Cost-effective higher education and Jane Jacobs’ “Dark Age Ahead”

27 Dec

A colleague posted this article from the Globe and Mail of Toronto on Facebook today, which discusses a new trend in Canadian universities of cutting departments with low numbers of majors and students. Instead of across-the-board cuts during tough economic times and reduced government support, it seems that Canadian universities are learning from their U.S. counterparts that the way to go is to evaluate which departments are most “successful” as measured by a variety of criteria and then eliminating those that don’t fit within the guidelines for how the university administration and governing board views “success.” Given the massive transition from the liberal arts education of fifty years ago to education-for-the-workplace that exists today, with its emphasis on business education and STEM disciplines, this can only be bad news for the humanities, social sciences, and those fields and courses that emphasize writing and critical reading (“critical” in the very basic sense of not believing everything you read, and in a slightly more complicated sense of being able to identify an argument and respond to that argument based on evidence).

This is the logic that led (to choose an example very close to my heart) the University of Pennsylvania to eliminate its department of Folklore and Folklife, one of the top programs in the nation, because it wasn’t considered a priority discipline the way that English, history, the sciences (especially those that can attract corporate or government funding), the health fields, and business are priorities for that institution. Of course the metrics vary from school to school, and have everything to do with alumni donations and which departments produce the most fiscally loyal alumni, and which departments pay for themselves rather than depend on subsidies from the university itself or other schools within a university, like business, that tend to run profitably and are in a position to subsidize other departments whose success can’t be measured in how much of a profit they return. The reason we have a non-profit sector in this country (the U.S.) for example is that there is work to be done where success cannot be measured in terms of monetary profit, but rather in terms of impact on issues of importance to the community. Universities are non-profit institutions, and there’s a reason why “charitable” and “educational” and “cultural” are reasons under the law why a corporation can operate not-for-profit. They are supposed to do some public “good,” and it used to be widely recognized – and still is by every religious creed – that there is more to be done to improve the conditions of our existence than to generate wealth.

Universities are not businesses, they are educational institutions. It doesn’t seem that it should be necessary to keep writing that, but it is. And while certainly I am a huge proponent of the need to apply research, a lot of research and dedicated teaching pays off in ways that can’t be measured by their instant instrumentality or profit. This is the only country in which the arts have to justify their value by their commercial success, not by what they give to humanity.

All this ties back to Jane Jacobs’ remarkable book, Dark Age Ahead, which I just finished reading for my upcoming course at Goucher College. She argues that historically and sociologically, a pending Dark Age arrives after several catastrophic breakdowns of the hallmarks of a healthy, cooperative society, but not necessarily only in the form of the catastrophic changes we might expect. Her list astutely contains the following: “community and family,” “higher education,” effective science practice and use of technology, transparent taxation and responsive government, and “self-policing by the learned professions” (p. 24). The five catastrophic situations she classifies as more manifest and apparent to everybody are “racism, …environmental destruction, crime,” voter apathy, and the ever-widening disparity between rich and poor and disappearance of a middle class (pp. 24-5). But these, she argues, are the symptoms of the former, the first by-products, if you will, of the breakdown of the five pillars of healthy societies she first mentions.

I’m still reeling from her inclusion of higher education – not primary or secondary education – on that list. While I don’t think in this, her last work, she fully works out her argument about this in the chapter that follows (at least not with the same bite that I still remember in Paul Goodman’s critique, but it’s been many years since I read him), the breakdown of our society will come not as a result of poorly serving the basic educational needs of children under 18, including literacy, but in the failings at the level of critical education, intellectual questioning, and moral and ethical development that take place in the post-secondary years.

Given that context, the new trend outlined in the Globe and Mail article, coming from her adopted Canada, is all the more alarming. It’s been happening in this country (the U.S.) for years, and the professional intellectual class has been outmaneuvered by the corporate class. This is why students have such an important role to play, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, in making demands for how their education and their universities will serve them. Of course, once they are threatened with economic instability they quickly grab onto whatever educational lifeline will promise them the best financial return on their investment (of money and time). So they get sucked into learning to perform for The Job (which used to be The Man), rather than daring to dream about how their education can serve them and their desire to shape the society around them.

It is a visionary leap to predict that the breakdown of an effective critical post-secondary education – what used to be called “liberal arts,” for a reason, perhaps – is going to be a harbinger of societal calamity and collapse. Is the shepherding of students, like an army of zombies, into business courses the precursor to calamitous times? It certainly does not lead to a Renaissance of any kind, does it?

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