes between the life of the academic professionalized by the higher education industry and the life of the mind, the intellectual life:

You shouldn’t, however, assume that this means you must follow the usual routes into professional academia: undergraduate degree, graduate degrees, a faculty position, tenure. That’s a possibility, but if you follow it, you should take care to keep your eyes on the prize, which in this case is an intellectual life. The university will, if you let it, distract you from that by professionalizing you, which is to say, by offering you a series of rewards not for being an intellectual, but for being an academic, which is not at all the same thing. What you want is time and space to think, the skills and knowledge to think well, and interlocutors to think with.

Paul’s implication, of course, is that the time and space to think well and the people to think well with are not necessarily found in the modern university.

Earlier this spring during March Madness the Equality of Opportunity Project at Stanford University published an NCAA bracket for income mobility ranking schools based on their records of helping their students achieve the American Dream of intergenerational mobility. In the income mobility tournament, UCLA won the national championship while Villanova would have fallen out in the first round.

If the modern university is neither hospitable to the life of the mind nor consistently helping students achieve the American Dream while saddling them with an average monthly student loan payment of $393 then what’s the university all about?

The university- like the state and so many other institutions formerly thought to have a public, non-economic mission- now largely is an adjunct of the market and serves the market’s aims. In prior ages, the university and other public institutions (even private universities had a public mission, broadly understood) had a role that was principally social and cultural rather than economic. However, today it seems that the university merely is in the business of producing consumers and producers. This insight is not mine, but it does prompt me to ask what this development in higher education (and in K-12 education) might mean for the world in which I spend the better time of my work — early childhood education and care — and what forms of education might sustain the meaningful formation and education of children and young people in the future.

The work of early childhood education and care does not neatly and nearly serve market interests. At its heart it is still the work of caregiving. As Timothy Reichert and Francis X. Maier put it recently in First Things, caregiving in the earliest years is “the origami of the soul.” Children are shaped, folded like delicate origami cranes, by their earliest experiences. The folds are carefully made by parents and caregivers who exert a lasting influence over the child’s education, well-being, personality, and identity by acts of caregiving and their habitual orientation to the child’s flourishing.

The unencumbered market does not value this patient work of caregiving. We see this in the low-wages of child care workers and in the resistance to generous family leave policies. But we also see it in more subtle ways: the preferences of parents for resume building after-school activities meant to attract positive attention from college guidance counselors rather than soul shaping participation in scouting or unstructured outdoor play.

We also see this at work in our politics in ways that are relevant to childhood. As Reichert and Maier further argue, the “great political project of the modern era has been to clear away the impediments to ever more expansive market activity.” Among other things, this means that we are left seeking to justify public support for investments in children, families, and caregiving according to the logic of the market. We do not argue that investments in caregiving are good for their own sake, but we are left instead arguing that this or that early childhood program exhibits such a positive ROI that failing to invest is just plain stupid. Why is it though that we think the job of the state is simply to sponsor the growth of the market by investing in programs and policies that exhibit a positive ROI? Is it not the duty of the state “to promote the general welfare” which is not the same thing as to clear away whatever doesn’t serve the expansion of the market?

The arguments we make are practical. I get that. But I do think, that for those of us who have positioned ourselves as advocates for children, some resistance to the dominant streams of thought in our culture is warranted. Let’s stand up for being rather than consuming, for “skill in making” rather than “skill in doing”, for knowledge that enhances the life of communities and drives the upward mobility of the individual, for the formation of good, fully developed human beings rather than just “career preparation.” In short, let’s stand up for the general welfare by standing up for children and childhoods that are not measured only by ROI.

Linda Smith of the Bipartisan Policy Center has written recently about the reopened debate in early childhood education about degrees for early childhood educators. She raises the important point that we cannot reasonably expect young teachers to take on big debt loads from a college education while working for measly pay once they are in the classroom. Advocates for better caregiving in early childhood classrooms should perhaps figure out different and innovative ways to train the next generation of teachers without shuttling them into a higher education framework that neither values caregiving nor provides a sufficiently affordable credential commiserate with the pay expected upon graduation. And, let’s all work to put education for flourishing at the heart of the university and the school.