the path to mediocrity is paved with best practices

[From 1992 to 2005 I was director of Brown University’s Howard R. Swearer Center for Public Service. As the Center prepares to mark its twenty-fifth anniversary, I am beginning to reflect upon the extraordinary opportunity I had to work with students and colleagues in considering the relationship between education, public problem-solving, social change, and leadership. Over the coming months I will be posting reflections and drafts in service to developing some longer writing on the pedagogy of social transformation. These entries are works in process and may change considerably as my ideas develop.]

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a college student, through a series of sensationalistic and self-serving stories, the national media stereotyped my generation as greedy and apathetic, concerned only with achieving six-figure salaries immediately after graduation. It wasn’t the first time a generation had been stereotyped to sell magazines. And it certainly wasn’t the last time that a disaffected American media market fell for a crass stereotype, perhaps as a kind of balm for their own sense on inadequacy. However, when that analysis proved false, and frankly the economic policies of the Reagan Revolution — which the elevation of greed served — failed to trickled down to anyone, least of all young people, the media backtracked, latching onto a bit of pseudo-sociology and promoting the counter-analysis of Generation X as a bunch of slackers and underachievers.

It’s a fallacy that we can characterize any generation through gross generalization, but characterizations like these affect people, especially the young, when they’re offered as authoritative analysis. Statements of this sort get internalized and integrated, becoming in the process expectations of a way of being.  If nothing else, these two, opposed views of my generation have become absurd goal posts between which I’ve been routed to live my life – complicit either in the false promise of unbridled Capitalism or a case study for the failure to work hard enough to reap the fruits of capitalism. In either case, my life and the lives of my generation have been constructed as instrumentalized resources within an economy, rather than understood as being centers of agency and self-determination.

As the media and national conversation were taking delight in problematizing my generation, many of my peers became profoundly interested in the idea of community service. My own initial attraction to community service came in reaction to the generations that immediately proceeded mine – and the unfulfilled promises, political hypocrisy, and enormous social problems that I perceived to be the legacy they were handing to me. I both wanted, rather desperately, to understand the social problems confronting me and to be part of a process of developing solutions. I found and find that work, the promise of that kind of problem solving, to be far more interesting and meaningful than the race to acquire wealth, the need to establish political power, or the desperation of trying to establish a sense of security that only can be, at best, ephemeral.

I was lucky. Although my college, Rhode Island School of Design, has never been able to articulate, embrace, or maintain a sense of public trust, obligation or mission beyond its institutional and individualistic self-interests, Brown University, RISD’s neighbor, was fortunate to have a visionary president, Howard Swearer. Over the course of his presidency, he became intent on connecting college education with public responsibility. Countering the media reports about my generation, then enrolled in his university, he framed a different argument – that college students were no less and no more greedy and apathetic than at anytime in his experience, but that American institutions had become profoundly more greedy and apathetic. As the leader of an American institution he took steps to make change. Notably, along with the presidents of Georgetown and Stanford, he established the Campus Compact, a national coalition focused on integrating public service into undergraduate education. At Brown, he worked to establish and endow a Center for Public Service – that, after his death, would be dedicated to his memory and become known as the Swearer Center. I was hired by the Swearer Center at the end of its second year of operation, the day before I graduated from Rhode Island School of Design, and served as its director from 1992 to 2005.  As I write this, the Center is preparing to celebrate twenty-five years of work.

I became the Swearer Center’s director at twenty-six, what now seems an impossibly young age. To this day, I’m not sure I understand the rationale of those who recommended my candidacy, but I would like to believe that it reflected a core value of the Center. In my own practice, and throughout my tenure as the Center’s director, I’ve articulated this value as a commitment to enact my belief that young people can do important work by encouraging and supporting their efforts.  Because of the faith and support extended toward me by advisors and mentors, I understand how transformational this inter-generational process can be.

What I’m suggesting through this value is not an anything goes approach to learning and social action.  Rather, it is a commitment to creating and holding spaces in which young people can imagine new and transformational social possibilities; build complex and trusting relationships; take genuine risks – both creatively and intellectually; and have access to the resources that enable thoughtful action. Critically, this commitment requires that advisors and mentors be present to the work being done and make efforts to prompt deep reflection whenever possible. Perhaps most importantly, for this to work, educators and advisors need to be prepared to reflect on their practice and be open to transformational learning in parallel to the learners with whom they’re working.

It was easy to make these commitments at twenty-six because my own learning was developmentally adjacent to the learning of the Center’s students. As I grew older, as all of the Center’s staff matured, it became harder to rely on such an alignment and, I believe, presented me with a profound challenge to develop new capacities as an educator. Specifically, it has required me to question the veracity of my knowledge and authority, not falling prey to the fallacy of best practices and replicability – which reflect a strange and critically unexplored assumption that an unsustainable and failing process of a floundering economy will work in a context for which they were never intended. Of course, the older I become, the harder it is to remain open and embrace, what Buddhists might call, a beginner’s mind. Yet, I remain convinced that we do not know yet how to address our most vexing social problems, because they remain vastly unsolved. Indeed, the ideology of best practices serves to reproduce the best guesses of the past, ignoring the possibility that creativity, disorienting new relationships, and intellectual risk are critical elements to finding a new path. To put this in pedagogical terms, such an approach calls on us to understand our value as being intrinsic, rather than determined by our ability to collect and recite knowledge. It requires us to understand that we have the ability to think critically and make meaning from the experiences we encounter. In such an approach we are called to understand that we have the capacity to do great things and that we are not somehow inferior to those who do great things.

This approach speaks to my training as an artist. While common sense tells us, perhaps too much, not to reinvent the wheel, young artists must learn that there is no wheel yet good enough. Young artists learn that any insistence upon using existing solutions is the path to mediocrity and banality. This is not true in other areas of our shared experience. In our public life, we increasingly seem all too eager to submit to the bullies who, like snake oil salesmen, sell us flat tire after flat tire. Unfortunately, these sellers are not only from the most regressive parts of the political spectrum; too often they are the people who presume leadership roles through their philanthropic, public, and educational authority. America’s institutions have become greedy and apathetic.

Must we reflect institutional values? Can we transform institutions to reflect our values?

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