Educational Maladies

I was born into it. At first, it was the view of higher education as the daughter of a businessman. My father spent his career in higher education administration. I grew up around community colleges and later small, private colleges. I have been everything from the basketball team mascot to a student, to a campus SGA leader, to an alumna, to a staff person, and to an adjunct faculty member.

I know the lure of the collegiate life. There is something that stirs inside of students with the vigor that comes in living on campus, hanging out with sororities and fraternities, and being a leader on campus. It certainly gave me a leadership voice that I do not think I would have found otherwise—at least not in the world in which I grew.

There is the ‘pomp and circumstance’ that frames a student’s entry into and exit out of the collegiate life. Occasionally, there is the beauty of an education that is sandwiched in the middle. There is the joy of finding the thing that one is good at doing (usually after two or three tries at other majors.) There is the excitement of landing a job.

We look back on our collegiate careers with nostalgic emotions. “Those were the good ol’ days,” we reflect. The reality of day to day life breaks through the memories.

Siddhartha Mukherjee has written a book entitled The Emperor of All Maladies. His book discusses how we need to rethink medicine. He has a TED talk about this, as well. Part of his premise is that in medicine we have a “Going Down Model” by which we currently operate. It says, “Oh, you have a disease (he uses pneumonia as an example.) We will cure it by targeting the bacterium and we will kill it with an antibiotic.” Disease—target—kill. This is the methodology. Rather, violent wouldn’t you say? Also, rather ignorant of systemic connections.

Mukherjee goes on to say that we need a new model—“The Building Up Model.” He says that this model asks three questions:

  • “What is the environment that the organism lives in?”

  • “What is the cellular or physiological environment?”

  • “What are the connections between cells that sustain normal physiological interactions in life?” (Mukherjee, 2015).

If we stop to examine the history of higher education in broad strokes, we witness the delivery of an apprenticeship model of the Platonic style. Students soaked in the knowledge under one teacher. They learned to think critically and to build on the teacher’s lessons with new concepts of their own as did Aristotle.

In the early days of American higher education students who attended the university were those who came from elite families. They had the luxury of studying great philosophers and of becoming them. But, along the trajectory of higher education, our national values changed. We began to believe that everyone had a right to education. There is certainly no harm in that shift in values. The harm or the birthing of educational disease, if you will, came when we failed to change our mechanisms in the classroom to support the shifting values. We continued to teach as elitists to a population that no longer spoke or thought from elitism. Thus, the middle and working classes have for decades been attempting to learn in ways that are foreign to them. Do you see the disease?

The educational disease became apparent to us but much like Mukherjee’s “Going Down Model,” we decided to target the problem. We created new divisions and programs within institutions to try to offer services to help students succeed. Sure that helped. Sort of. Retention of these students became a problem so we did research and hired retention specialists who soon figured out that there was no magic bullet for retention solutions. Thus, we would keep trying to kill the problem with varied solutions. This generated a dart-throwing technique that yielded random questions: Maybe we need to be more specific about recruitment? Maybe we need to create bridge programs to equip the lowest performing students with the skills they need? Such solutions have abounded. In the end, we have “Band-aids” all over the educational body and the disease persists. We are left graduating students who do not have the critical thinking skills, the writing skills, nor the oral communication skills to change the world and yet we expect them to do just that. It is no wonder they are anxiety-ridden and addicted to the escapism of social media. Employers are equally disillusioned when they hire these students because they have to do on-the-job training that they didn’t expect upon hiring . . .. This means a loss of productivity for companies and it increases the expense of hiring. The saddest part is that most collegiate presidents across the nation remain asleep to the fact that their graduates are ill-prepared.

Higher education professionals have drunk their own “Kool-aid.” They are so drunken over it that they cannot see how far past time it is that we engage Mukherjee’s “Building Up Model.” We have to ask similar questions about higher education:

  • What is the environment in which these students live? Most of them come to private colleges with dreams for a better future. They are willing to pay the enormous price tags because they have faith that a degree will change their lives. This is the bill of goods that we have sold them and ourselves. The truth is that many students constitute the first generation of college students in their families. They come from economically depressed communities. They come from homes where the family is struggling to survive in one way or another (financially, socially, emotionally, or even spiritually.) Many land their degrees and return home to live with their parents. That was certainly not the intended vision.

  • What is the make-up of the student? We look for certain standards. How did they do on the SAT/ACT? What was their weighted and unweighted grade point average? Did they play sports? We look for a persona that they created rather than looking to find out who they actually are.

  • What are the connections that exist between who they are, what they dream for their futures, the needs of the communities in which they reside, and the capacity of the institution to provide for their educational needs?We ask them what their dreams are in the sense of what majors they desire. We ask them what they want to be when they grow up. (How are they supposed to know this at 18? I wanted to be an actress or a minister and am now on my third career that happens to be in higher education!) We hear them regurgitate what their parents want them to be so that they can leave the down-trodden communities in which they reside and we watch them struggle academically in directions that do not feed their souls.

Mukherjee’s point is that we must go from a killing of disease mentality to a growing of therapeutic means. The same is true in higher education. We need to change the environment in higher education so that institutions can focus on what matters—equipping students to live toward their higher callings, teaching them in meaningful ways, and working to make sure they have the skill sets to engage their employers on day one.

If higher education is going to survive, it must relinquish its comfort with going down and start the challenging effort of building up. Our world will be a different place if only educational leadership will choose to be so brave.


Mukherjee, S. (2015). Soon we’ll cure diseases with a cell, not a pill [Video file]. Retrieved from

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