Thursday, April 17, 2014

In a Buyer’s Market, Colleges Become Fluent in the Language of Business, Richard Pérez-Peña, New York Times, (March 27, 2014)

           This article draws together questions we have raised in this seminar about what happens to higher education when economic pressures infuse universities with market-leaning values. Richard Pérez-Peña, a New York Times education reporter and author of the article, argues the relationship between higher education and students increasingly resembles a commercial transaction and interviews higher education experts and administrators to reflect on how this is restructuring academic priorities.
            Their talking points resonate with many of the conclusions we have settled on in Room 6117 over that last three months. That, for example, the development of a well-rounded citizenry as an educational goal has lost footing, students have become increasingly focused on how their education translates into job prospects and universities are becoming more preoccupied with filling classroom seats.

They lament that as we reduce higher education to a market commodity, we have become less sentimental about it, viewing it as simply a “steppingstone to a job and prosperity”. And that when viewing higher education through this lens, universities focus on beating competing universities, treat students like clients and customers, and engage in student-amenities arms races. And as tuition has climbed and economies have tightened, students’ families have become increasingly focused on the bottom line, and politicians increasingly insist higher education focus on the demands of the job market.
Everyone interviewed in Pérez-Peña’s article is sympathetic to the view that higher education should be about much more than just producing workers. And so I decided use his article as an opportunity to explore possible countervailing perspectives, by reflecting on the Robert Kohler article we discussed in January and the perspectives of my grandpa and the host of the TV show “Dirty Jobs”. First, my grandpa. He is a conservative, retired dairy farmer and one of my best friends. But I’m pretty sure he harbors serious doubts about my academic path, need for Ph.Ds and, I suspect, would strongly support restructuring higher education to more narrowly focus on preparing students for jobs. I can relate, at least in part with some of these sentiments.
The doubts someone like my grandpa might have about whether some of the demands of an undergraduate degree are primarily designed to benefit students, rather than to perpetuate the school system and create more academics, for example, do not feel entirely alien to me. Kohler’s account of the rise of elective courses in American higher education in The Ph.D. Machine, for example, depicts concrete the benefits for schools and academics, while the benefits for undergraduate students, remain mostly theoretical. The proliferation of elective courses allowed schools to push for more faculty with specialized training, to justify graduate courses by doubling them as electives for undergraduates and often coincided with growth in new university programs (p. 646 – 648, Kohler).
Electives are said to allow students to become the architects of their own education and allow them to discover their inner genius (p. 647, Kohler). But I think that they can also discourage students from committing to any particular path, unless they feel sufficiently excited. Dwelling on this point, brings to mind a former opera singer named Mike Rowe. He now hosts a Discovery Channel television show called “Dirty Jobs”, a show that valorizes blue-collar workers doing dirty jobs. Rowe is often quoted as saying, “Don’t follow your passion. You take your passion with you and you go out into the world passionately looking to make your way.” He says the show is about “people who have figured out a way to love what they do, not because they had a dream of doing it.” I think Rowe’s sentiments probably captures what someone like my grandpa might feel about why a more job-focused, practical education might have over a “well-rounded” education that is supposed to teach you lot of interesting things.
Finally, Pérez-Peña’s article blames economic factors for cornering higher education into adopting market values, heightening the already strong American tendency to “evaluate practically everything monetarily”. But someone who does not sympathize with the views espoused in his article, may not necessarily be thinking only about money. Perhaps, they are also suspicious of the claim that somehow “better personhood” or the “best citizens” are cultivated in the ivory tower.
As Daniel said during our discussion on academic capitalism, the notion of personal growth has been a powerful selling point for universities. But not everyone may be sold on the university as the place to go for personal growth. Some may even believe dwelling too long in a university setting can make a person out of touch with and of less use to the real world. Maybe that’s why saying something is “academic” as a synonym for a moot point or something irrelevant.
While I’m playing chameleon in my response to Pérez-Peña’s article, I do ultimately sympathize with the view that the university should be more than a factory, churning students in and out. I value the university as a place where you can have deliberation, expert-amateur encounters and where teaching and research interact. And if we just think of higher education as a profit and loss sheet we very quickly loose all of that. But I also feel it is important to continually give all perspectives room to be represented fairly. I don’t fault Pérez-Peña’s article for not exploring opposing perspectives. That wasn’t the point of the story. But I think it is our responsibility to keep this kind of narrative running in the back of our heads at all times, and it’s a responsibility I shoulder happily.

(Posed by Greg during seminar):
To what degree is money a barometer of what we need?
(My reply):
Maybe not particularly accurate, but perhaps the clearest and most convincing.

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