This weekend I read a fascinating book that I want to recommend a book to anyone in higher education thinking about how we can make our institutions truly engaged with all of the different students on our campuses. This book is inspiring on many levels. And it is tough and realistic. The book is by Professor Rick Bonus, Assoc Prof of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington and his book is The Ocean in the School: Pacific Islander Students Transforming Their University. Note the agency in the subtitle. Already that “students transforming their university” reverses the patronizing “inclusion” and “diversity” rhetoric and metrics of too much of higher education. This book tells of loss, sorry, and failure–and then students who realize the failure is not theirs, but their institution’s. And, then, together with allies and mentors, the students themselves offer the university another model and help to restructure fundamentals of a huge, great public institution.
There is so much to be learned here. In the details, it represents real lives, real students, real struggles, real obstacles. It also shows how a failure can be turned to something better. This is by no means touting its successes as complete, full, utopian. Better. Just better. That is a lot.
What I love most about this book is how it moves beyond critique to something far more creative and beneficial: actual change, incremental and difficult and hard won and incomplete and yet, to repeat, better than it was. Critique tends to paint with large brush strokes and with a kind of implicit abstract and utopian biases. Implementation–working hard to make a program work–is less lofty and yet, because it is real and enacted through hard work by real peope–in many ways is also more astonishing. Best of all, it offers lessons we can all learn from in our own flawed and imperfect institutional settings, with our own limited (and also flawed and imperfect) capacities.
It’s a lovely book, from cover to the final page.
Spoiler alert: I’m about to quote from the final paragraph.
“[The students] thus saw themselves alive, important, and belonging in communities larger than themselves but profoundly and organically related to each and every one of them. Their university became connected with their wide and deep ocean. No wonder that during graduation, they did not want to leave it. Their school–their living ocean–was going to be part of their lives forever.”