Thursday, June 18, 2009

What if we talked about restoration instead of transformation?

While I'm raising questions about common HE phrases, let me wonder a bit about the use of "transformation." There is no mystery about why "transformation" is a regular part of HE-speak right now. Everyone recognizes that we are in a period of substantial, accelerated change. "Transformation" is a way of describing that change, and expressing the hopes of higher education. Somehow our classes lead to "transformative learning." Or our campuses undergo transformations. Or we build partnerships that transform communities. Or students have transformative experiences--study abroad, service-learning, etc.

I wonder, though, if the tendency to talk about transformation points HE in particular directions, or perhaps masks the fact that we are failing to point in particular directions. What, for example, does transformation mean? Its usage includes two meanings: rapid, large change; and change from one state to another. So, a campus that transforms itself looks quite different than it did before. And a student who has a transformative experience is fundamentally different from who she was before. But to what end? On the question of ends, transformation is silent (though it sometimes has a liberationist tendency, i.e. "I shed my naivete once I was exposed to ________ and now I know I was wrong about _______")

How would HE be different if instead of seeking transformative change we sought restorative change? A couple of ideas:
1. a key task of change would be to re-assemble some sort of whole--unity among the disciplines, or in the experience of students, or healthy ecosystems of learning, or relationships between campus and community,

2. we would assume that students bring with them lots of skills/talents/interests that we can help them meet, rather than weaknesses that need to be fixed,

3. education would be based in a particular view of human nature--that people are at their core decent, and that one of the tasks of education is to defend and restore that decency,

4. that the main task of a community (be it a campus, a class, or a student group) would be to create the conditions (the ecosystem) in which people and relationships can be restored, and

5. ethical questions rather than those about scale or pace would be the central questions for the organization.

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