Obviously, a bunch of things bugged me about New York Times op-edifier Frank Bruni's We've got to stop coddling our kids column and it's hard for me to settle on which thing bugged me most. But the one thing that's back on my mind today is Bruni's casual acceptance of the main selling point of education "reform" used by all the would-be reformers including the President, which is crassly economic.
We need to improve our schools so that the nation can "compete globally."
Basically, they're telling us, we need schools to make us money or, more specifically, to turn out the workers who will make us money. The point of schooling is to produce knowledge workers. Not knowledgeable workers but workers with know-how, workers with a very specific sort of knowledge they can use on the job, mainly how to read and fill out forms and follow instructions.
Few of these knowledge workers are slated to become executives or even upper-level management. The great majority are intended to be mid and low-level keyboard tappers working jobs in which, to the eyes of the executives and upper management, they will be interchangeable and disposable. And at some point in their "careers"---several points, really--they will be interchanged and disposed of.
An education is unnecessary for such a future. What's needed is training. And earning a diploma isn't important as a mark of intellectual achievement. It's certification. And when, inevitably, that future catches up with them and they're interchanged and disposed of, well, then schools will be there to retrain them nd recertify them for another few years of interchangeableness and disposability.
And despite Bruni's apparent belief that children are lazy and stupid, they are quick to pick up on what's expected of them and will apply themselves to meeting those expectations, which, under these circumstances means making themselves marketable as diligent and reliable and hirable, well-trained and certified knowledge workers, and they will pick their colleges and choose their majors accordingly.
More students going to college for vocational training mean fewer humanities majors. Degrees in English do not make you marketable, at least not in a way your average eighteen to twenty two year old can explain to prospective employers, fretful parents, or to themselves.
Philistine state legislators having to justify spending tax dollars to an increasing base of taxpayers who don't believe that living in an ordered, amenable, functioning society should cost them anything; boards of trustees drawn from the executive class who've devoted their whole lives to making money and don't see why everyone else shouldn't be happy doing the same; and administrators hired by those boards to see that their schools attract paying customers by offering those customers the product they've been convinced colleges are in business to provide, marketability, are going to take this into account when deciding how to allocate resources.
Degrees that don't attract enough customers, departments that don't pay out, classes that don't add marketable value to resumes, professors who don't contribute to the bottom line, who cost more than they bring in, are going to become targets for restructuring.
Have become targets.
At Slate, Rebecca Schuman reports on two colleges that appear to be intent on restructuring themselves as vocational training schools:
If you’re planning to attend either Minnesota State University Moorhead or the University of the District of Columbia, best get in your Romeo and Juliet now—and while you’re at it, you should probably learn the formulas for velocity and momentum, and study up on the Spanish-American War. Because soon, these regional public universities may have no departments of English, physics, or history—nor a host of other programs often associated with “college,” including political science (MSUM), philosophy (MSUM), computer science (MSUM), and even economics (UDC).
What is confounding about these universities’ plans to possibly obliterate nearly half of their departments is why both institutions, faced with budget crises, went straight for the academic jugular. And not just by cutting highfalutin artsy disciplines, but with an eye toward fields of study that are actually valued in today’s cruel and fickle market. Nobody seems to notice that the structure of today’s higher-ed “business” model is backward: It’s far easier to cut academics than it is to cut anything else, so that’s what universities are doing. The irony that the very raison d’être of a university—education!—is also its most disposable aspect seems lost on everyone (perhaps because nobody studies English, philosophy, or French anymore, so nobody recognizes irony or knows what a raison d’être is).
And, if what’s happening in Great Britain is a precursor of what’s going to happen here, and at Lawyers, Guns & Money Dave Brockington, a lecturer In Social Science Methods, Plymouth School of Government at Plymouth University, warns that it is, more American colleges and universities, private as well as public, are going to follow MSUM and UDC and adapt themselves to the “corporate model”:
After I wrote most of this post yesterday morning, an email was sent to staff at noon outlining the need to “reshape our academic offer” which will “drive our investment strategy with investment in some areas, and divestment in others, which we think may include some redundancies”. Said email was also couched in the usual fuzzy business speak about sustainability, strategy, and the need to be “fleet of foot”.
“Redundancies” is Brit suit-speak for layoffs.
Yet, a university is not a business. We do not have shareholders, nor do we sell a product. Universities are a public good, which add value to individuals and society writ large. Assuming that this is the new reality, why in hell would one want to pay the opportunity costs involved in earning a Ph.D. in order to work in an industry where your job security isn’t that far removed from Dominos Pizza, and where your pay is significantly lower than a similar position in the private sector? Why go into this “sector” when the fickle year-to-year interests of students, or the shifting business models of senior management, can render your contribution redundant?
And why shouldn’t college professors be as interchangeable and disposable as everyone else?
Read all of Schuman’s article, A Ghost Town With a Quad, and Brockington’s post, Universities as Commercial Enterprise, an Ongoing Case Study.
And, in case you missed it, here’s my post reacting to that Frank Bruni column, Both ways, in the snow.