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History of the Future

February 1, 2022 Alan Acosta University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School

JCC Connexions, Vol. 8, No. 1, February 2022 

Fostering Moral Development: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

In Fall 2021, I was given the opportunity to teach the history of higher education to second year master’s students in the Salem State University Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) program. When offered, I jumped at the chance. Teaching has been an interest of mine, particularly with higher education graduate students, for a long time, as I firmly believe the future of the higher education industry depends on our ability to attract, recruit, train, and teach bright young talent, particularly from historically marginalized and underrepresented populations.

Higher Education in the Context of the Larger Society

While it would have been a privilege to teach these students any topic, I was particularly thrilled it was a history course. I am a big fan of history and have been throughout my life. I am a believer in the age-old maxim “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” In fact, one of my life bucket list items is to read one biography of every U.S. president (I am doing fairly bad with this goal, as I have only read seven, however, there is a stack on my bookshelf needing my attention). I think reading about the presidents also gives good insight into what was happening in American society at any given point in time, and in doing so, it provides me a backdrop for how the higher education profession evolved within the context of the larger society. The history of higher education in the U.S. is often a reflection, good or bad, of society at large. I feel, and I shared with my students, it is really difficult as people to know where you are, where you are going, or why things are the way they are without knowing how we got here. My sense is that I will enjoy continually resituating my thinking and understanding about higher education and U.S. society the more I learn about each’s respective historical arc.

I get why some people do not like history, particularly if presented in a way which does not highlight its value. Too often in U.S. public education, history is presented as a bunch of dry, rote, disconnected set of facts and figures students are required to memorize (which they often do not). It often comes across as irrelevant or impractical. I made a commitment to my students we would not learn about higher education’s history that way at all. To me, and many great scholars, history is, first and foremost, a story. A story of us. A story of our successes and failures. A story of our risks and bravery. A story with elements and moments of which we should be proud. A story with an equal number (and sometimes greater) of examples of which we should feel horror, embarrassment, and anger which we use to motivate us to make the future better. Higher education’s history story is no different, and that is the approach I took when teaching this class.

A Moral Obligation

Do not get me wrong, I was very nervous. First, I had to convince myself I knew enough about higher education’s history so I could teach it to these students. Fortunately, as I delved into the readings I sought out, I quickly realized I knew and remembered much more than I realized, which served me well. I also identified gaps in my own knowledge, which I was able to use not just in the classroom, but at work as well. I also made an internal resolution to teach the students higher education’s history from the point of view from marginalized populations, particularly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). I felt a moral obligation to ensure these voices were not just discussed but highlighted. While I will never know for sure if I hit the mark, I feel like I gave it my best effort. And I do take some measure of solace (and, honestly, disappointment) that many of my White students shared that our course was the first time they had learned about the brutal nature of slavery and its connection to society and the literal and figurative building of the higher education industry. My goal was to provide the students as holistic a learning experience as I could on the academic ride.

To their credit, the students went on that journey with me, even the ones who shared at the start of the semester they were not big fans of history. They engaged in class. They worked hard on their assignments. They shared not just what they were learning, but why what they were learning was important, and what they planned to do with that learning in their future or current careers. Idealistically, my hope was to connect students not solely to the past or even to the course materials, but to make what on the surface might seem like an abstract, amorphous collection of information and turn it into knowledge which informs their current and future practice. And reading their assignments, I feel like many of them did.

From the Past to the Future

The final assignment was for them to identify a relevant issue in the higher education profession, track its evolution through history, and then use that information to project what might happen with that issue in the future. I was so impressed with what they identified, discussed, and dreamed about: campus policing, LGBTQ+ centers, students with eating disorders, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions, the use of adjunct instructors, and legacy admissions were just a few of the topics they tackled. They did exceptional work. I felt proud knowing these students, like so many of our young and emerging professionals, are being so thoughtful and insightful about our business.

It was an honor for me to in any way contribute to the knowledge of the 19 students I got to learn with and from over the course of the semester. I know many higher education professionals facilitate formal and informal learning experiences in and out of classrooms every day, and while we do have our struggles, many of our students are just as engaged, excited, and enthusiastic about learning and making a difference in the future as my students were. If we approach our jobs with the same passion as them, then our future is bright.