Monthly Archives: March 2011

On thinking in a time of ideology

Recent pronouncements from various think-tanks and would-be-reformers of higher education have convinced me that there is an effort afoot to eradicate a certain kind of thinking from our universities. Couched in the name of ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’, research universities are urged (and in some cases required) to explain themselves, justify their practices, measure their ‘output’ and demonstrate their need for public support. It is one thing to ask what universities provide or how they monitor the learning of their students, but it is quite another to use this line of inquiry to mask efforts to remove tenure, deny support for education, and to generally attack an institutional form whose working practices can be shown to correlate positively with economic development and, more importantly, civil democracy.

What started as economic necessity, forcing all of us to examine how we operate, has (depending on your viewpoint) either turned into or revealed itself as an assault on intellectual values. Higher education now has to demonstrate its value proposition, expressed in terms of ROI. One can legitimately ask if the costs associated with earning a degree are worth it in purely economic terms over a working career but even this reduces the value of learning to purely monetary terms. For years universities took this question on seriously and could produce convincing data. Despite some of our discomfort with even this equation of value with cost, such data is no longer sufficient.

As states reduced support for higher education, the costs shifted to the ‘consumer’ as students are now so routinely termed. A decade ago Larry Faulkner predicted the trend was unsustainable and that the economic model needed to be reconsidered. No doubt some elite schools will survive but many state schools, especially those where the state insists on controlling tuition while reducing appropriations, would be unable to function.  I still hear the argument that all we have to do is raise tuition to solve the problems, and while I appreciate that it is possible to put in place structures to ensure support for the less-well-off student, the idea that tuition can rise inexorably to sustain the university as we know it just does not make sense. And of course, into this space crawl the agenda-driven types.

If education is to be reduced to an individual rather than collective good, then the tuition-driven model makes superficial sense. I pay: I get; what a perfect transaction. We’ve pushed this model to the point where the receiver gets to evaluate the provider on multiple scales, and where the consumer has started to complain that they want value for their money, as if the quality of education is as obvious and instantly assessed as a consumer product, an item of food or an entertainment experience. But unlike consumer products, the value of education is not so easily quantified or instantly assessed at the point of  transaction. Socrates knew this. Medieval monks knew this. My grandmother knew this. I know it, and you should too.

The value of education, and university education in particular, lies in its amplification and enabling functions within society. The university exists to allow society space to think through issues, to explore problems that might seem trivial now but could be potentially vital in the future, to encourage people to think of what’s possible, and to provide people  with the intellectual tools and encouragement to explore the unknown both while in attendance and after graduation. The system works well as long as standards for recruitment and tenuring of faculty are rigorously maintained (and clearly there is room for improvement here). If you examine who populates the best companies in the world, who invents the products, who develops the new services, and who ensures the continuity of our quality of life, you find university graduates. This is not a coincidence, it’s an outcome. Our universities yield collective benefits, the kind that are completely overlooked in the reduction of education to an individual investment.  It’s difficult to have a sensible conversation on this subject when any use of the word ‘collective’ is interpreted as ‘communism’. That is where ideology has failed us.

I am reminded forcefully of how far we have traveled from the idea of intellectual freedom when I read of the open records ‘request’ made by politicians in Wisconsin to view the emails of William Cronon, a history professor. The New York Times op-ed piece refers to this quite accurately as a ‘shabby crusade‘ and it’s obvious to most fair-minded people that this is an effort aimed at scaring off those who speak out. The calls for efficiency, transparency and cost-reduction in higher education are justifiable in times of scarce public-resources, but when they are used as a smoke-screen for attacks on people who think, and especially people who think differently, it is time for transparency to be demanded of the callers.