Problem-Solving Citizenship in Higher Education


Ira Shor, a critical theorist, explains the importance of democracy to education and vice versa: “A democratic society needs the creativity and intelligence of its people.  The students need a challenging education of high quality that empowers them as thinkers, communicators, and citizens” (Shor, 1992, p. 10).  Unfortunately, higher education and democracy have moved in different directions over the past few decades.  With the onset of consumerism in higher education, students’ and educators’ roles changed, with both disengaging from the other out of fear.  The result, an objectivist streak in our education in recent decades, divides the academy further, leading to a hierarchical view of academic disciplines and campus offices and departments.  Student affairs, in light of the large number of troubles plaguing our global society, can lead the way out of this malaise by viewing students as problem-solving citizens, understanding that each of them possesses a vital and different piece to the solutions we seek as a society.  In this post, I argue that our responsibility as student affairs educators is 1.) to collaborate with the entire campus community to encourage students to explore their identity, their gifts, and their skills, and 2.) to pursue solutions to our problems by empowering our students to connect their diverse identities, ideas, and talents to various opportunities for civic engagement.

In the early days of the United States, Thomas Jefferson saw democracy and education as being inextricably linked.  “Whenever the people are well-informed,” Jefferson noted, “they can be trusted with their own government…whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights” (Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government, 1999).  Over time, scholars like John Dewey continued the tradition of highlighting the democratic principles inherent in education, arguing that participation in school is vital to both learning and democracy (as cited in Shor, 1992).  While the 1937 Student Personnel Point of View did not include fostering an appreciation for democracy as an objective, the 1949 document did.  The authors suggested that the student’s role “as a responsible participant in the societal processes of our American democracy” relied on “his full and balanced maturity,” and served as the “means to the fullest development of his fellow citizens,” suggesting that democratic education was not only vital to the nation’s governance, but also to the student’s peers (Student Personnel Point of View, 1949).  After the influence of in loco parentis faded following the campus activism of the 1960s, the college-student relationship would eventually turn toward a consumer model, in which institutions were increasingly viewed as simply offering services to customers (prospective students and their families) for a price (as cited in Nuss, 2003). This view of higher education limits its meaning to students, dovetailing with the banking system of education Freire laments (as cited in Manning, 1994).  Students (and parents) paid for an education, and the college/university was expected to put its best product forward.  Increased standardization also led to gross generalizations of students, ignoring their individuality and treating them like pawns all in an attempt to please the consumers.

In 1954, Esther Lloyd-Jones observed similar trends in higher education.  At that time, specialization was threatening the field of student affairs.  In “Changing Concepts of Student Personnel Work,” Lloyd-Jones reframed the debate.

… [S]tudent personnel workers should not so much be expert technicians as they should be educators in a somewhat unconventional and new sense.  Student personnel workers have many opportunities through their work to contribute to the development of students, to help them learn many lessons and skills of vital importance for their fulfillment as whole persons within a democratic society. (pp. 12-13)

Lloyd-Jones’s writing from over fifty years ago is applicable to higher education’s present position.   Educators and students, both paralyzed by fear, choose to disengage from the educational process, deciding the path of least resistance (the banking system of education) is more desirable than facing the “other” (Palmer, 1998, p. 48).  These decisions plague our higher education system by rendering student and teachers callous to each other, leading to the system’s value of objectivity – the notion that one must separate his or her own reality from a subject in order to appropriately learn it.  Parker Palmer (1998) traces our hierarchy of academic disciplines back to objectivity.  With objectivism,

…[A]ny way of knowing that requires subjective involvement between the knower and the known is regarded as primitive, unreliable, and even dangerous.  The intuitive is regarded as irrational, true feeling is dismissed as sentimental, the imagination is seen as chaotic and unruly, and storytelling is labeled as personal and pointless. ( p. 52)

The notion that chemistry and/or biology is more difficult to pursue as a major than music and/or art is an example of this hierarchy at work.  Another example might be faculty noting that student affairs staff deal with “all the touchy-feely stuff.”  In both scenarios, the objectivist subverts the subjectivists’ relevance in higher education.  Is it any wonder why distrust between academic departments and between the academy and student affairs abounds?

In order to correct this, we must pledge to embark on a seriously difficult mission to change the culture surrounding higher education starting with students.  The impact of fear on both the educator and the student demands that we initiate an effort to address it, similar to the way Palmer (1988) suggests, and Shor (1992) does.  Following these conversations, it is imperative students see themselves in their educational activities and feel that every contribution they make to their educational environment is valued (hooks, 1994).  Shor’s experience taught him that “[his] students are complicated people whose authentic personalities can emerge in the context of meaningful work” (1992, p. 8).  As student affairs educators, we have the responsibility of filling the gaps between our students and ourselves and coaching our students in the process of finding that meaningful work.

Given the complex issues facing our society discussed earlier and the profession’s recent emphasis on educating the whole student using all of higher education’s resources, these corrective steps would best be pursued through a goal of developing citizen problem-solvers.  The mundane exercises associated with learning are passé in these challenging times.  In order for colleges and universities to send forth the best students to grapple with our complex problems, we need to educate them within the complexity of their lives (as cited in Manning 1994).  Embracing a problem-solving approach to learning would be appropriate if we seek to rid higher education of the “mind/body split” that compartmentalizes intellectual discussion from one’s public actions (hooks, 1994, p. 16).  A problem-solving approach would require the construction of deep and sustainable relationships between student affairs educators and the rest of the faculty, staff, and administration; a problem-solving-based model would necessitate an emphasis on the common good, meaning that students would see departments and offices role model this approach by collectivizing agendas as much as possible and placing the institution’s mission (which would ideally emphasize problem-solving) above their own.  In addition to the construction of strong relationships, a problem-solving approach would encourage student affairs educators to create Freirian relationships with students; with an emphasis on community problem-solving, student/teacher and teacher/student “learn from and teach each other” – “doing ‘with’ rather than ‘for'” (as cited in Manning 1994, p. 95).

Citizen problem-solvers obviously could not step into a college experience and be prepared to excel.  In order to face society’s problems today, our students must first begin the process of understanding and exploring their identity, their values, and how they view difference.  In addition, the educational nature of problem-solving demands from students the ability to see an issue from another’s perspective.  Following these tough lessons, students also need to learn about power and privilege, the source of many of the problems our students will be trying to solve.  Gaining a “critical cultural perspective” would allow students to understand the role “political, cultural, and economic forces” play in determining one’s place in society (Rhoads & Black, 1995, p. 417), and would also permit students to realize that knowledge is not absolute power unless one has the ability to change their place in life (Shor, 1992).  Under a critical cultural perspective, the campus takes on new qualities:  inclusiveness of everyone, collaborative decision-making as the standard, and a resistance of hierarchy.  A transformed college campus would be far more supportive of problem-solving efforts, especially any effort liberating the oppressed on the margins of society from injustice (Rhoads &  Black, 1995).

A “citizen problem-solver” could not rely solely on gaining a critical cultural perspective to find solutions.  As Shor reminds us, “…understanding reality is not the same thing as changing it” (1992, p. 6).  Student affairs educators have the responsibility, then, of working with students to identify appropriate ways of acting on their newfound knowledge to solve problems.  Possibilities include the various pathways included in democracy, like social action (such as protesting, boycotting, or informing others) and political action (such as voting, campaigning, or contacting one’s representative).  Other possibilities include modeling the same behaviors within corporations or other organizations.  The idea is that students are able to tailor their interests and skills to the appropriate pathway, while working in conjunction with other community members to solve the larger problem, an issue they identified and articulated themselves.

In the final analysis, higher education is at a crossroads.   Consumerism has transformed higher education into an institution with little meaning compared to its past.  Educators and students, both fearful of the “other,” turn to objectivist knowledge, safeguarding their vulnerabilities and thereby compartmentalizing their individuality.  A strong effort by student affairs professionals to fill the gap between students and educators by directly addressing these fears is absolutely necessary.  Students’ must be able to see their complexities, skills, and talents, in their educational activities.  Given the large number of problems facing today’s society, utilizing a problem-solving-based approach to reinvigorate higher education for students and educators alike is appropriate.  Using problem-solving as the central concept of student affairs encourages students to engage in self-reflection, pursue cultural proficiency, and understand how they can use their particular talents to create positive change.


hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Lloyd-Jones, E. & Smith, M. (1954). Student personnel work as deeper teaching. New York: Harper. Manning, K. (1994). Liberation theology and student affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 35, 94-97.

Nuss, E. M. (2003). The development of student affairs. In Komives, S.R. & Woodard, D. B. Jr. (Eds.), Student services: A handbook for the profession (pp. 65-88). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Rhoads, R.A., & Black, M.A. (1995). Student affairs practitioners as transformative educators: Advancing a critical cultural perspective. Journal of College Student Development, 36, 413-421.

Shor, I. (1992). Empowering education. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Student Personnel Point of View (1949). Retrieved September 16, 2009. Web site:

Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government (1999). Educating the People. Retrieved October 6, 2009. Web site: