Higher (disconnect)ED

“I walked out this morning, It was like a veil had been removed from before my eyes, For the first time I saw the work of heaven, In the line where the hills had been married to the sky…”  Sting (The Hounds of Winter)

I grew up understanding what a veil was from the time I was 8.  I grew up in church with talk of scales covering the eyes, veils hiding other realms, and more.

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Of course, it wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I actually understood what the power of a lifted veil was.  I’ve blogged before about what it took to learn that doctors, despite some who would likely state the opposite, know much less than they think they know.  While I respect their effort and how most desire to make the world a better place, there is a fundamental disconnect between things not on their radar and things that are.  Does what we eat change our ability to fight disease?  Do hormone imbalances change our ability to stay healthy?  Can we beat serious diseases without medicine or chemical intervention?  While the answer to all of these is a qualified “yes”, we have all experienced a doctor who is unwilling to listen, unable to think laterally, or stuck in a system that does not afford the time nor the luxury of exploration to really understand an underlying issue.

Just this week, we were reminded of the horrors my wife went through now a decade ago with mis-diagnosis after mis-diagnosis, when friends of ours told us an unsettling story.  Their little girl, our daughter’s best friend, has struggled for 5-6 years with chronic inflammation of the knee joints, weird head rashes, sporadic incontinence, and bouts of seeming fatigue.  She has missed a lot of school and struggles to have serious relationships.  She has been pushed from doctor to doctor being told a number of things, none of which were helpful or correct.  She’s a super tall kiddo, so some doctors chalked the problems up to heightHer pediatrician said this was all “normal” as she approached puberty.  One orthopedic physician told her parents that the joint pain was in the little girl’s head or that she was simply seeking attention (or trying to get out of going to school) as it really should not have been a big deal. 

Then, by chance, her mom stumbled onto an article about Lyme disease from the viewpoint of a mother in a similar place.  Our friend hearkened back to a bite the little girl had 5-6 years ago (about the time all of this started) and now feels sure it was a tick and not a spider as she thought at the time.  The article described symptoms in a 12-year-old specific to severe joint pain, moments of struggle to control the bladder, a strange head rash, and fatigue.  A new pediatrician (#5 in 5 years…) agrees this is likely the cause of the trouble, which has gone un-diagnosed for so long it is now most likely a (lifelong) autoimmune disease and has agreed to send the little girl to a specialist.  I’d love to say this story has a happy ending, but it’s still ongoing, as the specialist refuses to see the little girl until the last 5 years of medical records can be aggregated and sent, wanting to avoid a potential waste of time…

Veils are a funny thing. 

Veils play into confirmation bias.  We behave based on how we perceive the world, regardless of whether that perception is accurate or not.  Veils can prove polarizing as one person believes the stark opposite side of a veil from another person. 

Over time, most educated, reasonable people learn to see some common veils.  Politics is an unfortunate veil that is typically lifted over time.  Society and culture have veil effects.  But doesn’t education likely have numerous veils?

A lot of educated people in the world “know” a lot about education.  Just about anyone thinks they can fix it. Whether they have studied it, practiced it, or researched it does not matter - they have experienced it. Have conversations with anyone who doesn’t work for a K-12 district, a college, or a university, and you will find a lot of veils people believe have been lifted:

  • School is boring.  Period.  There is no way around it.  So, students (typically the children of the person you are talking to) should just learn to live with and/or overcome that boredom as it is inevitable. 

  • Dealing with bullies helps you grow up.  Between 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 (K-12) students report bullying.  Ironically, the reports come from questionnaires that are typically geared solely toward physical bullying ignoring emotional or even sexual harassment, so that number could be significantly higher.  But the “common wisdom” of people is that dealing with a bully at 12 years old somehow prepares you better for tough situations at 35.  Keep in mind there is no evidence to prove bullying matures a person, nor does a 12-year-old often have the tools necessary to handle it, but it helps everyone sleep better knowing bullying is somehow “good” for students.

  • Loneliness is just part of the college experience.  Everyone feels it, so just learn to overcome it.

by Alex Ivashenko

by Alex Ivashenko

Veils.  Reality or lies we tell ourselves?

This last one is particularly frustrating to me.  For more than three decades we have seen powerful, replicable research around what loneliness does to a person.  Matthew Lieberman showed us (Social, 2014) that loneliness leads to anxiety, triggering neurotransmitters like an over-abundance of glutamate or cortisol to be released in the system.  Carol Dweck spawned an entire industry of work around “non-cognitive” factors like loneliness.  (I still hate the term “non-cognitive…”)  Greg Walton has performed research addressing psychological processes that contribute to major social problems, especially processes that undermine belonging.  These problems can, and do contribute to inequality in education, however he also showcases “wise” interventions that can address these problems and help students flourish.  There are dozens more examples from my library and hundreds more in journals and on Amazon.  From Danah Boyd describing the complicated but crucial part of a social experience for students to Dan Pink helping us see the power behind social collaboration and the motivation of the crowd over everything (including money), the accounts are tremendous.

Yet, go to any college or university, every one of which proudly states how much they care for their students, and look for the ways in which the school is connecting people.  Look for the mechanisms, processes, and opportunities for students to connect to anything that may take away loneliness.  There are absolutely a few of those things in place - often the same things likely generated on every campus by students.  But if you look at the context of loneliness with the veil of “what has always been done” removed, it is likely not even close to enough…

The NYTimes recently gave some students a voice about the issues they must deal with at the college level.  One large section was specific to loneliness:

  • “I wasn’t lonely because I wasn’t surrounded by people, but because I couldn’t find people I trust and develop long lasting relationships with them…”

  • “Seeing others go out of state to a university only to come back to a community college only because they couldn’t handle the stress is all to scary for me.”

  • “I joined sports teams and clubs, but I always found myself on the outside because of my own self doubt- was I interesting? Funny? Kind? Did people actually want me around, or were they being polite?”

Loneliness is very real and it has been talked about for years.  From viral videos like Emery Bergmann’s lack of preparation for being alone to Frank Bruni’s description of college loneliness as the ‘real campus scourge,’ there is plenty of information to go around.  So, when we talk about student success, loneliness and disconnection are not one of the top bullet points we discuss, are they?  Not in my experience.  Having sat in on (literally) hundreds of student success kick-off meetings, I have never – not once- heard it brought up.  There is a lot of talk about academic success, helping faculty be more accommodating for “life” issues, advising, financial aid, better front-end gating, and on and on.  But loneliness?  That issue is relegated to some director in student affairs and only as a small portion of their work life.  After all, it’s super hard to think about being a lonely college student when you are not lonely, nor a college student.  Yet, if you look at the body of research, if you spend a considerable amount of time reading and studying the impact of loneliness, a veil will start to lift. 

Loneliness leads to failure.  Lonely students do not persist.  Being alone makes a person far less likely to get good grades, stay in school, find a good job, and more.  And just as we know that not every measure is predictive for every person, success can often be better predicted through non-cognitive measures than academic ones. 

In my own past, this is why I created a learning “ecosystem” by which to help students (and faculty / staff) be successful academically, but also socially.  This is why we built out a system based on connection, not based on academics alone.  This, in my opinion, is why early alert systems focusing on student success will never see more than a few percentage points of increase in student persistence.  They focus on past (demographic) factors and correlate them to academic (cognitive) behaviors, comparing a student against the average.  Not only is the averagarianism math incorrect, but the measures are incomplete.  This is a large reason I left the school to promote a different kind of system.  The LMS is only part of the story.  There are ways to help more students (at scale) be more successful with tools like Campus, where I am the Chief Academic Officer.  While I have had a few educators tell me I’m “selling out” by working for a commercial platform provider, I am utterly convinced that selling this (relatively cheap) solution can change far more lives than any other product I’ve ever seen in higher education.  The veil has been lifted, I guess you could say…

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There is one other aspect of loneliness that we should spend more time considering, I think. What are the effects of loneliness on the person (vs the institutional effects because of the person)? Nabeelah Jaffer writes a remarkable article for Aeon, channeling the thoughts of Hannah Arendt who wrote, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” She explains that loneliness is the ‘common ground’ of terror. In fact, she puts it like this, “True loneliness means being cut off from a sense of human commonality and therefore conscience. You are left adrift in a sea of insecurity and ambiguity, with no way of navigating the storms.“ In other words, loneliness can lead to much more than a single person feeling alone.

What are your veils?  Do you think this one might be worth looking into?  I hope so. Our Institute’s mission is to help people see how to better connect everyone to everything and that absolutely includes addressing loneliness.  Loneliness does not have to be a foregone conclusion nor does it have to permeate the college experience.  We likely cannot solve this problem for every student, but I am convinced we can help more students…most students experience less loneliness and even experience connectedness, leading to more success than ever before.  I truly believe that.  But my veil feels lifted. 

Good luck and good learning.