More on the death of critical higher education

31 Dec

This article from the AP yesterday confirms a great deal of what Jane Jacobs was writing about in Dark Age Ahead as I discussed the other day. The education story of my lifetime is not the development of the Internet, or the rise of literacy, but the major transition in higher education – at first in the U.S. but spreading – away from the classical liberal arts and towards the study of business in particular, followed by other subjects that train for the primary purpose of finding a job.

Centuries from now (or perhaps only decades), the survivors of our species will look back on our times, and try to understand this. Faced as we are with impending environmental catastrophe, depletion and unequal sharing of natural resources, overpopulation, and violence of a scale that could annihilate every living being, the wealthiest nations on earth discourage their most creative young people from learning the processes they need to come up with the innovative solutions to our planet-threatening problems.

This happens thanks to a “free market” that forces post-secondary institutions to change their curricula from courses that emphasize critical, creative, and ethical thinking, to tracks that train people to follow their leaders and employers (aka “job creators”) without having the breadth or depth of knowledge to challenge dominant, even self-destructive, ideologies. And the labor force that made up these post-secondary institutions, what once largely consisted of free, creative, and critical thinkers themselves, is replaced by those who are forced to teach skills, with less job security, higher workloads, lower pay, and less opportunity to conduct research that speaks to the wider public about the major ethical issues of our time. What this article shows – unwittingly – is that it’s cyclical: colleges make decisions because of market forces, decisions that reinforce the market notion that higher education is not about critical questioning, research, and ethical and aesthetic thinking, but that it is the commodifiable (and branding) bridge between the basic skills learned in primary and secondary schools and the workplace.

Make no mistake, it is market forces that have accomplished this. Major cuts in unrestricted government aid to education – especially under Reagan – force colleges and universities to turn to private funding from corporations or other wealthy donors, or to government aid that is attached to specific research projects, such as Department of Defense initiatives. Higher tuition costs force students (and university deans) to think about cost-benefit analyses of their education, and the lack of economic security in this country understandably pushes people into choosing job safety and security over education that prepares them to live a moral and ethical (not to mention artistic) life.

The quote from Paulo Freire that frames this blog in the About page could not be more apt here: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
Despite his writing, we are going in the opposite direction.

Jane Jacobs was right. We are in deep trouble.

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