The War on the Humanities has Three Fronts (Part 2: Higher Education)

Christianity started out in Palestine as a fellowship; it moved to Greece and became a philosophy; it moved to Italy and became an institution; it moved to Europe and became a culture; it came to America and became an enterprise.
       – Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the United States Senate
       (sometimes erroneously attributed to Sam Pascoe)

Something similar can be said of higher education.  What was once, in its best and purest form, a fellowship, a culture, a utopian state governed by the life of the mind, Apollo’s gift to Akademos of a protected space where he could speak freely, even against the gods, without fear of punishment, is now, like everything else in America, a business.

I don’t mean to romanticize academia here.  I am, however, deferring to an ideal that has infused higher learning since Plato walked the groves.  Sure, some have tarnished and dishonored this ideal.  Scholars behave like everyone else does in intensely competitive environments, sometimes worse.  Mother Academia can be a cruel mistress.  Her children know her early, learn to love her through books and art and youthful science experiments, often understand themselves as having been born to this life of the mind, as belonging to it almost as a birthright.  They petition for her favor, sacrifice their youth to her demands, and frequently end up suffering the life-long consequences of her rejection and ill-use. 

Some become adjunct professors for pay that would make a beggar blush, or independent scholars desperately trying to do original research without resources or a university to call home.  Of course, they still love learning.  But now they curse the day they were born to this polity, which demands all and returns less each year.  Their pain is haunting and exquisite and an utter indictment of what higher education has become.  It is simply awful.

Seventy-six percent of all college and university teachers are adjuncts; the median pay is $2,700 per three-month course.  Which works out to an average of $900/month per three-month course.  That’s about $30/day, when you consider that college teachers work every day.  That’s less than the federal minimum wage.  Without health care or retirement benefits. 

So, yes, you are worth more to society pushing fast food across a counter than teaching the next generation about western civilization and its discontents.  I had to get that out of the way.

And that life of the mind?  The course load needed to scrape together something resembling survival makes it impossible to devote the necessary time to research and publishing to get a dice throw at a stable position.  It’s ghastly.  Are there compensations in the teaching itself?  Nobody likes to say this, but hardly. According to The New York Times, “Nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States arrive on campus needing remedial work before they can begin regular credit-bearing classes.”

It wasn’t always like that.  Sorry, but there’s really no polite way to put this: Mother Academia has been made into a whore. 

Who did this?  Who’s buying?

Let’s start with basics.  The right wing (see previous post) is part of the problem, but it is not the whole story.  It isn’t even most of the story.  The bigger story is the corporate culture which colonizes everything it comes into contact with.

Corporate culture has now taken over academic culture and destroyed it.  The Chinese did something similar with Tibet.  European colonists accomplished this in North America.  Overwhelm an area with a population that adheres to a different culture and language than the original inhabitants and watch the original culture die, or at least become so weak and marginal you have to squint to see it.

In America, everything is an enterprise, so why should our universities escape that fate?  Everything is thought of in terms of a business, and anything that resists that thought category is carved and distorted until it does – albeit freakishly – pass for one.  The model is all.  The only way to measure value is money.  If it doesn’t make money it doesn’t have the right to exist. 

But some things have no business being businesses.  Just because the capitalist model of competition and free markets sometimes results in better consumer products doesn’t mean it results in better higher education. 

I say “sometimes” because contrary to the received narrative, free market competition doesn’t reliably create better products.  Sometimes it does.  Sometimes it creates the shoddiest, cheapest-to-produce products that people will tolerate having to pay for.  Capitalism is utterly neutral on quality.  Profit matters over quality, and quality only matters to the extent that it generates profit.  That’s why you can now buy a 13 oz. can of vegetables for the same price you used to pay for a 16 oz. can.  That’s why competent customer service is largely a thing of the past.  You got a problem?  Talk to the automated phone tree and hope your particular issue happens to fit a preselect.  Or email the black hole.

The goal of business is to create profit; the goal of higher education is to create an educated population capable of critical thinking.  And no, you can’t use the same tool to do both, because teaching people to think critically produces value, not profit.  When money doesn’t measure value it distorts it beyond recognition.  Or it’s meaningless, like using a ruler to measure heat.  The problem is, higher education wants to have it both ways, which is unsustainable, and has only encouraged the population think of higher education as an expensive vocational program.  The result is corporate culture attempting to profit from this demand by pressuring universities (particularly public universities) to whore themselves out as glorified jobs programs. 

To the corporate class, if you have a hammer, everything not only looks like a nail, but like the same nail.  Unfortunately, those areas of human experience that can’t be transmogrified into a nail get shattered beyond recognition when the hammer hits.   That’s what we have with the present state of humanities education, and by extension, with higher education generally.  

How did the life of the mind become a corporate subsidiary?

The short answer is, state and federal government defunded the universities and the universities made a Faustian pact with private funding sources to stay afloat.  There’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist, as Debra Leigh Scott points out in “How the American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps”.  Her piece is worth reading.  According to Scott, those five steps are:

1.  defund public higher education
2.  deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (turn them into low wage earners while creating more PhDs than can find work in their fields)
3.  move in a managerial/administrative class who take over governance of the university
4.  move in corporate culture and corporate money
5.  destroy the students
           a) dumb down the curriculum
           b) make college unaffordable, creating a generation of debt slaves

Scott writes:

Within one generation, in five easy steps, not only have the scholars and intellectuals of the country been silenced and nearly wiped out, but the entire institution has been hijacked, and recreated as a machine through which future generations will ALL be impoverished, indebted and silenced. Now, low wage migrant professors teach repetitive courses they did not design to students who travel through on a kind of conveyor belt, only to be spit out, indebted and desperate into a jobless economy. 

She’s right.

It wasn’t the students or the scholars who did this (nor does Scott imply that it was).  I don’t know of anyone who completes a Ph.D. in the humanities (or sciences) who didn’t start that long, arduous path with a love of learning and intellectual excitement, with respect for the centuries-old tradition of scholars handing down the torch to new scholars – keeping the fire alive.

But before step one, before the rash of budget cuts began, it was everybody else.  It still is.  You see, once upon a time, in the early to mid-twentieth century, a college education really was a proxy for intelligence and critical thinking ability because the standards were high.  Colleges and universities attracted capable, intelligent people.  Employers therefore liked to hire college graduates.  Then everybody decided that if they went to college and “got a degree” they’d get jobs, too.  The GI bill and government made college affordable, the perceived status of getting a degree made it desirable, and those who wanted to pursue higher learning for its own sake, particularly in the humanities, slowly got marginalized and trampled by job seekers who saw the degree as a ticket to employment rather than as a marker for having acquired the level of critical thought that certain employers found attractive.  And so the demand for universities as job factories was created. 

This demand has resulted in a tragedy of the commons.  Now that everyone feels they must “get a degree” – including the 50% of entering students who need remedial work – the four year degree has become devalued to the point where in many cases it is viewed by employers as equivalent to a high school diploma from thirty years ago.  It’s also a Ponzi scheme. Where the first rush of government funded students to “get a degree” received something of value, those down the line now often get degrees with dummied down programs designed to attract the 50% who need remedial work.

Higher education is now a business, but it’s a business that devalues its own product in order to make money while using that product’s former prestige as a marketing hook.

For example, to attract students, humanities programs sell out with courses like “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” (University of South Carolina, Columbia) or “DJ History, Culture and Technique” (New York University) or “Arguing with Judge Judy” (UC Berkeley) or “Philosophy and Star Trek” (Georgetown University) or “Learning from YouTube” (Pitzer College).

Yes, I understand that the content of such courses can sometimes address serious topics.  The “Philosophy and Star Trek” course is “basically an introduction to certain topics in metaphysics and epistemology philosophy” and involves reading real philosophers.

But why must philosophical study be gussied up in pop culture trappings and made to sound easy to attract students?  And derision?  What purpose does it serve to pander to students looking for something that sounds easy?  Do STEM courses do this?  Isn’t philosophy fascinating enough in its own right? 

Partly as a result of this crap, the humanities now enjoy the reputation of being where people end up who aren’t smart enough to study engineering.  Go to any forum on recent college graduates and the job market and you’ll see humanities majors mocked and demonized and blamed for the unemployment rate, or told that humanities isn’t a real major because you can learn it on your own time by watching the Discovery Channel, or that it basically consists of useless fluff courses.  What the humanities don’t enjoy, and once had a near-monopoly on, was the reputation for fostering critical thinking.  They have also become a dumping ground for people who need something “easy” where “it’s all opinion anyway.”  And it’s higher education that’s allowed this to happen, by allowing corporate culture to redefine it as a product competing to attract customers.  That is why the fluffiest sounding courses are offered with a straight face, and it’s hard going to find a recent college graduate conversant with American history, the constitution, how government works, fluency in a foreign language, or with more than a superficial acquaintance with the Anglo-American literary tradition, or world history.

There is an impulse in higher education among scholars and serious humanities students to privilege and preserve the Platonic ideal.  There is an increasingly stronger impulse coming from market forces to destroy it.  Not because the humanities are threatening (that’s the right wing’s motive), but because, from the standpoint of profit, they are useless.   And because critical thought doesn’t sell, courses like “DJ History” get created purely to attract numbers.

There was a time when employers who wanted to profit off the labor of their employees invested in training those employees; that was a legitimate cost of doing business.  Some employers still do that, particularly in the legal field.  New lawyers at a law firm spend a year or two apprenticing with the senior lawyers to become useful.  Nobody expects recent law school graduates to know how to practice law, because law school is spent learning how to think like lawyer so the graduate can go out with the skills to learn any area of law.  There are so many areas, and so many varying state and federal laws, it simply isn’t practical for a law school to teach any one of them, or to predict where any particular student’s first position might be.

However, most employers have figured out that they can offload the cost of that training onto the universities.  Donate some software tools, encourage the professors to teach the complexities of their use, and hopefully produce job-ready (but not necessarily educated) graduates.  It saves corporations a ton of money.  And the universities have been happy to oblige.  This has helped create a vocational school-like university culture in which humanities studies are viewed as irrelevant at best and a career killer at worst.

I have occasionally met parents in the last few years waxing hysterical that their college-bound child wants to study the humanities.  When they learn of my English background, they always feel obligated to tell me that they will force the issue by only paying for “something practical.”  They don’t care if junior can’t write or think or even likes his major as long as he gets a job, and the sooner he gets out of college and into that job the better.

The problem is, they’re not serious about the jobs part.  If their only concern above all else was making sure their child gets a job, the jobs are over hereAnd hereAnd hereAnd here.   Problem solved.  With the added bonus of escaping crushing student loan debt.

Except it isn’t.  Society goes begging for skilled artisans.  Work is plentiful, unlikely to be outsourced, and pays well – often better than what many college graduates make.  You can save enough money in a few years to study any “useless” humanities subject you like, as much as you like.  But the suggestion that a young person should learn a trade is usually met with great parental offense.  Some consider it an insult.  Parents want the “prestige” of a college degree and the guarantee of a job.  They want both dammit and will not settle for less! 

You see, large numbers of supposedly egalitarian Americans still look down on the trades.   They don’t want their children to practice them, because there’s a perception that it somehow means they “weren’t smart enough” for college.  So they’d prefer that universities bestow degrees that are guaranteed to lead to jobs, like trade schools do  – so long as they don’t have to call them that.  And they’d also prefer to send young people to college who are hopelessly unprepared and badly in need of remedial work and have the university teach them what they should have learned in high school, so long as they get a degree.

So on some level – and I really hope I’m not naïve here – parents see value in higher education, or at least – which is probably more accurate – in the appearance of having an education.    And appearance is often what they’re buying.   They don’t care about quality any more than capitalism does – they care that junior has a paper certifying that he’s “got a degree.”   In this sense, the schizophrenia in universities trying to have it both ways, trying to be jobs centers and institutions of higher learning, is mirrored in the parents.

By the way, one excellent use for MOOCs would be to provide remedial education to individuals who were shortchanged of a basic education in high school.  Rather than offer MOOCs for credit, universities could accept certain applicants contingent upon demonstrating a certain level of competence in subjects they are deficient in by passing MOOCs.  Once they demonstrate competence they can matriculate and start earning credit for college-level courses.  Truly dedicated students would benefit, slackers would get weeded out.

The idea of working at a trade, saving, and then going to university purely for the intellectual experience, which is what universities are supposed to be for, is a no go.  Why is this a difficult concept for so many people? 

We lack Great Britain’s tradition of working men’s colleges, and France’s overall respect for the humanities. We like the outward forms of prestige but have no understanding or respect for what supports those forms.  And so higher education, which, being a business, is no longer primarily concerned with educating, rushes to pander to these impulses.  It has to justify the investments it depends on.  So there are now degrees in just about every permutation of business (corporate communications, health care administration, hospitality administration, risk management, human resources management, general management) and credit courses in fluff parading as humanities study so nobody has to read and wrestle with the hard stuff.  And, yes, properly taught and approached, the humanities are hard stuff – they are the messy stuff of life.

There is an old story that there was a sign on the original academic groves that said “Let no one who is not a geometer enter.” (Let no one who cannot think geometrically enter).  It’s not a bad policy.  You had to demonstrate a certain intellectual competence before they’d let you into the party.  The groves were for higher thought and everybody knew it.  But such a policy would mean honoring the dignity of work as well as the value of higher education, because that’s what happens what you stop confusing them.  You respect both for what they are instead of trying to turn them into each other.  At least, that’s what should happen in a society that recognizes the worth of each individual as separate from how much profit they generate for somebody.  But we fail miserably there, too, as I’ll take up in Part 3.

Next: Part 3: Artists Themselves


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5 Responses to The War on the Humanities has Three Fronts (Part 2: Higher Education)

  1. […] MOOCs, in short, are nothing but the logical extension of corporate higher education. Karen Michalson explains the ideological background behind the MOOC offensive better than I ever could here: […]

  2. This piece is nicely written but I’m afraid I’m reacting badly – second piece I’ve read today where “it wasn’t the scholars.” It wasn’t the scholars, it wasn’t the scholars, I’m a neoliberal, it wasn’t the scholars. OF COURSE it was the freaking scholars. It didn’t start with defunding. It started while they were still building buildings with solid teak doors at UBC, and even before that.

    You are right in making the connection between universities and public education, but you don’t seem to follow the thread. Whence came the teachers who are producing those incoming students needing remedial work off the bat? They came from your education faculties. Have you read education “scholarship?” How are those education “academics” getting the garbage they produce through university academic standards committees? I have a book from the 60s by Charles Brauner, lamenting the inability to distinguish sense from nonsense in the granting of discipline status. Not only has this not improved; it has GOTTEN WORSE.

    There is much, much wrong in the ivory tower, but as long as scholars resolutely refuse to believe that there might be some vestige of fault to be laid at their own feet, they are offending the very idea of scholarship in the quality of their analysis.

    A few days ago I read a piece in which someone claimed “scholar” status who demonstrated the very antithesis of scholarship with the position she articulated. Articulated it well, but it was a bad position.

    I was just on campus today, which I rarely am, looking up microfiche in the BC Hydro section of the luxurious library, right next to a section claimed by a major bank. As an alumnus of a discipline that had high academic standards in a crummy little building, yes, it’s sick. But until everyone on campus says, OK, we all screwed up, let’s see what we can rescue here, and let’s maybe be willing to GIVE SOMETHING UP, that corporate money is going to be needed.

    There is as much filler in the halls of academe as there is in certain fast food.

    I was called “harsh” in a comment I made earlier today, and yes, I’m angry. I challenge you to spend a day reading education journals and not get angry about how screwed over the kids are being whose education is being hijacked by self-fetishizing ideology emanating from the ivory tower and how sleek and privileged the people are who create something as easily correctible as widespread reading failure. It’s all a make-work project for educationists who fancy themselves academics, and the rest of the university is turning a blind eye. And in doing so, they compromise their own scholarship, and their teaching. After all, if you teach “child centred learning” in the ed faculty, eventually you have to adopt it in the med school. And so the toxin spreads.

    Compromised academic standards, which you do cover nicely, are the original toxin – the corporate money isn’t. The corporate money is just the bandaid.

    • Maybe things are different in Canada, but I can promise you that down here in the states it really isn’t the humanities scholars, who as a rule have no impact on the schools of education, and no influence whatsoever over how their disciplines are taught or not taught in the high schools. Humanities and education as disciplines run on entirely separate tracks, and rarely (if ever) meet. But as to your question, “Whence came the teachers who are producing those incoming students needing remedial work off the bat?” I can’t speak to teacher training, but one facet of the problem is the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001” which went into effect in 2002. George Bush pushed for this thing, and both parties in Congress got on the train. Essentially, the Act has greatly limited the ability of high school teachers to teach higher order learning skills, because it emphasizes measuring students’ ability by their performance on standardized tests that don’t require complex thinking. The results are predictable, including large numbers of bright students that are completely unprepared for college because all they’ve been taught to do is take multiple choice tests. If you want to get angry, you can read about it here.

  3. Matt says:

    My child is four years old. When he turns 15 I shall read this article aloud to him. Bravo! You defend the humanities well.

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