Another Elvis analogy.

28 12 2011

In 1969, Elvis Presley returned to live performances for the first time in ten years, doing a month-long run at the International Hotel in Las Vegas.  It was a huge critical and financial success.  Here’s Peter Guralnick again (pp. 350-51), quoting some of Elvis’ between-songs chatter:

“Anyway, I got out of the service in 1960, and I made some movies like G.I. Blues and Blue Hawaii, and several pictures that did very well for me.  But as the years went by it got harder and harder to perform to a movie camera, and I really missed the people, I really missed contact with a live audience.  And I just wanted to tell you how good it is to be back.”

Do administrators feel that way when they get back in the classroom?  My dean, for example, does at least one course each year because he actually likes teaching. Our ex-Provost who just retired went from the administration building to teaching four sections of introductory public speaking each semester for over five years and she says she wouldn’t have had it any other way.  People running universities need to remember their roots the same way Elvis remembered his during that first month back in Vegas.*

Yet some people don’t seem to think that higher education should have any roots whatsoever.  This article is particularly frustrating if for no other reason than its consistent historical refrain that change is inevitable and that everything will work itself out in the end:

The problem, [Erik Brynjolfsson] says, is that not enough people are sufficiently educated or technologically savvy to exploit such rapid advances and develop as-yet-unimagined entrepreneurial niches. He and [Andrew] McAfee conclude their book by arguing that the same technologies now making industry far more productive should be applied to updating and improving the educational system.

But turn higher ed into vocational technological ed and you’ll replace the structural problem of too few jobs with the structural problem of too many qualified applicants seeking the same limited number of jobs. Wages will plummet. Inequality will stay the same. The beauty of a liberal arts education, at least in theory, is its flexibility to meet whatever economic circumstances its recipients face.

I know that it hasn’t worked out well for many recent liberal arts grads, but maybe their education isn’t the problem. Back in October, Ezra Klein wrote:

[C]ollege debt represents a special sort of betrayal. We told you that the way to get ahead in America was to get educated. You did it. And now you find yourself in the same place, but buried under debt. You were lied to.

You can’t fix higher education until you fix the inequality.  The unfettered control of technology by organized capital is a major cause of that.  Apply the same principles from the outside economy to higher education and things will get a lot worse for a lot more people (including professors of all kinds I might add) before they get better.

No wonder some of us have suspicious minds.

*  Unfortunately, after that first gig he started playing the theme music from 2001 before going out on stage, and his act went downhill from there. By the end, he was babbling incoherently in front of people in huge rooms who had spent a fortune to hear him. Of course, I know some professors like that too.


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