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When education becomes a business

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William Deresciwicz, author of Excellent Sheep, has a provocative and fascinating essay in Harper’s on the baleful effects of transforming education, and American undergraduate education in particular, into yet another a neoliberal training ground for “leaders,” as opposed to thinkers:

A couple of years ago, I sat down with the newly appointed president of a top-ten liberal-arts college. He had come from a professional school (law, in his case), as so many college deans and presidents now seem to.

I started by telling him that I had just visited an upper-level class, and that no one there had been able to give me a decent definition of “leadership,” even though the college trumpeted the term at every opportunity. He declined to offer one himself. Instead, he said, a bit belligerently, “I’ve been here five months, and no one has been able to give me a satisfactory definition of ‘the liberal arts.’ ”

I offered the one I supplied above: those fields in which knowledge is pursued for its own sake. When you study the liberal arts, I added, what you’re mainly learning to do is make arguments.

“Scientists don’t make arguments,” he said (a statement that would’ve come as a surprise to the scientists on the faculty). “And what about painters? They don’t make arguments.”

I tried to explain the difference between the fine and the liberal arts (the latter are “arts” only by an accident of derivation) with little success. “So what do you think the college should be about?” I finally asked him.

“Leadership,” he said.

If college is seldom about thinking and learning anymore, that’s because very few people are interested in thinking and learning, students least of all. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report in Academically Adrift, the number of hours per week that students spend studying for their classes has been falling steadily for decades and is now about half of what it was in 1961. And as anyone associated with a college can tell you, ambitious undergraduates devote the bulk of their time and energy, and certainly of their passion, to extracurriculars. [Steven] Pinker, in the response I mentioned, wonders why he finds himself addressing half-empty lecture halls. I can tell him why: because his students don’t much care about the things he’s trying to teach them.

Why should they, given the messages that they’ve received about their education? The college classroom does or ought to do one thing particularly well, which is to teach you to think analytically. That is why a rigorous college education requires you to be as smart as possible and to think as hard as possible, and why it’s good at training people for those professions that demand the same: law, medicine, finance, consulting, science, and academia itself. Nor is it a coincidence that the first four of those (the four that also happen to be lucrative) are the top choices among graduates of the most selective schools.

But business, broadly speaking, does not require you to be as smart as possible or to think as hard as possible. It’s good to be smart, and it’s good to think hard, but you needn’t be extremely smart or think extremely hard. Instead, you need a different set of skills: organizational skills, interpersonal skills — things that professors and their classes are certainly not very good at teaching.

As college is increasingly understood in terms of jobs and careers, and jobs and careers increasingly mean business, especially entrepreneurship, students have developed a parallel curriculum for themselves, a parallel college, where they can get the skills they think they really need. Those extracurriculars that students are deserting the classroom for are less and less what Pinker derides as “recreational” and more and more oriented toward future employment: entrepreneurial endeavors, nonprofit ventures, volunteerism. The big thing now on campuses — or rather, off them — is internships.

All this explains a new kind of unhappiness I sense among professors. There are a lot of things about being an academic that basically suck: the committee work, the petty politics, the endless slog for tenure and promotion, the relentless status competition. What makes it all worthwhile, for many people, is the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds. That kind of contact is becoming unusual. Not because students are dumber than they used to be, but because so few of them approach their studies with a sense of intellectual mission. College is a way, learning is a way, of getting somewhere else. Students will come to your office — rushing in from one activity, rushing off to the next — to find out what they need to do to get a better grade. Very few will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way. Many professors still do care deeply about thinking and learning. But they often find that they’re the only ones.

They certainly cannot count on much support from their administrations. Now that the customer-service mentality has conquered academia, colleges are falling all over themselves to give their students what they think they think they want. Which means that administrators are trying to retrofit an institution that was designed to teach analytic skills — and, not incidentally, to provide young people with an opportunity to reflect on the big questions — for an age that wants a very different set of abilities. That is how the president of a top liberal-arts college can end up telling me that he’s not interested in teaching students to make arguments but is interested in leadership. That is why, around the country, even as they cut departments, starve traditional fields, freeze professorial salaries, and turn their classrooms over to adjuncts, colleges and universities are establishing centers and offices and institutes, and hiring coordinators and deanlets, and launching initiatives, and creating courses and programs, for the inculcation of leadership, the promotion of service, and the fostering of creativity. Like their students, they are busy constructing a parallel college. What will happen to the old one now is anybody’s guess.

The whole thing is very much worth reading.

It’s unfair to criticize the author of a magazine essay for not undertaking a comprehensive analysis of a complex topic, so I merely note that it’s unfortunate that Deresiewicz’s argument here avoids the question of cost, except to make at the end of the essay what is under current social circumstances a deeply utopian gesture (a high quality liberal arts college education should be available for “free” to everyone).

An accurate analysis of cost questions is critical as illustrated by the comment to the article chosen as the best by Harper’s readers:

I’m surprised at how much this misses the mark for me. From even my limited vantage point as a young staff member at a university – I can see where this essay is neglecting the real drivers of what the author terms neoliberal education. It’s not some conspiracy or weakening of the educational establishment types or changing of vague mission statement language that led to the present situation, it’s a matter of economics.

State and federal support of higher education has plummeted, the fact that most universities are driven more and more by tuition is incontestable. With that tuition on the rise, it’s only natural that the decision of what to major in became an economic cost/benefit analysis to students. Administrators and Faculty respond as best they can to this new economic reality, which has produced the outcomes you decry.

My point is this: higher education did not ‘sell its soul’, it had its soul ripped from it by forces external to it.

This of course is the standard response of university administrators to criticisms that they’ve turned colleges and universities into tax-exempt profit-maximizing enterprises. It also happens to be totally false, and indeed a precise inversion of the truth. “State and federal support of higher education,” is now higher, per college student and in real dollars, than it ever has been before. (This is true whether one considers both direct and indirect subsidies, or only the former).

If tuition, government support, and endowment income have all skyrocketed since Deresiewicz’s golden age of the 1960s (and they have), where has this immense pile of loot been going? Not to the people doing the teaching in these institutions: per capita salaries for college faculty are down sharply since 1970, primarily because of adjunctification (salaries for tenure-track faculty are only slightly higher than they were 45 years ago).

What Deresiewicz calls “neoliberalism” could perhaps more accurately be called “crony capitalism,” and American universities have captured by it just as surely as our other major social institutions.

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