WISR’s Mission and the “Bigger Picture”–Past, Present and Future
WISR was founded in 1975 by four educators, including WISR’s current President, Dr. John Bilorusky. In founding WISR, all were engaged in considerable inquiry, reflection and discussion–among themselves and others–about the state of American higher education, and its limitations. WISR was founded as a modest but very conscious and pointed attempt to provide a needed model for higher education–a model incorporating a few key ingredients, in combination with one another, and seldom found among existing academic institutions. Those key ingredients were: personalized, learner-centered education, multiculturalism in a multicultural learning community, a pervasive commitment to action-oriented inquiry, combining theory and practice and professional study that is mindful of personal growth and values, along with strong community-involvement, and a conscious and non-doctrinaire concern with social change and social justice.
In addition, WISR was founded with the mission that it could serve as both A Center and a Model for Experimentation in Higher Education. WISR’s founders realized that there were not many places in 1975 (nor are there today 40 years later) where faculty could come together with one another, and join with students, in trying out new, promising approaches to higher learning. Over the years, WISR has realized one portion of its mission—to provide a creative and supportive learning environment for faculty development and student learning—a place where faculty can come together, consciously experiment and collaborate in further developing their own skills in learner-centered, multicultural and socially responsible approaches to higher education. To a lesser extent has WISR yet achieved the visibility to be a model for others, but that remains a purpose and agenda for WISR’s future.
Over the past 40 years, WISR faculty have continued to inquire into, reflect on and discuss the state of American higher education and the bigger picture of the society in which we live, and their hopes for the future. WISR faculty have these discussions as a matter of everyday practice with one another, with WISR students and alumni, and with the WISR Board of Trustees.
Our efforts to experiment in the creation of a worthwhile alternative model for higher education have been especially mindful of the importance of improving professional education in fields related to education, counseling psychology, community services and leadership, while making this education also available to people with grassroots community involvements. In this pursuit, we have been willing to develop, try out and carefully evaluate distinctive methods, while also building on the best of long-standing traditions—such as the intensity of inquiry, mentoring, and collegial discourse in the Oxford model, as well as the practical professionalism of land grant colleges and the grassroots orientation of continuing education/community education movements.
The following discussion paper, written by WISR President, John Bilorusky, is a result of some of our latest thinking at WISR, and an outgrowth of our continuing reflection, inquiry and dialogue at WISR about WISR’s mission and role in American Higher Education today.
“Thinking about WISR’s Curriculum and Mission in relation to the “Bigger Picture” of American Higher Education and Today’s Society—Historically, and with Regard to Today’s Society and Professions, and to Hopes and Possibilities for the Future”
Article written by John Bilorusky, PhD, WISR President (April 2015) . . .
As a PhD student in the field of higher education in the late 60s and early 70s, I learned that very seldom are faculty, administrators, accreditation agency staff, or public policy-makers aware of the forces that have shaped, and continue to shape, the form and content of college curriculum. The renown historian of American higher education, Laurence Veysey, wrote in great detail and with thoroughly examined evidence how American higher education, from the 1700s to the mid-twentieth century, had come to be a sometime awkward combination of the themes of mental discipline, liberal culture, the ideal of the Land Grant College, and the German University. So, for example, our current structure of academic departments reflects, on the one hand, the tradition of the ideals of the Land Grant colleges, with practical areas of study and schools (e.g., business, agriculture, engineering, education, and computer science), and on the other hand, the academic departments aspiring to the research ideals of the German university (physics, biology, psychology, sociology, French literature, music theory). Certainly, there is some cross-fertilization among these departments, but the very structure of most curricula discourages the kind of wide-ranging and imaginative interdisciplinary collaboration that is characteristic of cutting-edge inquiry in the sciences today. For example, Richard Hazen in his book, Gen-e-sis, describes the realities of research today into the origins of life on earth as a series of inquiry without disciplinary boundaries, with astronomers, geologists, biologists, and others engage in studies, debate and collaboration that creates geo-astro-biologists—people whose inquiries are guided by the purposes, curiosities, passions and interests rather than by their original fields of study or allegiances to specific disciplines.
In other words, some of the most significant learning and inquiry happens outside of the boundaries of institutional structures within academia, and outside the conceptual frames of the courses offered by those institutions. Arguably, the most creative areas of study can be referred to (using a term once used by the State of California agency approving degree programs) as “non-traditional, emerging fields.” In this sense, WISR’s field of “higher education and social change” is such an area of study, as is our major in “Community Leadership and Justice.”
WISR faculty member, Dr. Torry Dickinson, has aptly noted that Higher education at the Western Institute for Social Research also builds on the democratic tradition of informal community education and research that was funded by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. The Cooperative Extension Service at land-grant universities, and at tribal colleges, supported communities that engaged in democratic discussions, research, program development, and social-change initiatives. The community-based internationally-renown educator Paulo Freire continued this tradition of participatory practice in the last half of the 20th century. Working with circles of learners, Freire helped to transform Brazil and the world with community-based democratic education. Later, he connected with organizations like the Highlander Folk School, which has facilitated democratic learning and social change since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Western Institute for Social Research is a credit-granting, degree-granting undergraduate and graduate school that utilizes individualized, collaborative and community-defined participatory research to prepare students for professional work and community engagement.
Furthermore, WISR provides one of a number of sustained critiques and reformulations of the relationships between what have come to be called disciplines. Through its and others’ sustained analysis of the academic limitations that come from the separation of disciplines, WISR has emerged at the forefront of interdisciplinary analysis as it relates to understanding 21st century professional education and social change, and to promoting community-based and global change. Learning at WISR addresses the limitations of generating and applying knowledge through specialized disciplines, conceptual divisions that are relatively new in human history, and are no more than 150 years old. In the past, knowledge was examined and developed as part of one integrated whole. The creation of the US university brought the institutionalization of separate academic specialties or departments. Influenced by colonialist ideas of the world, these micro-disciplines became grouped in three clusters which few scholarly organizations have successfully interrelated at the level of curriculum: the so-called humanities (including history), the social sciences, and the natural sciences. In the 1960s and 1970s, new holistic academic and community scholarship called for the creation of knowledge that came from all areas of inquiry. With the move toward the integration of what had been seen as disciplines, the latest wave of academic growth has brought interdisciplinary programs and schools like the Western Institute for Social Research.
The Western Institute for Social Research joins, follows and helps lead other interdisciplinary, and uni-disciplinary, scholars and academic organizations in promising endeavors to reunite the disciplines as part of a stronger, more rigorous and creative type of academic inquiry, especially as it relates to community-based and global social change. Related works of scholarship include Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of 19th Century Paradigms by Immanuel Wallerstein (2001) and Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences (1996). Both books call for the integrated development of knowledge from what has become known as the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences. At WISR, students learn how to do research and generate knowledge in an interdisciplinary or uni-disciplinary way, that is, in a unified way.
None of this is to deny the existence or importance of existing professions and fields of study. People can pursue interdisciplinary study outside the boundaries of these fields and still make contributions to these conventionally defined professions and disciplines. Just as the geo-astro-biologists alluded to by Richard Hazen, in his book, Gen-e-sis, may contribute to our understanding of geology, astronomy and/or biology, WISR students often contribute to such fields as community health, adult education, counseling psychology, social work and community services, and others. More commonly, the contributions of our students are aimed at specific, important problems and questions (parallel to Hazen’s guiding concern with learning about research problem of “what was involved in the origins of life on earth?”). WISR students may contribute to addressing such problems as that of foster youth aging out of the system, the predicament of cultures whose native language is at risk of becoming extinct, the unmet needs of people from disenfranchised communities for counseling or mental health services, how to nurture collaboration among somatic and verbal therapists both of whom are striving to find more effective approaches to trauma therapy, or how to empower and transform communities suffering the injustice of health disparities, to mention just a few very different and very important challenges.
One main point here is that academic curricula may be improved in they are guided by the learning of some basic, foundational “meta-competencies” that include and also transcend the more limited conventional definitions of mainstream professional competencies. This is similar to the well-acknowledged points made by Thomas S. Kuhn in his modern classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that science progresses when a new paradigm (or new theory embraced by the scientific community) is formulated to go beyond the limitations of the existing paradigm and its narrow-sighted assumptions about inquiry and knowledge, while still incorporating the valuable insights and ideas of the limited, conventional paradigm.
At WISR, we currently formulate these meta-competencies to include: capabilities to think, reason and imagine, to communicate well and in one’s own voice, to pursue thorough-going and highly inquisitive action-oriented research, to develop skills of leadership that are mindful of the immediate problems and the “bigger picture,” to have an awareness of the multicultural, as well as ecological and sustainable, implications and perspectives needed for effective and just actions, and to be self-directing learners able to envision and build bridges to endeavors that may create a better future rather than unthinkingly conforming to existing options.
Such a curriculum will have some structure and some required content—aimed partly to nurture the development of these meta-competencies and aimed partly to engage students in studying the content and methods relevant to their broad areas of interest and their more particular, chosen professional interests and specializations. This curriculum will be informed to some extent by the historical themes noted by Lawrence Veysey, but because WISR’s curriculum is looking to create a better future, a better tomorrow, it will not neatly conform to the content of existing professions and disciplines, anymore than the current study of the origins of life on earth conforms to the curricula of specific departments of biology, astronomy and geology.
WISR will draw on knowledge from existing fields and professions, but will also educate students to go beyond the boundaries of those fields—in ways not unlike Thomas Kuhn’s (see his book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) analysis of how scientific revolutions involve asking questions, studying problems and looking for data not acknowledged or legitimized by the practitioners of “normal science.” And, as a necessary part of this process of study, WISR faculty will mentor and guide students to see, and pursue, their potential as people who can share instructive stories and write important ideas in their own voice, as builders of knowledge, and as creators of innovative action and programs for a new tomorrow.
Before concluding with a few important observations about higher learning today in the US, I would like to reiterate briefly some of the valuable insights of that especially important book on the history of American higher education that I read as a graduate student: The Emergence of the American University by Laurence Veysey.
Veysey suggests that higher education (at least in the middle of the 20th century) in the US was a (sometimes, or even often, awkward) amalgam of four themes:
The theme of “mental discipline” (the rigid learning by rote found in many private, fundamentalist, church-affiliated colleges).
The theme of “liberal culture” (the liberal arts tradition of many elite private colleges that embraced enlightenment philosophy of the 17th/18th century)
The theme of “utilitarianism” as embodied in the Land Grant colleges.
The theme of research and development of knowledge is specialized fields of study as embodied in the German university of the 19th century industrial revolution.
I suppose if we were to update Veysey’s work we have to say something about the emphasis on technology and information systems of the post-industrial society and certification for employment in the so-called “meritocracy” of the late 20th century and the 21st century. This emphasis is seen in many colleges and universities, but especially in for-profit online universities that enroll large masses of students.
Each of Veysey’s four themes had some valuable qualities as well as some significant problems, especially when practiced or implemented to an extreme. Mental discipline is not a completely bad thing, but taken to any extreme and without a concern for “meaning” (as emphasized sometimes in enlightened study in the liberal arts, in practical pursuits or in the development of new knowledge) it’s pretty hollow. Liberal culture can lead to expanding one’s horizons and the profoundly valuable learning using the humanities and arts to become more fully “human,” as alluded to by those who today note the over-emphasis on narrow career education, but it also can be elitist or just “for show” and hollow, as well. Utilitarianism can be a very good thing–but practiced without a sense of meaning, without a sense of developing new knowledge or the personal meaning sometimes discovered through the liberal arts/culture–it can be narrow. Indeed, utilitarianism, as embodied in the mid-nineteenth century Morrill Act that created the by the Land Grant colleges, can even be damaging–just as the practical use of technology can destroy the environment, or the practical use of social work strategies can sometimes disempower the people supposedly served. The development of new knowledge can be a good thing, but the specialization that was functional for a while, at least during a portion of the industrial revolution, has shown itself to be especially limiting when it thwarts interdisciplinary study and insights into the bigger picture of the topics under study–whether we are inquiring about the origins of life on earth, the origins of the universe, global warming, or the causes of violence in our society. None of these important topics are best understood using the organizational arrangements of today’s academic institutions, e.g., the traditional department structure of universities) who are still, in many ways, mimicking the 19th century German university.
Certainly, the emphasis on technology and on the knowledge industry of the post-industrial era is an important topic not to be ignored, and one that can result in powerful impact for better, or for worse, in the society–but again, without an awareness of the MEANING AND “BIGGER PICTURE” implications of the new information technology and the widening income disparities in our society, there is a tendency to worship the new information technology as though it is a new religion–not unlike the way in which the industrial era put “old school” science and technology on a pedestal, resulting in critiques in books like C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures.
This over-emphasis on certification for employment uses colleges and universities to legitimize the false and misleading ideology that our society is based on a fair-minded, level-playing field meritocracy rather than a runaway controlling, oligarchy. Certification is not at all about “education”–it uses the guise of education to suggest that the certification awarded by “educational” institutions leads to a fair and rational basis for awarding financial benefits to the 99+% in the society. “Education” that prepares people to assume jobs, even high-paying jobs, without preparing them to lead critically-minded, inquisitive lives as active citizens, leads to a class of disempowered, poorly informed, disposable indentured servants, many of whom are drowning in student loan debt. This is not just a problem for the individuals seeking education, career development and employment, it becomes a problem for all of us.
Arguably, the most competent professionals are those who are also leading happy and personally fulfilling lives. Unhappy, overworked, disengaged, alienated people do not perform their work responsibilities as well those who find meaning, both in their jobs and outside of their work. Furthermore, unhappy, disengaged people are often less engaged in their civic responsibilities, or they make the decisions as citizens that all of us are prone to make when we are desperately looking for a way out of our predicament.
Of Veysey’s four themes, “liberal culture” is the theme least co-opted and least corrupted by the more recent themes of information technology and certification. However, the cheerleaders for these more recent trends focusing on technology and certification sometimes attempt to discredit, or at least disregard, the value of “liberal culture.” Returning to an emphasis on liberal culture, primarily, is not a viable option, either. All too seldom does someone step forward and remind us that certification and slavish, uncritical devotion to information technology has little to do with truly practical problem-solving, or truly insightful development of new knowledge, and indeed, they often don’t even require the mental discipline advocated by the most zealous early religious teachers. However, they do give the illusion of being practical, disciplined, and concerned with “new” knowledge, and so they have formed convenient partnerships with those who are most committed to those three of the four themes noted by Veysey.
The recent writing of Henry Giroux provides some excellent insights into the predicaments in which we find ourselves—in our society and in the unfulfilled potential of American education to contribute to individual and social transformation. Giroux notes: “This is evident not only in the rejection of science, evidence and reason as the foundation of an informed community, but also in the embrace of fundamentalist positions that pander to ignorance as a basis for shutting down dissent, mobilizing supporters and retooling American education as a business, a training site to initiate the young into a world where the corporate, financial and military elite decide their needs, desires and future.” [The New Extremism and Politics of Distraction in the Age of Austerity, Tuesday, 22 January 2013 10:32 By Henry A Giroux, Truthout | Op-Ed ] He goes on to say: “At stake here is not merely a call for reform, but a revolutionary ideal that enables people to hold power, participate in the process of governing and create genuine publics capable of translating private troubles and issues into public problems. . . . In this case, it is not enough to demand that people be provided with the right to participate in the experience of governing, but also educated in every aspect of what it means to live in a democracy. At the very least, this suggests an education that enables a working knowledge of citizen-based skills and the development of those capacities that encourage individuals to be self-reflective, develop a passion for public values and be willing to develop and defend those public spaces that lift ideas into the worldly space of the public realm. . . .”
As we at WISR continue to refine and improve our curriculum based on 40 years’ experience in helping students to develop themselves further for creative and productive practice as socially responsible professionals, WISR’s curriculum can build on the best aspects of the themes found in the history of American higher education. In addition, we must also be visionary in ways that support WISR’s mission of the past 40 years, and in ways that provide hope that a creative synthesis can be achieved among themes, if they are practiced critically and judicially, with balance and wisdom.
At WISR, we are committed to engaging in learning processes with our students that will enable them to become effective, expert professionals, and who are effective as professionals because they are also engaged citizens and community leaders, able to live personally meaningful and fulfilling lives. This means developing professionals who have a vision for both using the knowledge of their professions, while also going beyond the limitations and blind spots of their professions, to work for a better tomorrow for everyone.