Revisiting “First Survival University” Via Keith Melville’s Book on the “Fielding Model”
By Four Arrows
I think it’s important to spend a few minutes pondering what happened on November 8, a date that might turn out to be one of the most important in human history, depending on how we react. (The new administration) is dedicated to racing as rapidly as possible toward the destruction of organized human life. There is no historical precedent for such a stand.
—Noam Chomsky (from an interview with C.J. Polychroniou entitled “Trump in the Whitehouse”)
On June 16, 2015, Truthout published a piece entitled “The First Survival University?” It was about the effort of the president of Fielding Graduate University (FGU) to create a vision and mission for its new school of leadership studies that would orient all coursework to specific social/ecological justice, diversity and ecological sustainability topics in recognition of the serious threats to human surviving and thriving. As Chomsky’s quote above indicates, such education is especially important in light of the incoming Trump administration. This plus the recent publication of Melville’s book about the history of FGU’s founding vision offer a timely and perhaps persuasive opportunity for revisiting the Truthout article’s hopeful premise.
The proposed curriculum the FGU president offered focused on students and faculty working toward creative and well-studied solutions to four of what the president’s team considered to be the most important challenges facing the world today. These included:
- The growing gap between the rich and poor and other related inequities
- Climate change issues
- Increasing scarcity of natural resources
- Racial, religious and political conflict and violence
The specificity of such a vision was a courageous approach that might indeed have made FGU the first university to truly focus doctoral education on human survival. However the question mark in the title of the essay conveyed the understanding of the article’s author that there would be pushback that might prevent university wide acceptance of the vision. In fact shortly after publication, the faculty tabled it, suggesting a significantly watered down option that no longer focused exclusively on the four survival issues nor even exclusively on justice and sustainability. Eventually, however, a worthy, if still less concrete, vision did emerge. The FGU website now boasts a vision that states “We are an innovative global community dedicated to educating scholars, leaders, and practitioners in pursuit of a more just and sustainable world.” The mission aligns as it should with the vision and reads:
We provide exemplary interdisciplinary programs within a distributed and relational learning model grounded in student-driven inquiry and leading to enhanced knowledge. This community of scholar-practitioners addresses personal, organizational, societal, ecological, and global concerns in pursuit of a more just and sustainable world (FGU website).
Whether or not this vision and mission actually leads to FGU pursuing a more just and sustainable world still remains to be seen. However, my read of Melville’s new book, A Passion for Adult Learning: How the Fielding Model is Transforming Doctoral Education, offers some hope that FGU can still achieve a level of commitment worthy of being the first doctoral program focusing on human surviving and thriving in the throes of our facing possible mass extinction. This said, I do not intend for this essay to be a book review. Suffice it to say that Melville’s thorough, graceful writing about Fielding’s unique and continuing experiment in higher education engaged me as might any well-told story. Rather, I use his historical description and interpretive analysis to underscore his more subtle references to Fielding’s early innovative commitment to justice and diversity, a commitment that is still “in the woodwork.” My goal is to to use the history of Fielding that Melville presents to accept the challenge he describes himself:
While Fielding has demonstrated its emphasis on social change through the personal and professional commitments of faculty, students and alums, the challenge has been to embed this commitment in the curriculum so it is an integral part of the program for all students. Honoring this commitment has become more difficult as students feel increased pressure to reduce their time to degree completion (p.138).
Early on in Melville’s book he refers to how the three main “visionary” founders of Fielding (Hallock Hoffman, Renate Tesch, Frederic Hudson, Marie Fielder and Don Bushnell) asked themselves fundamental questions about adult education such as “What is higher education’s purpose” and “Does it make sense to organize higher education according to academic disciplines” (p.21)? Their answers led to a model for education which “emphasizes the practical application of knowledge in the context of social practice” (p.27). For Hudson, whose own dissertation “explored individual responsibility for social justice”, there was a “connection between doctoral education and social and political action” (p.36).
Hoffman, along with another early contributor to the forming of the Fielding model, Don Bushnell, had spent years “practicing a form of lay therapy called Re-evaluation Counseling” that helped people undue past hurts in ways that would increase their “potential to create a more peaceful and non-exploitive society” (p.51). Hoffman, according to a personal conversation I had with Don Bushnell, was also a fan of Robert Redfield, the University of Chicago researcher who pioneered social anthropology and wrote about what he considered to be the tragic consequences of a dominant Western worldview having taken over an Indigenous worldview that had guided humanity for most of its history. Bushnell claimed that part of the naming of Fielding came from honoring the work of Mary Fielder and Robert Redfield.
Marie Fielder herself was “a scholar, activist, and feminist, and an authority on action research who was nationally recognized as an influential leader in the field of diversity…She recognized Fielding’s potential to serve…the values to which she was devoted: a commitment to social and environmental justice, to diversity and social change.”
As for Renate Tesch, who was one of the three originating founders along with Hoffman and Hudson, brought an emphasis on rigorous qualitative dissertation research to the program. “When Renate died in 1994, twenty years after the founding of Fielding, she was memoralized for her many contributions to Fielding, and for her unflagging commitment as a feminist and a scholar” (p.53).
According to Melville, the founders saying they all wanted to “create a different kind of learning community in which scholarship and practice are closely joined” (p.60). They intended that “higher education was not just to help individuals prepare for their careers.” It was to “serve a public purpose” (p.136). Melville reveals how growing competition, accreditation standards and other political influences in recent years have compromised on the early Fielding vision. He admits that “finding a way to honor both its commitment to high intellectual standards and its commitment to social change has been an on-going challenge” and that the “public purposes have not consistently been reflected in the curriculum of Fielding’s programs” (p.137). Although he believes the “strong commitment to social justice, racial equality and ecological sustainability shared by most faculty has been expressed in various initiatives” (p. 137), he reveals some concerns in his sixth chapter, “Mission Drift (Utopia Visions and Contested Commitments).”
He opens this chapter with a quote from Hallock Hoffman:
What I see as dreams of glory led us into costly errors and weakened our allegiance to our principles…I intend to refurbish the Fielding country, to recapture the essence of the Fielding culture from the erosion that has rubbed off its sharp edges, to denounce and thwart ambitions to make Fielding seem important and successful to people who judge us by non-Fielding values P. 143).
In this chapter Melville writes about the “utopian aspirations” of the founders and the era in which Fielding was started. He describes it as “a period of unusual social and political turmoil,” a “flowing distrust of authority” and a “yearning for instituional reinvention” (p.146). He speaks of Hallock Hoffman asking “Must institutions inevitably move from charisma to bureaucracy and hence become routinized and abstract?” In Chapter 9, his last chapter, Melville offers several responses to this question. The one pertinent to the theme of this paper relates to “reviving education’s public purpose” (p. 196). He writes, “Today, that public purpose has receded. College and graduate degrees are most often regarded as a private good, as career-enhancers-an experience that individual students and their families purchase to further their own ecological and professional prospects” (p. 196). He then closes the chapter with a quote from Hoffman about imagining Fielding anew.
What strikes me about the quote is how it can have two meanings today. Hoffman says (in his speech at the 10th Fielding celebration that “it is harder to imagine anew when you first have to put a present reality our of your mind, and it is harder to turn dreams into actions when hundreds of men and women already possess well developed expectations of continuity” (p.200). One meaning is that we have become hypnotized by educational hegemony so thoroughly at this point in time that the status-quo seems best. Another is that there is now an awakening of such hegemonic realities caused by the coverage of the Trump administration’s stated ambitions its selected functionaries for them. If this becomes the present reality that people perceive, then it should not be more difficult to let go of any expectations of continuity.
If beginning in 2017, FGU is again positioned to realize and act upon the priorities and commitments required for becoming “the first survival university.” I know of no other doctoral programs offer this highest opportunity for social change leaders, that are so close to becoming once again a pioneer for the next decade’s educational needs.
suggested by the words of Hallock Hoffman at Fielding’s tenth anniversary celebration that Melville uses for the final paragraph of his book: