Universities and the centrality of place

Many are drawn to colleges and universities as students and faculty out of devotion to educational and research opportunities that are unique to higher learning. But beyond our given reasons for pursuing the work itself, many of us simply enjoy being in academic settings.

These sentiments are easily betrayed when academicians write about universities and place. For example:

Importance of place

In a 1997 essay, University of Virginia sociologist Krishan Kumar reflected on the “importance of place” in higher learning:

Universities are breathing spaces in life’s course.  They enable their members, young and old, to do things and to reflect on things for which the rest of their lives they will have neither the time nor the opportunity.  This is best done communally, residentially, rather than in the isolation of privatized households.

Sacred spaces

New York University president John Sexton has spoken often of universities in a spiritual sense, describing them as “modern sanctuaries, the sacred spaces sustaining and enhancing scholarship, creativity and learning” (link here):

I use the word sanctuary here not to signal detachment from the world, for our universities increasingly are in and of their surroundings; rather I use the term to signal both the specialness of what our great universities do, and the fragility of the environment in which it is done.

Schools as places

Valparaiso University art history and humanities professor Gretchen Buggeln starts her essay on campus architecture (link here) by confessing: “One reason that I am a professor is that I love schools as places, places filled with history and tradition, but also with constant newness and energy.” She ultimately concludes:

The spaces on our campuses, when working as they should, provide places to dwell in community. But for most of the people who share these spaces with us, their stay is temporary. Our mission is not to turn inward. We are called to look outward, to lead and serve, and to prepare our students to do the same.

Enamored of a university place

Many years ago, famed economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about the day he received notification of his acceptance to a doctoral program at UC-Berkeley and the years that followed:

From that day on the University of California has engaged my affection as no other institution – educational, public or pecuniary – with which I have ever been associated.

One Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1968, with my wife and oldest son . . . I strolled across the California campus – over Strawberry Creek, by the Campanile, down by the Library, out Sather Gate. . . . I was suddenly overwhelmed by the thought that I loved this place – the paths, trees, flowers, buildings, even the new ones.  I was deeply embarrassed.

Is this sense of place a luxury for the privileged?

These soggy references are very much a part of the “going off to college” narrative that has been an essential piece of the post-World War Two, middle-class American dream. As a tail-end Baby Boomer and educator, it resonates very strongly with me.

But especially with the skyrocketing cost of higher education and the struggling economy, such aspirations have become increasingly unrealistic for many.  Earning a degree in the current economic climate may involve a combination of community college courses, night classes, and online instruction. Sandwiched between jobs and other obligations, there’s not much opportunity to think big thoughts or experience campus life at Dear Old U.

I’ve experienced many facets of the higher education world. I’m a law professor at Suffolk University, a conventional commuter school in downtown Boston. I have degrees from traditional, brick-and-mortar universities (Valparaiso U and NYU Law), and I’ve done graduate work at two non-traditional schools that offer distance learning programs (SUNY/Empire State College and the Western Institute for Social Research).

So yes, based on that experience, I definitely can say that the full-time, immersive model of higher education makes it easier to define that sense of place.

Carving out space

But it shouldn’t be impossible in other learning environments. For those of us who work in or attend universities that are not built around that more cloistered, full-time model of higher education, the challenge must be to create a sense of place on a short-term basis and to make those experiences meaningful ones.

For example, at SUNY’s Empire State College, where I studied labor and public policy in a distance learning program, three-day graduate residencies book-ended the beginning and end of each semester. Several times a year, faculty and students gathered at these residencies, held in different parts of New York State, to learn collaboratively before we dispersed to complete our assignments and projects.

Very soon I’ll be spending an extended weekend at the Western Institute for Social Research, participating in an annual all-school academic conference that will include learners from around the world. These gatherings are distinctive, bringing together stories and insights from people drawn from many different walks of life who are devoted to the study and practice of social change.

I agree with Krishan Kumar: Universities are, or at least should be, “breathing spaces in life’s course.” We must strive to provide such experiences to all students, not just those fortunate to immerse themselves in full-time, residential programs.

-David Yamada

Comments (1)

charlie scottAugust 21st, 2011 at 8:32 pm

this is the best one yet . it is so true and to the point of its place in the human race.

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