What Can Millennials Teach Us about the University?

Perhaps more fragile and contested than ever before, the university today feels ...

Perhaps more fragile and contested than ever before, the university today feels overdetermined by our ideas of what it should or shouldn’t be. But if we put these aside, instead looking only at how universities interact with their own students—how they communicate with them, how they organize their lives, their value, and their learning, and what they charge them and why—a colder, truer picture of the university emerges. As studies of the millennial generation increasingly highlight, this reality of “student experience” has grave implications far beyond the academy, threatening our economy and society at large.

Let’s start with my own situation. At Johns Hopkins University, I train international MBA students from China—who make up an overwhelming majority of the business school’s student body—in writing and argumentation, ironically, in order to fund my own doctoral studies on critical pedagogy and global studies in and against the globalist university. Even in explicitly professionalized educational situations like these, trading personal credit for a piece of the university’s brand feels troubling—transparently and depressingly distant from the mythic meritocratic vision of higher education proffered by the baby boomer generation.

Perhaps looking for hope, a friend in her final undergraduate year once asked if my higher education research suggested any possibilities for a less degraded university: were postsecondary institutions still plastic and robust enough to abandon their current race to capture student markets and pad their endowments?1 (As with many of my students, JHU has ushered this student into the indebted class: an annual charge of over $70,000 in tuition and fees has transacted into $120,000 in student debt.) Of course, what could I say? Universities insure themselves: students can only be relieved of federal student loan debt in the event of a jubilee or death.

As a millennial myself as well as an education researcher, university worker, and student, I am preoccupied with the structural position and predicament of students in our contemporary social infrastructure. When I use the term “students,” I am not generally referring to the “college” archetype of 18- to 22-year-olds discovering adulthood at a four-year nonprofit university with leafy quads and pastoral care—a privileged experience that applies to less than one-third of undergraduates in the US.2

How can we be both against the extractive university and on the side of millennials and students?

Instead, most students are enrolled in a defunded public university, community college, for-profit college, or online university. They may also be part of the 25 percent of mature/nontraditional students, the 38 percent of part-time students, or the almost 25 percent with dependents;3 they may be part of the majority of students living with parents; or they may be experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, or reliance on sex work and mood-regulating and focus-enhancing pharmaceuticals to handle their workload. Over 40 percent of these students work at least 30 hours per week in addition to schoolwork (with 25 percent working full-time alongside full-time enrollment).4

Born between 1980 and 2000, the millennial student cohort is the first to bear the unique dishonor of being translated into “Basic Income Units” in university budgets. More economically beleaguered than “academically adrift,”5 millennial students or graduates make the university newly legible as the site of a mutually cynical transaction. To them, “access” to education is understood to grant merely an institutionally privileged version of our wider 21st-century compulsion toward entrepreneurialism: speculating on one’s own future value, hedging risk, and hustling toward more economic uncertainty and burden.

Ideals of democratization aside, this is how the university is experienced by most students. This orientation allows specific challenges to be framed in the space of the contemporary university: How can we—if “we” includes both millennials and the education workers with whom they are entangled—be both against the extractive university and on the side of millennials and students? What might it look like for our classroom pedagogies and public narratives of education work to be in greater solidarity with the conditions of students in the new economy?

Two recent books address these concerns and help us see what focusing on students can provide—and how ignoring them limits our understanding of these institutional worlds. These books appear at a time when criticism of the credential that higher education trades in resounds across the ideological spectrum. Despite this, the university continues to speculate upon its instrumentality, justifying record-high tuition and student debt rates by promoting innovation, educational technologies, and new job-readiness rationales that project a purportedly inclusive economic future.

The author of the first book, self-professed educational innovator Cathy Davidson, has diagnosed this aspect of credentialing as even more cynical: how can universities stake their value on training students for jobs that will soon cease to exist or don’t yet exist? In a promotional dialogue following the publication of her 2017 monograph, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University and Prepare Students for a World in Flux, Davidson explains how “it’s almost a kind of child abuse that we’re inflicting on young people now, and there’s not a university in the country that doesn’t know that they’re spending far more money now than they ever have before on their mental health facilities. I think we’re doing that to young people.”6

This abuse, she asserts, is a product of the technologies of standardization and credentialing that have consumed formal education’s conception of learning and knowledge at every level. Take grading, for example. First invented as an experiment in quality control in 1897 by Mount Holyoke, one of the first women’s colleges in the US, grading was then institutionalized by the American Meatpackers Association to indicate the quality of pieces of meat headed to market. Per Davidson’s account, meat inspectors worried about reducing something as complex and individual as meat quality to a single grade, so they insisted that written comments also be included. Educators, however, showed no reluctance in creating a system of standardized measurements for human intelligence, aptitude, and achievement from this source. Of course, we now see entire curricula “aligned” with performance metrics, in which students (and teachers) are prepared to navigate an upcoming standardized test and little else.


The Future of the Global University

By Carolyn Dever

As Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials outlines, students respond cannily to the logic of this system in which “grades, eventually, turn into money” by seeking the quickest route to the best grades or the maximal credential that ensures their debt will have been worthwhile. Beyond more immediate questions of a degree’s content or utility, their experience of abuse stems more deeply from this premise: higher education claims to be indispensable to a secure future, yet institutional membership for the majority of youth depends on their willingness to submit themselves to the extractive debt economy.

Harris’s book counters the caricature of today’s college graduates as “coddled” pre-adults who barely studied for their inflated grades and approach their “value propositions” to the job market with too much entitlement—a charge leveled especially at millennials as the generation currently or most recently enrolled in postsecondary education. The first study of its kind written by a millennial, Kids These Days provides a critical accounting of this generation’s developmental hustle through a structural and institutional lens, with extended attention to schooling and the managerial role of the university. In elaborating the harmful effects of institutional rationalization on millennials, the book functions as a political exhortation by clearing space for a revolutionary posture.

Also dedicated to millennials, The New Education stages an exhortation centered on institutional practice. Davidson reproaches outcome-driven teaching and the conditions it produces, while also showcasing experiments with student-centric, active learning that could transform educational institutions.7 Both books have already made a splash among their respective audiences, so why pair these disparate discussions here?8 Each author takes up the social situation of millennials to invite a reading of how institutions are managing a world of skills obsolescence, risk, unstable work, and debt. As fodder for understanding what to do within or how to relate to the university, both pedagogically and politically, perhaps the authors’ different critical orientations could be mobilized to generate an additional set of questions.

The New Education poses a more specific version of my question about reorienting classroom pedagogies toward the situation of today’s students. Rather than continuing to reproduce the priorities of status-conferring expertise held by the professoriat or the disciplines, how might acknowledging student needs and demands renew our understanding of what it means to learn? Informed by Davidson’s current work in the community college model as director of CUNY’s Futures Initiative, the central skill in her vision of cultivating student expertise is “to learn how to learn.”

This follows from the professional intervention staged in the book, which is a call to reckon with the abuses of a status quo in which “every structure and infrastructure of academe puts the institution at the center—not the students, not the professors.” This institutionalism, only amplified by privatization and commercialization, has produced a marketized posture towards students and, more interesting to me, from students, with effects expressed in the space of pedagogy and learning.

Unlike the open-access community college environment, which focuses on student growth from any starting position, the administration of learning at most institutions enacts the current professionalizing emphasis on competitive market-ready “skills.” Davidson argues that administrative performance metrics like grading presume a one-size-fits-all approach to pedagogy.9 They emphasize student failure against the standard, rather than student growth and success by the terms of their actual skill development and progressive experience. In this “banking” or “deficit” model, learning is conceived as a movement from an a priori lack of knowledge to mastery of given knowledge in a given format.


Ask the Kids

By Roberta R. Katz

Instead, The New Education proposes we dispense with credentialing and take as our goal the certification that “student needs are addressed from every perspective.” What might this look like? Davidson details an active learning curriculum of problem-solving, collaborative knowledge production, ahierarchical participation enabled by simple digital tools like Google Docs, and transdisciplinary learning toward original research, social reform, and “synthesis.” This way, students could build portfolios of projects and research production that communicate more of themselves than a transcript.

For millennials—“Generation Flux”—Davidson sees a new rationale for higher education that produces “world readiness”, not workplace readiness. This approach builds upon everyday foundational skills and digital literacies like “the ability to search and research—sorting, evaluating, verifying, analyzing, and synthesizing abundant information” and to apply research in one’s own community. While Davidson acknowledges higher education’s crises of marketization and defunding, her optimism flows from existing models, suggesting reforms that could redress the national divestment from youth and their human capital that is “robbing American society of its greatest asset: an educated younger generation prepared to tackle the problems of a turbulent future.”10

Kids These Days wants us to pose a different question: what exactly is the product of all this youth labor embodied by the logic of human capital? Where does it go? Harris’s diagnosis of millennials puts this “asset” of youth potential in context: a historical moment that has been distinctively shaped by the global capitalist obsession with growth, or “the growth of growth.”

For Harris, the millennial age cohort showcases the grievous effects of the human capital paradigm, which views people exclusively in terms of their capacity to contribute to ever-increasing productivity. In a system in which the measure of a life corresponds with one’s potential as a worker and young people are seen as investments, forms of social enclosure as disparate as debt, “helicopter parenting,” and mass incarceration have emerged. When “every child is a capital project,” childhood and university experience alike become defined by risk management and zero-tolerance discipline.

Those millennial children who did not comply with or invest in the standardized environments and norms of schooling have been disciplined out of access to human capital resources. This has been particularly true for brown and black youth—the primary casualties of a competitive system administered by whiteness and its institutional bigotries—as American institutions of incarceration have expanded contemporaneously with millennials’ development. Harris calls this institutional landscape “the youth control complex,” which aims to produce compliant subjects both in the classroom and outside of it through “dignity work,” or staying sane, out of jail, and eligible for success in free society.

How might acknowledging student needs and demands renew our understanding of what it means to learn?

Coupled with the reality of the false promise of human capital—“an en masse increase in ability within a competitive system doesn’t advantage all individuals”—this produces an environment of surveillance, anxiety, suspicion, and competitive individualism. Against the perception of a narcissistic, sensitive, lazy, and risk-averse youth culture, millennials are constantly attuned to the need to work on their ability to work, even through personal branding and social media use.

Harris shows how a human-capital upbringing has shaped a fearful and hypercompetitive cohort who has been disciplined into a kind of new Calvinist faith: “Everyone has to act as if they are saved, even though most are definitely damned.” The primary mechanism enabling this management of youth development is “the pedagogical mask,” a concept borrowed from child sociologist Jürgen Zinnecker, who argues that what is understood as “learning” is actually a form of child labor: “Learning is not understood as a type of work, whereby children contribute productively to the future social and economic development of the society. Only the adult work of teachers is emphasized as productive contribution to the development of human capital. The corresponding learning activities of pupils are thus defined, not as work but as a form of intellectual consumption.”11

Pedagogy, then, plays an ideological role in human capital growth, made familiar by parental refrains such as “Treat school like your job.” Universities are equally enabled by these refrains, for admissions offices act as their own ratings agencies that evaluate a childhood of human capital labor into a kid-bond for their own speculation and management.

Harris has written elsewhere: “You can’t set children up to compete to exploit or be exploited for the rest of their lives and promote the values of joy and comradeship and learning at the same time.”12 If we could agree that learning should create an occasion for students to develop their own agency, does it follow that enabling any student to “learn how to learn” is a good in itself, regardless of the wider ideological function of pedagogy in that setting? How might Davidson’s “world readiness” curriculum, for example, be informed by this critique of human capital as a pathologizing form of youth control? And how might it support those first-generation, minority, undocumented, and structurally disadvantaged student populations for whom “world readiness” means leverage against discrimination and diminished opportunities for their own security and flourishing?

One thing at least seems clear to me: millennials may have been better served by a pedagogy for navigating institutions without the pedagogical mask. This might begin with a recognition of the structural facts these students are already living: as of March 2018, federal student loans comprise 45 percent of total financial assets of the US government, and the timeline of this proportion’s dramatic increase corresponds to the period of millennial enrollment in higher education.13


Striking Resemblances

By Jonathan Basile

This new pedagogy could be reinforced by the most basic of feminisms—advocacy to address the student debt gender gap, as lower wages for women and femmes result in more adult years of economic precarity. It could be practiced through collectively framing student learning work as work and leveraging for less competitive and harmful working conditions—a kind of labor strike suggested by Harris in a recent op-ed.14 Davidson’s students are already laboring to redefine what a university education affords them, together developing course constitutions, institutional reparations frameworks, and their own metrics for resilience and risk.

Let’s begin where students are left—trading the institution’s abuse and paternalism for frank negotiation and realist critique—and see where the learning takes us. icon

  1. Of course, like their students and graduates in an increasingly stratified, privatized, and financialized society, universities too must compete or fail. Their credit ratings, prestige rankings, and corporate strategies do little to mask the centrality of the debt industry to educational services, overwriting the social urgencies of institutional worlds and their surroundings. While the increase in lifetime earnings that accrues to those with a college degree remains mostly stable, graduating students must embrace wage slavery to chase the degree’s return on investment. As cited in Kids These Days, even Moody’s has deemed US higher education a bad investment, first issuing a negative outlook rating for the system as a whole in 2013 to acknowledge that family resources are being maximally tapped by tuition fees.
  2. Ben Casselman, “Shut Up About Harvard,” FiveThirtyEight, March 30, 2016.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Gail O. Mellow, “The Biggest Misconception about Today’s College Students,” New York Times, August 28, 2017.
  5. Bryan Caplan, “The World Might Be Better Off without College for Everyone,” The Atlantic, January/February 2018; Scott Jaschik, “‘Academically Adrift,’Inside Higher Ed, January 18, 2011.
  6. Cathy Davidson, “How to Revolutionize the University” (public lecture, Duke University, Durham, NC, October 12, 2017).
  7. See also Cathy Davidson, “We Must Reverse the ‘Outcome Oriented’ Educational Monster We Have Unleashed,” The Guardian, January 5, 2018.
  8. To name a few highlights: The New Education as a manifesto for reinventing the university model’s relationship to the digital era, as well as its own political economy; and Kids These Days as an index of the moralizing produced by shifting generational norms and conditions as well as the “political generational gap” in the US and within the Left specifically.
  9. To be sure, these metrics are often tied to wider institutional metrics that governments evaluate for performance-based funding, currently in place in 35 US states, so they directly affect and are affected by the institution’s economic priorities. For more on the effects of this policy, see Paul Fain, “Critique of Performance-Based Funding,” Inside Higher Ed, May 25, 2016.
  10. There’s an echo of Amartya Sen here, whose definition of human capital as “the agency of human beings in augmenting production possibilities” is part of a twin logic with human capability: “the ability of human beings to lead lives they have reason to value and to enhance the substantive choices they have.” Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Knopf, 1999), p. 293.
  11. Jürgen Zinnecker, “Children in Young and Aging Societies: The Order of Generations and Models of Childhood in Comparative Perspective,” in Children at the Millennium: Where Have We Come From, Where Are We Going?, edited by Sandra L. Hofferth and Timothy J. Owens (Elsevier Science, 2001), p. 45.
  12. Malcolm Harris, “Reform School,New Inquiry, March 18, 2016.
  13. Jill Mislinski, “The Fed’s Financial Accounts: What Is Uncle Sam’s Largest Asset?Advisor Perspectives, June 22, 2018.
  14. Malcolm Harris, “Competition Is Ruining Childhood. The Kids Should Fight Back,” New York Times, November 6, 2017.
Featured image: Education (2007). Richard Lee / Flickr