Tag Archives: higher education

The Decimation of democracy’s critical class

13 Mar

There are two social institutions whose independence and viability are essential for the functioning of a democracy, and which are vulnerable to structural dismantling in a way that take at least a generation to repair.  They are vital for a democracy precisely because they muster the ability to criticize, question, and push back against Power, against the walls behind which government, business, military, or religious institutions exercise control. These sectors are the press and higher education. They operate, outside the walls, not as isolated voices but as collaborations of research and revelation, networks of thousands of individual voices operating as a chorus with shared commitment to uncovering and approaching the truth and then disseminating their findings to readers, students, and other colleagues.  (And I’m under no illusions any kind of uniformly enlightened academia or journalism – there can always be reactionaries and hacks in any large tent.  But then again the complexity of those sectors make such a spectrum possible.)

It is kind of accepted worldwide that a free press is absolutely essential for that reason, though it is not as widely accepted about universities in that kind of constitutional sense because there are those who believe universities are just for the teaching and mastery of job skills, not for the independent voice of social critique.  After all, freedom of the press is enshrined in our Constitution, though academic freedom is not.

The press does not exist merely to record and transmit the official story.  Universities do not exist merely to provide job training for future workers who will serve government or business without being called on to make decisions.  The basis of living in a democracy is the right to participate in decisions about the community’s future, and the basis of being a moral and effective worker is the ability to have a say in decisions that affect the corporation as well as the surrounding environment (natural as well as human).  The essence of good decision-making is not just critical thinking but also having a well-developed body of knowledge about the issues before us, knowledge that can be complex but one that includes valid evidence and perspectives, rather than ignoring them.

In this context, it is frightening to read, in a very moving investigative article by Dale Maharidge, that the number of full-time reporters for daily print newspapers in the U.S. has dropped 40% in the past nine years, and that rate may accelerate. (This article is really worth reading, devastating, and was the inspiration for this post in the first place.)  As Maharidge makes clear, it’s not just a question that daily print newspapers are being replaced with Internet journalism, but that older reporters with long and local historical knowledge are being let go while inexperienced younger reporters are stepping in. Second, the web-based news is more likely to be national or global rather than local, and even worse, as Maharidge contends, more likely to be to be centered on celebrity and what is entertaining, rather than on what has implications in people’s lives.  But perhaps most devastating is that this new generation of freelance journalists is being asked to work or write for little or no pay, or at best are paid only for the stories they can sell.  Certainly only in the rarest cases are Internet reporters well-compensated and receiving benefits, although recent unionization at Gawker and other news websites is an encouraging start.  At the same time, the type of stories being covered are changing from local and hard news that require interviewing and digging, to the kind of pieces that are either unquestioning repeats of political declarations by our leaders, or that are entertaining (including fear-mongering as a form of horror-show entertainment).

A 40% cut in practicing, full-time personnel would be devastating to any industry.  Not just for the lives and families affected, but for the loss of output, historical knowledge and knowledge of the craft by the elders in the field, and for the inevitable rush to the center among the survivors.  Picture a fishing vessel facing waves crashing over the sides and sweeping the crew overboard.  Those who want to survive will run towards the safer center and cower, rather than ever risk standing near the edge or exposing themselves to risk of any kind.

That kind of sizable cut would also imply that even assuming the nature of news stories were to stay the same, there would be that many fewer stories exposed by the press because there were more topics than the remaining writers could accommodate.  Imagine a 40% cut in the number of stories about climate change, for example, or remaining reporters now having to cover, say, the environment as well as another beat.  They won’t be able to produce as much, investigate as deeply or broadly, and will also have to master multiple fields with professional sophistication in order to interpret what they are being told. (I gnash my teeth sometimes when I hear even NPR reporters who can’t get the details right in immigration law reporting. And we are all still waiting for just one reporter with evidence to confront Ted Cruz on his oft-repeated claim that Obamacare has cost thousands of jobs.)  Put another way, instead of 50 reporters on the ground covering a war, now there would be 30, or there might be 50 but they have to cover more countries and more conflicts, and obviously can’t be two places at once. Stringers are constrained by having to write what will sell, rather than having the financial support of a newspaper to pay for their livelihood while they dig.  In every case, depth as well as the inductive and experienced knowledge from being on the ground are all sacrificed, and can’t be easily recovered. 

Once the business plan of daily newspapers and the field of journalism in general shifts to such an extent that such a high percentage of practitioners are lost, it’s hard to imagine the equal and opposite reaction on the other end of this.  In other words, the proverbial pendulum may not in fact exist and there won’t be a time when suddenly there’s  40% growth in jobs in declining industries like print media.  Newspapers are shutting down much faster than they are starting up. After all, even if there is a massive rehiring, it will take at least a decade for all the new hires to begin to acquire the kind of experience that presumably makes specialists wiser and more able to develop a network of sources.  (Personal pet peeve: there is nothing I hate more than random “person-on-the-street” sound bites, to get the impressions of either totally uninformed or prejudiced people, and usually just one at that, on the air, especially in lieu of interviews with informed parties on multiple sides of an issue.  But I will return to this in another post.)

The same goes for universities, especially researchers and writers.  Much more has been written on the shift over the past twenty years from full-time faculty, engaged in research and writing as well as teaching, to adjuncts hired to teach only, and at such low wages that they are forced to take on extraordinary teaching loads to make ends meet.

Universities are famous worldwide as crucibles of dissent and of research and science (no contradiction there).  And while teaching the young – not just teaching material but teaching the right to question – can be an exercise in freedom, the time and resources to conduct research is at least equally important.  It’s the R&D division of democracies, if you will, and what company can innovate and respond without investment in R&D?  Wipe this sector out and you wipe out an entire intellectual class (like it or not, for millennia every complex society has had its scholar class).  If governments and church denominations can control universities, especially the time and liberty to conduct research, as well as what is taught and what is disseminated to the public, then the critical potential of universities can be circumscribed.  In its most extreme form, this state or military control can lead to the assassination of university leaders, faculty, and students (for example, the murder of the Salvadoran Jesuits at the Universidad Centroamericana in 1989).  But there are more subtle and systemic ways as well, for example by tying research funding to military and business ends, cutting government funding, and most recently, filling boards with figures from business, not academia. As many have pointed out, this leads to restructuring the faculty so that the majority of classes are taught by underpaid, contingent workers with neither job security nor research portfolios, rather than comfortably-paid professors with lifetime appointments, institutional memory, and the ability to work with students on social and political issues without fear of losing their jobs.  I’m not saying anything new here that hasn’t been said and documented in more detail by others, both the “adjunctification” of universities, as well as the retreat from enlightenment, if you will, described by Jane Jacobs as well as, most recently, Marilynne Robinson, among many others.

In about 25 years, the percent of college courses in America taught by full-timers has dropped from about two-thirds to 30%.   The number of full-time faculty has not expanded with the increase in the population attending college, meaning that student-faculty ratios have increased as have faculty teaching loads.  The emphasis is less on the productive work of professional intellectuals as scholars, and more on providing credits for students to obtain their degrees, and in fields in which they are more likely to be able to pay off their debts, because tuition has outpaced inflation and so college is actually harder to afford now.

As I said, others have written about this more than I, and even I have written here about some of this.  But here’s the significant point: in one generation, American universities have changed to a business model that favors training, employment and paying off debt (for alumni) and part-time, contingent work over lifetime investment in faculty to do work including research, writing, and occupying a critical role in our society. Adjuncts can be outstanding teachers but their job function does not permit them the time or resources to be researchers or voices of conscience. And then, will it even be possible for current graduate students and undergraduates to find full-time careers as scholars and professors?  Some will, but how many – and who – will be sacrificed in the name of competition?  (A little bit like the journalists who are getting laid off.)  My heart broke for the young poli. sci. major from Florida who told Hillary Clinton in the Miami debate that she wanted to go on to get a Ph.D.  Sure, we need people like that, but will there be enough chairs in the market for her?  Or will she invest 5-10 years of her life only to get jobs that pay, total, $25,000 a year with no health insurance?

As for the research itself, why wouldn’t you want to be creating positions for more medical researchers, more sociological researchers, more science researchers, to address the most pressing problems of our time?  After all, if you want to find a cure for, say, colon cancers or dementia, why wouldn’t you want to have more researchers working on this and involving more young people in the research and showing them the ropes?  It’s simple common sense that 200 scientists working on a problem or treatment are more likely to come up with useful results than just 120 could.

It’s going to take a lot more national imagination to figure out a way to restore that intellectual class, including a restructuring of education funding  so that tuition doesn’t become the main economic lifeblood of every college and university.  That not only makes students feel they are “consumers,” it also means there is less money to invest in projects that may or may not produce significant short-term results. Such a renaissance of what universities can achieve for democracy and humanity is years away.  Same thing with rebuilding the journalism industry.  It’s not just local print dailies, but the kinds of stories and reporting, and as a by-product, civic involvement they were able to support.  That means getting readers to be interested in learning what is going on around them, and not just parroting and reinforcing their prejudices or following their favorite celebrities (including news personalities) as news.  Yes, the next generation could take this on, with the help of current (tenured) academics and experienced reporters – if they can find the money to support such work.

Alarmingly, we’re at a historical period when we really don’t have time.  The press and universities cannot be absent at what all evidence suggests is a crossroads in our decisions about how to handle climate change and whether or not to continue extracting fossil fuels.  Unlike past generations, this generation has the unique timing to come along when the decisions we make will affect habitability for the next few centuries, if not the fate of humanity itself.  We don’t have twenty years for universities and the press to come up with a critical agenda of questions and answers to allow us to find solutions and grill our elected leaders to do the same.  The disappearance of universities and reporters as significant critical voices is coming at the worst possible time, and we haven’t even found a way – or the political will – to begin to reverse the trend.


bell hooks to the rescue

1 Feb

I know that doubt can be one of the hallmarks of good teaching.  We want students to feel encouraged to challenge and reconsider their beliefs, especially those prejudices they have adopted without much thought and certainly, by definition, without considering the evidence.  But there’s another kind of existential doubt, when we’re so hammered by all the problems facing us in the world that we end up questioning the centrality of aspects of human life that we enjoy.  Can we make art, let alone study it, at a time when it is becoming more clear that without concerted action, climate change could kill us all?  And, given that citizens (and voters) are making choices about future leadership at a time when they are woefully uninformed about politics, current events, and science, what is the importance of studying the arts?

I know.  I’m not so doctrinaire that I believe we can have a society without art or education without art. Actually the opposite: I have always had a knee-jerk sense that arts and music and literature education have benefits that go beyond critical thinking and the wonderful list devised by Elliot Eisner.  But one place where I have gotten stuck is on the politics of the arts and arts education.

Doing my class reading for this week, I came across the following in bell hooks’s book of essays, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics:

“There must be a revolution in the way we see, the way we look.  Such a revolution would necessarily begin with diverse programs of critical education that would stimulate collective awareness that the creation and public sharing of art is essential to any practice of freedom.  If black folks are collectively to affirm our subjectivity in resistance, as we struggle against forces of domination and move toward the invention of the decolonized self, we must set our imaginations free.  Acknowledging that we have been and are colonized both in our minds and in our imaginations, we begin to understand the need for promoting and celebrating creative expression.”  (p. 4)

And this:

“Recently, at the end of a lecture on art and aesthetics at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, I was asked whether I thought art mattered, if it really made a difference in our lives.  From my own experience, I could testify to the transformative power of art.  I asked my audience to consider why in so many instances of global imperialist conquest by the West, art has been other [sic?] appropriated or destroyed… It occurred to me then that if one could make a people lose touch with their capacity to create, lose sight of their will and their power to make art, then the work of subjugation, of colonization, is complete.” (p. xv)

I know with these words I am in the right course, I am following the right course, and that this conversation is vital, even/especially in the context of sociology.

Believe me, it is so easy not to practice, even when there is such urgency to practice, to create, to push ourselves to make work that transforms, or even just questions, the status quo. Every school district, every budget cut that reduces arts and music in schools is performing, in doing so, that work of subjugation.  And if you can’t imagine you can’t be free, you can’t envision anything better or different, or you are simply a prisoner of what the state wants and needs you to be for them.

Rubio’s philosophy on higher education

21 Aug

I’ve written before (see 16 Feb 2014) on the new and dangerous trend in higher education policy in the U.S., which is to suggest that “college is not for everyone,” as if that general shaking out takes place meritocratically, independent of class and race.  Even the liberal wing of our mainstream political spectrum, in the form of President Obama, is comfortable going to high schools (but not affluent ones) and bringing this message.  The economist Robert Reich, to his credit, shows that a four-year college degree is currently the best predictor of higher income, and while he does argue that college shouldn’t be the only route to the middle class, he also says, significantly, “I don’t believe the main reason to go to college – or to choose one career over another – should be to make lots of money.  Hopefully, a college education gives young people tools for leading full and purposeful lives, and having meaningful careers.  Even if they don’t change the world for the better, I want my students to be responsible and engaged citizens.”  Let’s not forget the argument that more, and more critical, education is beneficial, if not necessary, to a functioning democracy, especially in countries that wield tremendous global power.

But this idea that expanded vocational training is the best way to reform higher education in the 21st century, and open up the middle class to more people, is much stronger on the right side of the spectrum, including leaders and presidential candidates who have gone after their state university systems, for example Governor Walker of Wisconsin.  This point of view bears examination.

Several days ago (18 Aug 2015), Senator Marco Rubio made a stump speech at the Iowa State Fair in which he reiterated several themes and policy suggestions about higher education that he had been making in previous speeches.  And yet, two nights of Google searches turn up no transcripts of his speech in any newspaper articles.  When I heard an excerpt on NPR, I wanted to stop in my tracks, because even the sound bite revealed so much about how conservatives see the need and potential for higher education.  But the speech itself warrants detailed, critical examination because it reveals not only what Republican conservatives (and economic neoliberals) think of the value of higher education, but how higher education can contribute to extending greater economic inequality, not ending it.

As a public service, I have transcribed several sections of the speech.  Early on, he says,

I want this to remain a country where parents can do for their children what my parents did for me. My parents were born on the island of Cuba, they came to the United States in 1956, they barely spoke the language at the time, had no money and very little education…. They were able to leave all four of their children better off than themselves…

This is a significant opening, because not only does he reveal that his parents came before the Cuban Revolution, but what his parents did for him – to his and their credit – was to enable him to graduate from a four-year college after transferring twice, first from a small college (just before it went bankrupt, by the way) where he went on a football scholarship, then from a community college before graduating from the University of Florida and then law school.  So in a way, even though the market failed him, he and his family had the means for him, with scholarship assistance, to go from community college through a post-graduate degree.  The question that lingers is whether he wants, as he claims, to be able to do this for young Americans as it had been possible for him.

But curiously, his speech takes a different turn:

We have to modernize higher education. We cannot continue stuck with a 20th century higher education system, that tells everyone you either get a four-year degree, or you get nothing at all… The first thing we have to do is more vocational training. We need more people trained to be welders, and airplane mechanics, and machinists. These are good-paying jobs… A welder makes more than a political science major, and we need to train more young Americans to do it…

Does he speak of more young people having access to a four-year political science degree (like the one he received) or more access to law school?  And when he says that “A welder makes more than a political science major” (which may, according to Reich, be factually untrue), I would ask, More what?  More money, or more decisions that affect other people’s lives?  There is the false dichotomy of the bachelor’s-or-nothing, which doesn’t even exist now, and then there is this fallacious promotion of the idea that most young people are better off with vocational training because their income will be higher.  Not only untrue in the aggregate, but also because it overlooks the value added of being in a position of social and political influence that a college degree makes more likely.

Then he continues,

For example, a single mother raising two kids, who works full-time for nine dollars an hour as a home health aide, the only way she’s ever going to get a raise is to become a dental hygienist or a paralegal, but to do that she has to go back to school. And she can’t, because she has to work full-time and raise a family. I believe we need to have alternative accredited programs that allow people to get the equivalent of a degree, from alternative institutions that allow them to package learning, no matter how they acquired it. Let people learn online for free. Give them credit for what they’ve learned on their own. And suddenly that receptionist, instead of making ten dollars an hour or twelve dollars an hour can be a paralegal making $65,000 a year. I’m not saying we’re going to get rid of four-year colleges, they’re going to remain part of our program – after all, how are we going to get college football without them? I am saying this: We can’t keep graduating people with degrees that don’t lead to jobs. That’s why I believe that before you take out a student loan, schools should tell you how much people make when they graduate from that school with that degree. So you can decide if it’s worth borrowing $50,000 to major in Greek philosophy, because after all, the market for Greek philosophers has been very tight for two thousand years.

Let’s just ignore the complete denigration of the use-value of basically all of the Western intellectual tradition at the end there, shall we?  More important, to our argument, is the disingenuous wiggling that at first suggests vocational training is not only the most cost-effective but the only available opportunity for working adult students, and then goes on to suggest that people should be able to get credit for watching online videos (or whatever “learning online for free” means) and what they’ve learned on their own – essentially no formal education whatsoever.

This is also incredibly insulting to the working four-year college undergraduates whom I teach, those who do manage to find the time to work towards a Bachelor’s degree (and sometimes a Master’s degree) while managing jobs, careers, children (sometimes grandchildren), spouses (or children without spouses), and loans because they want something more fulfilling to them than just a manual trade or unskilled labor.  I would never have the nerve to suggest that they settle for a career they don’t want, nor would I be so patronizing to assume they don’t want to know about Greek philosophy or film history because they don’t “need” it to discharge their work duties.  As Professor Reich says, I want them to have fulfilling lives, where dignity is worth a lot more than simply bringing home and spending a paycheck.

So there are clearly two tracks in Rubio’s educational vision for 21st century America.  Those who can afford to can attend college and support those college football games, preferably without loans unless the students have a guarantee their majors will get them good jobs, which as we know in fact is not the only thing majors are good for.  (And preferably not at colleges they have to leave because the schools go bankrupt or can’t afford to keep academic or even athletic programs funded.) Those who can’t afford school without costly loans can go to vocational schools, or even better, can “learn online for free,” and then go into the workforce in well-paying jobs, but jobs that, regrettably, have little social, economic, or political influence. It’s “the only way they’re going to get a raise,” as he says.  I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t become welders or dental hygienists or paralegals if they want or need to, only that if they want to enter a career where they will have more influence in the democratic process and the economy, or they want a career that they themselves find more fulfilling, they should be able to choose that path and have access to the funds to make that possible – rather than be ruled out because they come from a low-income background or went to an under-resourced high school.  Following Rubio’s logic, there will be less need for federal aid both to universities and colleges (whose enrollment base will provide the necessary revenue), and to students because there will be low-cost options available like vocational schools, training programs, and of course free Internet, so that they shouldn’t have to depend on the government to pay for degrees that won’t pay off financially.

This is not doing for America’s children what his parents did for him.  Maybe a little Greek philosophy would help him understand this.

On cynics and our educational system

16 Feb

All week I’ve been thinking of Oscar Wilde’s famous quotation, “a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” During my youth, I never really understood this as I do now, but it seems particularly apt in light of recent debates and discussions about the value of a higher education degree in the humanities (which readers of this blog know is an issue of great interest to me).

Starting with President Obama’s comment about vocational school preparing students for a higher income than majoring in art history at a university, there were subsequent reports on NPR that argued that humanities majors do fine economically (especially as compared to non-college grads), and a Pew study demonstrated that a college degree is still the best predictor of higher income, regardless of major.  The Pew study in particular equated “value” with “usefulness” in the job market and the workplace.

“Value” of education cannot be measured by income level or limited to usefulness in the ability to earn a salary.  Once we’ve become that cynical, then we have lost sight of what education is really good for – the eradication of ignorance, our ability to improve the quality and sustainability of life for all beings, learning about who we are from history, and understanding ways of looking at the world that enable us to live and get along with others without killing them, among other things.  Sometimes it’s just about the ability to ask deeper questions about our existence, or to appreciate more the artistic and ethical dimension of our lives.

But the point is that as long as the discussion focuses on future income as the measure of the value of an education, then we are accepting the line of thinking and terms of the debate promoted by the Reagan administration, which is that justification can be reduced to lower cost to taxpayers and a higher monetary return for the individual. In short, greater profits.  This is what the capitalist system has transformed into, and not one President since then has challenged this concept.  Is the profit motive, either on campus or in the larger world, a relevant guiding principle for our educational system?

This thinking displays the utter cynicism of Reagan and his followers, because they know the price of an education (and the price of its rewards), but they haven’t a clue about what the value of education really is – or if they do suspect, they are afraid of the challenges that educational system provides to the world order of corporate power.  This is why the Governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, has argued that state aid for higher education should only go to those fields that produce graduates ready for jobs in the workforce.

President Obama’s remark about art history as a major is disappointing on a number of different levels.  As I posted on my Facebook page, there are three senses in which his comments are disturbing.  First, American higher education has been transformed into an industry that trains people to fill jobs and make profits, while the all-important qualities of ethics, conscience, questioning, imagination, innovation, and sustainability are seen as frills or luxuries for the very elite or privileged, but they don’t matter ultimately. Well, they do. The planet is at risk from the idea that profit generation has no consequences. This began with Reagan when he was Governor of California, taking on the University of California system, and four decades or so later, only the most elite of higher education students can have the opportunity to think about these issues and train to be leaders among the decision-making classes.

Second, maybe if more people in this current administration had studied the humanities, this administration wouldn’t show such a stunning lack of imagination in actually bringing about the progressive changes they promised.

And third, this increasingly common argument, which I’ve heard from liberals as well as conservatives, that college “may not be” for everybody, is disingenuous, especially in light of massive federal and state cuts to education over the past 30 years. It’s as if we’re saying, well, don’t feel there’s an injustice in the fact that your high school doesn’t prepare you to attend college (and study humanities), you can do even better with this consolation prize, and you’ll earn big money, too!  It’s so patronizing for anyone with an Ivy League graduate degree to tell high school kids they should be as satisfied with a trade when they haven’t had the real opportunity to get into fields where they become the creative leaders or, let’s face it, the CEOs or the policy-makers. If you don’t believe me, then ask yourself what would have happened if he had made this speech at a fancy private school.

Job-readiness and the profit motive will do nothing to prevent nuclear annihilation (from bombs or reactor disasters) or global warming that threatens to make Earth uninhabitable.   Studying scientific research and human values in the context of one another is of far more value in safeguarding our long-term future.  We study to grow rich at our peril.

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.

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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