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A Sense of Control | Inside Higher Ed

Timothy Burke posted a terrific piece last week offering context for the student mental health crisis. Drawing in part on Mary Gaitskill’s observations and in part on his own, he suggested that we can usefully look at the student mental health crisis—and the larger phenomenon of “deaths of despair”—as signs of a larger sense of helplessness. It rang true to me.

Burke noted that so many of the threats to daily life that we all know go largely unnoticed in public discourse, or, to the extent that they are noticed, are discussed in unhelpful ways. The cost of a middle-class life has grown far faster than reliable incomes; college is no longer the guarantee of a great job that it once was; we keep getting involved in wars that don’t have obvious endpoints; pandemics rage while people fight over whether to fight the diseases. In the face of a society that refuses to deal seriously with its issues, a certain anxiety is understandable. Some people deal with that by seeking the easy comforts of simple anger, channeled through whichever demagogue is up that week. Some tune out entirely. Some decide instead to focus on things they can control, like which pronouns to use or whether their veggies are organic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those, but when they’re asked to allay much larger frustrations, they aren’t up to the job.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the piece for several days. There’s something to it.

You don’t get carsick when you’re driving; for most of us, a sense of control—even if illusory—can help us feel better. What could offer a sense of control?

I’ll steal a line from Hegel: freedom is the insight into necessity. When you understand what’s actually happening, you can make meaningful choices. When you don’t, you’re largely at the mercy of outside forces. When those forces act in unappealing ways, a certain hopelessness makes emotional sense. Better to act than to be acted upon.

In higher education, on the whole, we’ve separated subject matter from life navigation. I suspect that dates back to times when higher education was mostly available to those who already had significant social capital. If you knew you were going to work for Dad’s company, then you didn’t need much in the way of career-development courses. That doesn’t describe most students now, but many of the old boundaries are still in place.

From a curricular perspective, I don’t know why we generally relegate career advice either to the sidelines or to the end of a course of study. It should come at the beginning, with regular check-ins over time. Help students connect the dots between where they want to be and what they’re doing in class. Even better, some life navigation points make excellent fodder for academic analysis. In my poli sci classes, I struggled with explaining local government until I started framing it around why so many towns go out of their way to avoid schoolchildren. Suddenly, I could knit together the cost of housing, the disappearance of starter houses, the notion of “good” school districts, sprawl and property taxes in ways that helped students understand why it was so hard to buy a home and start a family. They were hungry for that information. It helped them make sense of their world, and to understand that the difficulty they faced in matching what their parents had been able to do wasn’t their fault. There was a logic behind it, and that logic could be challenged if a political movement decided to make a point of it.

Politics is supposed to be the lever through which people exert control at scale. To the extent that democracy gets circumscribed, a felt loss of control is pretty accurate.

It isn’t higher education’s job to tell people how to vote. But it is our job to help them make sense of the world. If that means rethinking some of our long-standing habits, well, then that’s what it means. The students are telling us that they feel acted upon. They have a point. We can’t do everything, but if we can start connecting some dots and helping students make sense of their world, that may help them recover some sense of control. The rest is up to them.

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