On Higher Education

Yesterday I read Jedediah Purdy’s recent New Yorker article, Ayn Rand comes to U.N.C., and it struck a nerve with me. The article highlights a series of politically motivated actions taken by North Carolina officials vis-à-vis university administration. Here’s a taste:

For several years, there have been indications that the state’s new leaders want to change the mission of public higher education in North Carolina. In 2013, the Republican governor, Pat McCrory, told William Bennett, a conservative talk-show host and former Secretary of Education, that the state shouldn’t “subsidize” courses in gender studies or Swahili (that is, offer them at public universities). The following year, he laid out his agenda in a speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Using the language of business schools, he urged his audience to “reform and adapt the U.N.C. brand to the ever-changing competitive environment of the twenty-first century” and to “[hone] in on skills and subjects employers need.” McCrory also had a warning for faculty members whose subjects could be understood as political: “Our universities should not be used to indoctrinate our students to become liberals or conservatives, but should teach a diversity of opinions which will allow our future leaders to decide for themselves.”

Of course, that “diversity of opinions” should not include such frivolities as gender studies or Swahili, which is just grotesquely ignorant and disingenuous. McCrory is further promoting the corporatization of the American university because that serves his political agenda.

I also thought I’d highlight this article from last month that discusses a change Scott Walker has proposed to the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement:

In Section 1111 of Walker’s proposed budget legislation, Senate Bill 21, he strikes language specifying that the UW has a public service mission to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campus” and to “serve and stimulate society.”

Walker adds “to meet the state’s workforce needs” as a core mission of the university.

Walker also strikes language ensuring that the mission of the UW is to extend “training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition,” as well as the language: “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

These are the first steps toward transforming higher education into little more than vocational training. Ed Silver made the following comments on Facebook:

Fellow scholars, don’t kid yourselves. This is a declaration of war. We can keep on doing what we’re doing and enjoying the life of the mind for now. But Walker is crossing a Rubicon here. Higher education is being redefined as job training and all the intangible goods the University creates are being redefined as luxuries–ones that can no longer be paid for in this ugly, brave new world. Scott Walker wants to become the standard bearer for the Republican Party; the agenda he lays out here is not his alone.

It’s time for us to start defending the academy with whole heart and full throat. These folks are vandals and they want to destroy what generations of scholars and students have built. And let’s be clear: what we are defending is an academy in which any kid in America, regardless of her class or income, has the right to enter into a critical and passionate dialogue with the best and most significant ideas that other human beings have had. Higher education has not always lived up to its ideals of equal access. Too many students are burdened with unmanageable debt. Curricula are not always crafted with humanism and informed criticism in mind. Administrations are bloated, and athletics and entertainment frequently eclipse schools’ missions to educate. But despite all this, we continue to think of the University as an institution dedicated to the formation of empowered and thoughtful citizens.

The University, at its best, helps people to become critical, engaged and decent human beings. If this redefinition becomes the norm, it will be deformed into a shallow machine for the training of a servile labor force. The full fruits of human existence will be reserved for those the wealth and privilege to buy them. And a vital, animating, egalitarian force in our culture will die.

Michael Law refers to Ed’s comments and asks the following question:

If you’re a religion scholar and still without a permanent position in a uni, is now the time to jump before you’re too old to transition to a new career?

I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that.

 


One response to “On Higher Education

  • kgreifer

    Scholars love to educate people so much they write articles for free that are published in expensive journals and then hidden behind financial barbed-wire on JSTOR. I know they let you see some things for free or cheap, but not the good stuff. The real goal of scholarship today is to get published and get cited by other scholars.

    Kenneth Greifer

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