Over the weekend, I saw this story about a crazy band of kids near Pittsburgh who are
putting a show on in the old barn out back starting their own college. When I tweeted that story, Jonathan Dresner (who is apparently the Kevin Bacon of all historical tweeters) pointed me to a similar, entirely intellectual exercise that Tim Burke wrote a long, long time ago. I wish all these folks well in their respective endeavors, but I’m afraid Burke put his finger on the problem right out of the starting gate back when he wrote up his vision of college for the 21st Century:
I’m serious about it: if you happen to know where there’s 500 million dollars lying around, I’d very gladly try to be part of building this institution for real.
The main problem here is not that Burke would have trouble finding $500 million lying around (although he would). The problem is that even if he could find $500 million dollars lying around, anyone who might give him that kind of money would not be interested in the same kinds of things that Burke cares about; most notably actually teaching anybody anything. In a capitalist system, investors want a return on their investment and crazy notions like actually teaching people things like the liberal arts are not a real priority.
I don’t want you to think I’m writing entirely about for-profit education here. You don’t have to start an entirely new college from scratch in order to recognize that anyone with capital to invest in education (including the public sector) now expects a return on that investment sooner rather than later. As one of those “sky is falling” articles explained just recently:
The bottom line is that we’re likely to face a future where students and their families pay a lot more of the cost of a college education out of pocket. Without grants and loans as a safety net, students are probably going to make different choices than they do now (read: less expensive choices). We’re likely headed toward a future where smaller, struggling colleges need to move to new models of doing business, while elite, wealthy colleges continue to support the current model.
Why is it that whenever I read the Chronicle these days I feel like I’m living through a scene out of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine? If we all cower in the corner and administrators get to remake the university unfettered by the interests of the professoriate, they are going to eat us for lunch. Soylent Green is faculty! Our salaries will be gobbled up by infrastructure costs that aim to make our universities competitive in the 21st century and they’ll tell the students that they’re implementing the latest in educational technology even as that technology destroys the value of the education they provide.
Unfortunately, nobody is going to hand the faculty $500 million to remake the university from the ground up because in their view we are the cost center. Here’s my pal Music for Deckchairs summarizing Dean Dad better than Dean Dad originally made the point:
As Dean Dad explains, universities are currently having a problem with something called Baumol’s cost disease. In any service industry where the value or benefit of the service provided doesn’t increase much over time, but the delivery cost has to rise in step with the overall labour market, then something has be done either to manage those rising costs, or to justify them. Casualisation is a familiar strategy to try to cut back on actual costs while delivering the same service, ideally concealing the strategy itself from the customer.
Our job then is to be like Charlton Heston and tell the truth. We don’t even have to tell them that Soylent Green is faculty. We just have to explain why Soylent Green isn’t particularly nutritious. Seriously, the primary reason that I don’t go totally Luddite on this entire profession is that if given the opportunity, I don’t think the average bean counter is going to remake the university very well at all.
If I remember my English labor history well enough (and it has been a while since I last read my E.P. Thompson), the Luddites started breaking machinery not just because the power loom was driving them into unemployment, it was driving them into unemployment while producing more of a superior product. Raise your hand if you think the academic equivalent of an automatic checkout machine is going to be a superior product? I don’t think so. When only eight of the jobs expected to see the greatest growth between 2008 and 2018 require a college degree, getting an actual education when you go to college will be more important than ever if you want one of the few good jobs left in America.
If faculty fight academic deskilling and technological unemployment not just for ourselves, but for education’s sake, maybe – just maybe – we can actually save higher education better than the people trying to make a buck off of selling our corpses to the highest bidder.