Why is there no history department at the University of Phoenix?

15 01 2012

There is no way that I’m going back to political blogging this election year (as there are more than enough angry liberals out there in the blogosphere already), but sometimes political stories have subtle higher ed ramifications that I may want to consider. Take this NPR report on Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, for instance:

The public relations problem for private equity capitalists at firms like Bain, KKR and Blackstone is that they’re the agents of the creative destruction part of capitalism. They aim to take over underperforming firms and operate them more efficiently. [Steven] Davidoff, who worked on merger and acquisition deals as a lawyer before becoming a professor at Ohio State, says there’s no doubt that in that process people can get hurt.

“Sometimes operating them efficiently means that employees lose their jobs, plants are closed down and companies are restructured,” he says.

This is the philosophy that the people who control education are putting into practice right now. Our local school district announced the closing of three schools in Pueblo last Friday, including the elementary school two blocks from my house. Similarly, I find this prospect from Fortune magazine’s The Future Issue absolutely terrifying:

[C]orporations, frustrated by the skills gap of high school grads, may open schools of their own. Wal-Mart High, anyone?

Vocational education for all, anyone? I guarantee you that in this future there will be no classroom time devoted to the great historical questions of modern times, such as why we let Wal-Mart destroy this nation’s social and economic fabric in the first place.

And if you don’t think higher ed is already facing these same kind of efficiency considerations then you’re living on Mars. Why is there no History Department at the University of Phoenix? Because it’s not profitable. Colleges, especially for-profit colleges, live by efficiency. History departments die by efficiency because sitting around contemplating the answers to ageless questions doesn’t really do all that much for the gross national product. Therefore, I think we in history and many closely-related fields will disappear in the coming wave of technology-induced efficiency unless we offer a different set of values through which to justify our existence.

I happen to be rather fond of joy. Sitting around contemplating the answers to ageless questions may not be efficient, but it is lots of fun.

I went to the University of Pennsylvania as an undergrad during the mid-1980s. At that time, the Wharton School of Business really determined the mindset of the entire place. I hung out with the engineers and the comp lit majors, but I did know a lot of Wharton students.* While most of them can undoubtedly buy and sell me several times over by now, I know for a fact that as a history and political science major I enjoyed my classes a lot more than they did.

I, for one, am sick and tired of trying to defend the humanities by arguing that it teaches a particular skill set that will help you get employed (although it does). That’s a losing argument. Students who are worried about that will major in business or computer science anyways…and they’ll often be miserable as a result. I think people should major in history because history is fun, just like they should go to college because learning is fun too.

At least it should be. While I have never taken a class at the University of Phoenix, I’d bet good money that an online, mostly-vocational education is no fun at all. [It certainly doesn't sound fun in this article from Harper's.] The University of Phoenix model is, however, very efficient. Which one of those considerations is more important to you? Which one of those considerations do you think is more important to Mitt Romney? Via the Edge of the American West, I see that Romney is quite enamored with Full Sail University, a Florida for-profit school that charges $80,000 for a 21-month program in video game art. That program has a graduation rate of 14 percent. If this is the future of higher education then we are all doomed.

At least with the Democrats, the humanities as they’re supposed to be might drag on for a little while longer.

* Including my freshman roommate, Bernie Madoff’s surviving son, Andrew.

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6 responses

15 01 2012
Jonathan Dresner

I don’t understand the “there’s no profit in it” rationale. There’s a huge market for historical drama on page and screen, including non-fiction (both page and screen). Surely a savvy company like Phoenix, which wants to stay credentialled, could develop infotainment courses which people taking business-oriented/vocational courses would want to take as a change of pace, and which would bolster the institution’s claim to legitimacy. They could get in on that ElderHostel-type life-long learning business. Start with a bunch of military history – that sells like hotcakes – and genealogy, thrown in a few hot-button eras (The Sixties!), topical courses (maybe: I might still be thinking too much like an academic) and continuing ed credits for teachers, and they’d have a solid money-making department.

Ironically, the bread-and-butter courses of the academic department — gen ed surveys, national histories, historiographically rich topics — would be the first things jettisoned.

16 01 2012
Matt_L

“At least with the Democrats, the humanities as they’re supposed to be might drag on for a little while longer.”

– Maybe, but only at the fancy schools like the Ivies or Berkeley. The rest of us will be teaching glorified high school civics classes with a bit of multicultural uplift as mapped out by the late Senator Robert Byrd.

18 01 2012
Anonymous

I think that people who love the liberal arts need to stop using the “for-profits” as smoke screens for the profoundly more important problems that have long plagued higher education more generally, for or not or non profit. Student debt, the loss of tenure, part-time labor, rising costs, administrative greed and corruption, are all staples in the public system, not unique inventions of the for-profits. As to history instruction, have you seen the results of surveys about historical knowledge? I won’t mention critical thinking… We should be angry about the historic failures of education across the board in the U.S.,

18 01 2012
Jonathan Rees

Anonymous:

If you look a little more closely at this blog, you’ll see that I don’t give regular higher ed a pass on any of the topics you mention. Ultimately, all these things (for-profits and otherwise) are the result of the systematic starvation of education and working-class people in general.

1 02 2012
History Carnival CXI (December 2011-January 2012) – Frog in a Well Japan

[...] Rees, Why is there no history department at the University of Phoenix? History departments die by efficiency because sitting around contemplating the answers to ageless [...]

1 02 2012
History Carnival CVI (December 2011-January 2012) – Frog in a Well Japan

[...] Rees, Why is there no history department at the University of Phoenix? History departments die by efficiency because sitting around contemplating the answers to ageless [...]

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