Podcast Transcript: The Real Purpose of American College

Professor and game designer Ian Bogost explains to Mortarboard host Daniel Barwick that worries about the fate of higher ed are misguided, because prominent critics mistake college’s secondary purpose, education, for its primary one, collegiate life.

Ian Bogost

Dan: My guest today is Dr. Ian Bogost, an author and award-winning game designer. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he also holds appointments in the School of Architecture and the Scheller College of Business. Bogost is also a founding partner at Persuasive Games, LLC, an independent game studio, and a contributing editor at the The Atlantic. He received his bachelor’s in philosophy and comparative literature from the University of Southern California, a master’s in comparative literature and a doctorate in comparative literature, both from UCLA. He is the author or co-author of 10 books and the co-editor of the Platform Studies book series at MIT press and the Object Lessons book and essay series published by the Atlantic and Bloomsbury. You can follow him on Twitter @ibogost. Ian, thanks for joining me today.

Ian: Thanks so much for having me.

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Dan: In your recent Atlantic article, which I enjoyed thoroughly, “America Will Sacrifice Anything for the College Experience,” you offered a grim assessment of higher education’s response to the pandemic, starting right from the point at which the industry became aware of the disease. What did higher education get wrong?

Ian: Well, almost everything. And, you know, it’s the kind of thing that we should have been prepared for, but weren’t. So first everyone got sent home, sometimes without really any preparation or planning; we had students essentially get evicted from dorms and campus housing, some of whom had had nowhere else to go; there was a kind of panic to get everyone off-campus. And then almost immediately after that happened in the spring, many campuses went virtual; parents, students, and of course faculty and staff realized: wow, how do we do this? We’re not necessarily prepared to offer not just classes, but the whole kind of campus life experience from a distance. And so everyone scrambled to get on Zoom or whatever and do what they could. And then quickly after that, families realized, wait a minute, is this what we are paying for? Is this what we thought we were getting from college? There were lawsuits that erupted, and then administrators started scrambling to find a way to get things back to normal for fall, fearing financial catastrophe, or trying to boost their yield on admissions and enrollments. And then it was kind of a mad rush to get everyone back in the fall, which only led to more outbreaks, of course, when August and September did roll around. Almost immediately, at many of the campuses that brought many students back (some didn’t), all the responses that we saw to the pandemic in higher ed were reactive, and they were drawn from the sense of stability that had been present in the sector for a hundred years or more, despite everything that you hear about the rising costs and the increased pressures in higher education as a sector. And as I sit here today speaking with you, many campuses, including my own at Georgia Tech, have reasonably managed outbreaks on campus in spite of it all. But now we’re seeing new spikes in infections and hospitalizations. So that dream of moving into the spring and perhaps returning to normal, let alone the summer or next fall, we just don’t know what to expect. Really, the piece I wrote is all about how those local reactions and those responses to events that were happening on the ground can really only be understood in the context of the long history of higher education in America. And so in response to your question, what did higher education get wrong, it’s easy to say, well, we got everything wrong, which is what I’m saying, but also that we were set up for that circumstance. And so it’s a little more difficult to point to any single reason or rationale that the campuses, parents, students, had used, whether it’s parties or whether it’s an attempt to get freshmen enrollments up, or what have you. It was really much more complicated than that.

Dan: In the article, which by the way, the subtitle is “The pandemic has revealed that higher education was never about education,” you identify a culprit beyond higher education itself, which is ordinary Americans, both students and their families. Can you go into that in a little detail for us?

Ian: You know, I think one of one of the things that I noticed as I was watching colleges and universities decide what to do and then respond in the fall to the pandemic is that you kind of had two general categories of response. One was this administrator-centric one, where college presidents or college administrators were insistent either on shutting down because they had the financial wherewithal and the reputations to do so, for example, at schools like Harvard they’ve brought in new freshmen for this fall, and then they’re bringing back graduating seniors for the spring and everything is online and everyone else is at home. A school like Harvard can get away with that because it’s Harvard and people will pay for it no matter what. Whereas others, in North Carolina, Alabama, University of Georgia, many state schools, although not exclusively state schools, also some smaller schools felt, “we have to get the campus back to normal, but we really need to do it, because otherwise we can’t afford to keep the lights on,” especially at tuition-driven institutions. And some of those, also at state institutions primarily, were fueled by local political pressure, certainly in Georgia, where I live. That was the case where we had a White House-friendly governor and legislature and Board of Regents that wanted to preserve a sense of normalcy, so it was exerting pressure from the top down on university presidents to return things to normal. So that that’s some examples of one category of rationale in which we have this sort of elite power brokers, many of whom are making a lot of money doing jobs poorly. And that’s the reason why we ended up with these big outbreaks on campus.

The other version, the other side of that story, was typically about students. You know, we tried everything. We set up testing regimes. We made dorms a single occupancy with all of the kinds of techniques that were used to try to reduce the risk. And then the kids came back, and they just started partying anyway, going into bars in the center of towns in Ann Arbor and what have you, they feel like they’re invincible, they’re young. They don’t understand. They’re at less risk than older people, including many faculty and staff. And so it’s really on the heads of the foolish college students. That’s an oversimplification, but those are this sort of dyad, these two groups that were typically blamed. And you know, it was always going to be a kind of caricature of what really takes place when you have a complex socio-political circumstance, like a pandemic, which interfaces with all sorts of other matters. But as I was researching and thinking about the ultimate cause, rather than the proximate cause, of these concerns, it came down not just to parents and families and students, but to a kind of wholesale American ethos of collegiate life and what it means and how important it is to our society and our culture, even if we don’t realize that much of the time. If you think about it, the driving force of upward mobility of middle and upper-middle-class life and aspiration in America is structured around college. It’s structured around college because that is a path to financial comfort through a better attainment of education and jobs and thereby the increased salaries that those provide. But it’s also a window and an avenue to access to the upper echelons, or at least the higher echelons, of American society. And that actually goes back a very long time in the early 20th century, after we had not just early private institutions and, and, and not secular institutions, but also the first round of land-grant institutions, normal schools, and so on. You have a lot of colleges already by the turn of the 20th century and very few people are attending school per capita, but there’s still this emergence of this kind of fantasy: this dream of the college man and Joe College, Betty Co-ed, these sorts of archetypes for the American spirit and its potential as it would be realized through youth becoming transformed into adulthood. It was almost like a lifestyle, like an aspirational lifestyle. One of the ways I think about it is that when you buy a 4×4 truck or something and you think, “I’m going to be an outdoors person. I’m gonna go on trails and off-roading,” and then you just drive to Target.

Dan: I think that’s exactly how that marketing works, yeah. [Laughs]

Ian: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, exactly. You see this today, of course, in the brochures that get sent out to students, with the beautiful grassy quad in autumn with the leaves falling. And so there’s this kind of dream of a lifestyle that college represents, and that includes sports, and that includes Greek life, that includes this kind of debauchery associated with an almost coming-of-age experience and all of that stuff, that whole of the sort of social and cultural meaning of college we were using when we talking about it in the context of the pandemic, we were using classrooms and classes and education as a proxy for, and it’s not the first time we’ve done that, of course. And we can talk more about this, but in that moment, when what seemed like the real business, the center of education, started to move online, and it felt incomplete. You saw many folks talking about how like, “Oh, this is Zoom.” This is like “a glorified Skype,” a student at the University of Wisconsin call it. Like, this is not what I was in for. But actually, and I think about this as an educator too, it’s not as though students were ever desperate to be in the classroom, primarily. We generally don’t tend to have students centering their specific classroom experiences as the entirety of their day or their week or their year or their college career, you know? And so it should be obvious in retrospect that what students thought they were getting from college, and even what they aspired to get, if they never went, that sort of like fantasy of the idea of college and what it does in American culture, that was very much separate from the, the business of day-to-day life. And all of that had been put on hold. It had to be because it was unsafe to do. So that revelation – college not being about education – it’s not necessarily even a slight or a criticism. It’s just a recognition that this is something somewhat uniquely American that we had bought into without really seeing it; you know, it’s ideologized in the way that things are when they become so central to our lives that we can’t even see them. And so when you strip all that away, when it breaks down and suddenly you can’t do any of that, including dreaming about doing it – I had a graduating high school senior this year, and we were thinking about what would come next for a long time before that, and had to switch gears and change plans, and many, many, many other Americans were in a similar situation. Then even those that that weren’t, or couldn’t be, locked out of a college and its dreams and its aspirations on economic grounds or because of access and all of the sorts of you know, issues of representation that we feel even then there was a disruption of this access point, right? This sort of bottleneck that would insert them into a supposedly better life. It doesn’t even matter if that life would really be better. It’s rather about the dream or the aspiration toward it. That’s just such a long-standing circumstance and fantasy in America, that it’s not going to be changed overnight, even if we wanted to, and we can debate whether we want to or not, but we didn’t even realize that it was the case. I think that unless you go and you become a scholar of the history of higher education, and even then, it’s not immediately clear because there’s so many different types of schools and different kinds of educational experiences in America as compared to other nations.

Dan: When you talk about how our structure is uniquely American, it reminds me that nestled in the article is a fascinating bit of historical context. You say that the American conception of college is an aberration, because it’s modeled after an aberration: the model we stole from England, which, unlike the rest of the world, isolated their universities from their communities and created the concept of the school quadrangle that literally contains collegiate life “separated from the outside,” you say, “but connected within.” Can you tell us about that historical context?

Ian: In the West, the university as an institution was more or less invented in the middle ages. And at that time, a university would have been a draw into a city or town, and obviously a city or town was smaller in size and population at that point. So in Milan, in Paris, in most of continental Europe, in Prague, when you see institutions open from about the 11th through the 15th century they become draws into population centers. They’re also much more incorporated into the local environment. Part of that just has to do with the pre-emergence and then entrenchment of modernist urbanism in continental Europe, as compared to America, in which we have this sort of sprawl. In East Asia, in South Asia, and other parts of the world, it’s a little different, but again, kind of focusing on the West and the development of the Western university, that’s one distinction that one has to make. The exception in the middle ages was in England. Oxford and Cambridge, which remain preeminent institutions globally, were not in the center of town; they were off in the bucolic pastoral countryside. In that context, the structure of the institution was not, and did not become, interwoven with the urban environment. Even today, you go to Sorbonne, you go to the University of Copenhagen, you go to Prague, you go to these medieval universities that have persisted, and they’re deeply entwined and integrated with the urban fabric. Oxford and Cambridge are sort of islands – whole towns unto themselves, and architecturally that idea of the quadrangle, the quad, where you these sort of Gothic – and then in America, the Gothic revival architecture meant to sort of harken back to a medieval experience that America never had, of course – but the enclosure of the quad inside this safe castle-like wall in which not just in the individual scholars, but the idea of scholarship is protected in a symbolic way, where students and faculty live and work together as a lifestyle, rather than just an effort that is a part of their day and a part of their encounters with the rest of the world. All of that is this sort of Oxbridge model. There’s other parts of Cambridge and Oxford there that are complicated and that America didn’t borrow but attempted to draw from, including the structure of colleges at Oxford where these very, very isolated divided small-scale schools were run by the faculty. That actually became adopted and altered for more administrative control in the States. But when Harvard gets founded in in the 17th century, it is literally looking toward the Oxbridge model as a pattern – you have Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is established around that idea. You have the quad that’s almost immediately developed and the idea of buildings that are separated from one another in physical space, where there’s a whole kind of community of the campus that’s erected. That idea of this residential college, that is, a kind of a community unto itself, becomes the model, or at least the fantasy, the aspiration, for every college and university in America that gets founded subsequently.

There’s a second factor here though, which is not present in Europe, even in England, which is the massive physical expanse of the North American continent. Not only do we have this sort of attempt to recreate the Oxbridge structure in small and large schools, including in state schools and in land-grant schools when those come along, but also we have massive amounts of space, differentiated politically into States and local communities. And so it became a kind of, almost like, I’ve sometimes called it a “grift,” which may be unfair. But when these smaller schools got founded in America, they weren’t necessarily done for educational reasons alone – by having a local college in your budding community in Alabama, in Kentucky, in Virginia, you had a an opportunity to draw settlers. Many of these schools functioned more like secondary schools as well, not like colleges. And so there was the opportunity for education. There was a desire to connect them to local churches and to provide an entrenchment of whatever local kind of sectarian interests were in the community. That’s why there’s so many American colleges have this history with you know, Methodists or other sort of Protestant sects. That development of American colleges, which is very complicated and took place over many centuries, is just something we haven’t seen anywhere else in the world, including in Canada, which is still has a relatively small number of colleges, many still installed in the centers of big cities in Montreal, Toronto, and in Vancouver. That makes American college life different and uniquely American. As I was receiving responses from readers to the article, a lot of folks who either lived abroad or who were who originally from other parts of the world, were commenting like, “yeah, it’s always been so confusing to me how American college works and this obsession with it in the sports and the Greek life and all this stuff that we have in Europe. ‘Cause we just go to school and it’s just like a job. It’s like a thing you do, and it’s a part of your life, but it’s not the whole of it.” You know, I think that really speaks to the distinction.

Dan: That context is, is just fascinating. And it makes me wonder, I’m going to try to figure out how to phrase this question just right, you’ve given this context that suggests a certain rationale for what actually happened, that it was almost inevitable. In fact, you, you wrote in the article that prominent critics, and I’m going to quote you here, “mistake college’s secondary purpose, education, for its primary one, collegiate life.” And I’m thinking to myself, although the article certainly hands out a lot of criticism to different areas, I’m wondering if in the end we might conclude that there isn’t as much blame to go around because it’s what would inevitably happen in this long-developed context.

Ian: Right? Yeah, I think that’s essentially right, like this is what we should have expected. And the fact that it was a surprise means that Americans, including parents, students, college faculty, administrators, everyone didn’t, and maybe still don’t, fully understand the role of college, especially of this sort of fantasy of a four-year residential college experience, which of course not everyone gets the opportunity to partake of for all sorts of reasons. I just didn’t realize how central that was to our national identity. And there are a couple ways of interpreting that that disconnect. One is that we have been wrong in some way and need to right that wrong. And you know, a lot of folks see this as especially educators; they see this as an ill that demands remedy. Why are we wasting all of this money on rock climbing walls and on sushi bars and on college sports and division one football and all of the stuff that, that does not contribute to the educational experience…

Dan: People often mention the lazy rivers to me… [laughs]

Ian: [Laughs] The lazy rivers, right. We’re building these resorts where then it just ratchets up the competition between elite schools and increases the price even further. And they’re right about all this. It’s true at some level, but it’s also wrong because that’s what we want – football is an amazing and fascinating example because it’s so polarizing. One of the things about Division One – it’s really football, I mean, basketball to some extent, but really Division One football in America – which of course they really were scrambling to get back to, is that it does provide a local and state identity to people, including those who would never have the opportunity of attending a school. I think it’s 1960 when the Dallas Cowboys franchise is established, there were no NFL teams south of St. Louis. So you have the whole Sunbelt region of America that’s obsessed with football, more than many others than in which that local pride and identity of a college team – Alabama and Georgia, all throughout Texas – was facilitated by college ball. And so you can’t just sort of strip that away and say, you were wrong to want to have a local or state identity around competition in the same way that we’ve managed to do in the Northeast by virtue of the fact that we’re the center of certain kinds of commerce and population, and therefore developed that separately in pro teams.

Dan: Just to take that sort of point a step further, if you’re correct about the primary purpose of higher education, which is not the education itself, wouldn’t that suggest that, if people knew that, if this were widely understood, the response would have been utterly completely different. What’s going through my mind right now is I’m thinking about the cruise ship industry, in which people take for granted that the purpose of it is simply for people to go and have an experience. And of course there was no question that that industry was going to have to stop entirely for the time being. You can picture a scenario in which they would think the same way about higher education.

Ian: I think that might be right. It’s hard to speculate about how things might’ve been different, but we had this sort of very well-developed national understanding that college had many purposes. Education is, of course, one of them, and it’s an important one. Credentialing is one of them. Networking and building social station for good and for ill, that’s also one of them. But the whole context of it is like having an experience, the college experience, the “college way” it’s sometimes called. And so if we had that sort of holistic view of matters, then I wonder if not only would it have altered the response to the pandemic and the sort of public demand. Parents and students were immediately, “Oh, we got to go back. And what are we paying for? You’re charging us all this tuition at a school that’s online.” They didn’t realize no, we’re paying for this sort of holistic thing, and maybe we’re paying too much, and maybe there’s all sorts of problems outside of that experience to solve. But if we’d had that understanding then, not only do I think that the sort of political machinations around the negotiation of these responses, especially at public institutions, would have been different, but also maybe the whole way that we negotiate and manage and fund and deal with higher ed would also have been different. So I think that blame can be spread around a perfectly equally.

I’m a university faculty member and my general impression of my colleagues, not necessarily just at Georgia Tech but all over, is that we don’t tend to think that much about student life. There are whole parts of college campuses that most faculty never visit and have never visited and don’t think about at all. That disconnect is something that may be needed to be remedied years and years ago, and still could be in order to not just adjust for the next pandemic, God help us, but also to better advocate for and manage the complex social role that colleges and universities provide, which extends and as always extended well beyond education. And I do want to say something here about community colleges commuter schools, other kinds – most students still attend “traditional” colleges – have a very large number of students. Maybe it’s up to 35% that of higher ed students who are attending community colleges, who are attending commuter schools, really just for classes, and our investment in those institutions also needs to be better. In order to do so, they need to be understood, not as like second citizens all, or you’re just going to community college, how quaint, you couldn’t afford to get in. That sort of idea also has to be disrupted, and we need to help individuals at all ages and all different backgrounds find the right paths for them in order to achieve the goals that they desire, while also acknowledging that the elite institutions – and really, I mean, in some ways, all four-year residential institutions can be construed that way – have to do more to service and respond to the general population. So it is a kind of holistic, almost like a wicked problem, that we were able to see only because the pandemic forced us to. XXX

Dan: Your reference to the future allows me to segue into my final question. Ian, one of your main points is obviously that the primary purpose of higher education is this college experience. Assuming you’re right, is selling something so ephemeral, for such a high cost, is that a sustainable business model? You offer a list of disruptive historical events, like World Wars and the Spanish flu, which higher education has survived. But college was much less expensive then. With the cost of college consistently outpacing inflation, won’t the number of people willing or able to pay for an expensive college experience diminish?

Ian: It’s interesting, and I’ve thought about this a lot. In a way, we had previously invested more public money in higher education, especially in the mid 20th century, coming off of the establishment of land grant institutions and the two Morrill land grant acts. And also, the GI bill allowed a certain kind of student to attend school for the first time after World War II, and then a large-scale investment in public education really through the 1960s and a little bit beyond, before cutbacks and clampdowns that began largely in the Reagan era although had the stage set for them before then. It’s common to look back on that period, the 1960s, perhaps as a symbol of when college was affordable. You hear people talk about this: “I used to be able to work a minimum wage job in the summer and afford a year of school on that on that income. That was a desirable moment. How can we return to it?” So in a way, public funding, sufficient public funding, sustainable public funding of higher ed, also created this problem by helping more and more people enter college for the college experience and also for the education, which then became its legacy. And then, you know, “Oh, I want my kid to go to the same school that I did,” or “I want them to have a better opportunity or to, you know, join my fraternity or sorority,” all of that stuff. All of the kind of alumni drivers, sports fandom, all of the things that have been present in this, in this college experience as a lifestyle, those became amplified by that investment.

So I think that’s the first thing that’s really important to understand, is when we did invest more in higher education, we also set the stage to some extent for the problem that we now face. That said, it’s clear that college is extremely expensive – it’s way too expensive, and not just at the upper tiers, but even for state schools. When I went to the University of California as a graduate student, I just paid fees and it was a few thousand dollars a year. And the last I checked, it was maybe five times that unaffordable. I don’t think I would have gone and done my PhD. I wouldn’t have bothered. I would’ve just gone to work because it was so much money. So that problem does need to be fixed. I think the point I would make about fixing it is that you can’t do it just on the back of the degree or the education.

There has to be an acknowledgment that what we’re investing in when we make those public investments, or when we find ways of forgiving debt, or doing other things of making college more affordable, it has to be for the whole enchilada. Or we have to somehow totally change, turn 180 degrees, on what it’s meant to perceive and conceptualize a college life in America. And I think that latter goal is, is unrealistic and maybe even undesirable. It’s not just as simple as well, you know, fire all the vice provosts and get rid of the football, and increase taxes so that then you can spend it on hiring more faculty to deliver an educational experience. Maybe some of that doesn’t need to happen. And maybe we needed to reduce this arms race between schools in which they were spending more and more and more money in order to increase their numbers, to drive rankings that help them compete even more. Certainly there needs to be a resolution to that conflict, but I don’t think it means ending or abandoning this dream or even this fantasy of the college experience. It’s almost unthinkable to me, and it would involve such a massive change of ideals in America that it might not even be desirable.

Dan: My guest has been Dr. Ian Bogost, an author and award-winning game designer. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. You can follow him on Twitter @ibogost. Ian, thanks so much for talking with us today. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. It’s been fascinating to me, and I’m sure it has been for our audience as well.

Ian: Thanks again.