Articles discussed in this post:
David Brooks, “The Campus Tsunami,” The New York Times (5/3/12)
Frank Bruni, “The Imperiled Promise of College,” The New York Times (4/28/12)
Andrew Policano, “Universities must adapt to financial realities,” The Financial Times of London (5/ 7/12)
It’s depressing to see a conservative columnist like David Brooks, who at least pays lip service to the value of a humanities education, so thoroughly seduced -- and for so many bad reasons -- by the burgeoning business of online education. The "tsunami" Brooks refers to is the entrance of “elite, pace-setting universities” like MIT, Yale, Stanford, and Harvard into online education. While he acknowledges the doubts some educators have about this development (what happens to the rest of the faculty when “star” professors’ lectures become available for free online? will the standards for online courses be rigorous? what about the value of eye contact between professor and student?) Brooks finds lots of “reasons to be optimistic.” But look carefully at what he’s optimistic about and you'll be troubled. Why? Because it's the global commodification -- and even colonization -- of higher education by elite universities in the West that seems to have caught his attention. For Brooks, the tsunami in online higher education is all about turning lectures by American professors from elite universities into cheap global commodities. What excites him is that "online learning could extend the influence of American universities around the world. India alone hopes to build tens of thousands of colleges . . . Curricula from American schools could permeate those institutions." Isn't that great? Of course, because in Brooks' view "online education" is about "transmitting knowledge into a commodity that is cheap and globally available." That’s worth repeating. Brooks is advocating turning knowledge into a commodity that is cheap and globally available.
There’s a perfect storm here, and it’s awfully troubling: pedagogical colonialism meets Fordism. Reestablish American hegemony in higher education by mass producing cheap knowledge in homogenized, westernized bits that can take the place of courses formulated and taught by Indian, African, or Brazilian scholars for the needs of their students. Brooks’ vision of the future of higher education is all virtual, all western, all stars, all elite, cheap, homogenized, and hegemonic. He seems a lot less interested in quality education for students than in reasserting the power and the authority -- and maximizing the profits -- of elite Western institutions.
All of this is especially troubling at a time when real, in-the-classroom higher education is so financially strapped, and so driven by the bottom line, that commentators are beginning to call for tax and fellowship subsidies to actually lure students away from the humanities and into more “practical” majors. That’s right. Take, for example, the New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, who recently insisted we need to find a way to make higher education a better pay-off for students. Why, according to Bruni, is the promise of college imperiled for so many students? Because too many of them major in the humanities or the liberal arts, of course. Bruni laments that college has become a “luxury” with “uncertain returns” for so many students and their parents. His troubling solution to this problem is to “reroute” students from majors like “philosophy and anthropology . . . art history and humanities” into practical, vocationally oriented majors like “accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find.” Indeed, if these students won’t leave the liberal arts and humanities for more utilitarian majors, Bruni has a great idea. Reduce their funding and reinvest it in students who want to use college purely as vocational training: “I’d . . . call for government and university incentives to steer students into the fields of studies that will serve them and society best. We use taxes to influence behavior. Why not student aid?”
Andrew Policano, dean of The Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine, has recently made a similar proposal -- and for the same reason. It would not only make the increasing corporatization of higher education a fait accompli but would essentially tax students who opt for the humanities. Policano’s solution to the escalating costs of higher education is to follow the path of business schools, which have “for many years charged a premium for their programmes with little protest from students.” Why? Because they “offer their students a perceived value beyond the cost of their education . . . they understand how to add value in a way that captures market share.” In his view, public universities need to “consider limiting their scope.” Since they can’t be “all things to all people” they ought to “adopt an accountability framework” that “aligns revenue and costs.” This realignment is perfectly in synch with Bruni’s vision of higher education. It’s aimed at producing “resource allocations” that shift the educational emphasis to areas with “high profitability” while downsizing programs with “negative cash flow.” It’s not hard to imagine who will take the big hits here, is it? Like Bruni, Policano would shift students from the humanities to “science, mathematics, and technology” through taxpayer and donor subsidies. If not enough students decide to vocationalize and credentialize their educations, reduce their funding, and reinvest it in academic programs that produce workers. In Policano’s view, higher education -- especially at public institutions -- will survive only if it becomes “entrepreneurial, market focused,” and economically efficient. These two proposals literally de-value the humanities in a thoroughly marketized, jerry-rigged approach to higher education.
Taken together, these three articles represent a troubling consolidation of the corporate values that have come more-and-more to dominate higher education, and in a way that represents a direct threat to the humanities. Brooks’ enthusiastic endorsement of a Fordist and colonizing model for online education, and the proposals by Bruni and Policano that we use financial incentives to drive students out of the humanities and herd them into more “practical” vocational fields, are troubling at a time when we ought to be doing a better job of democratizing access to higher education, and re-articulating the real social, civic, and even economic values of majoring in the humanities. [This post represents the opinion of Paul Jay and should only be attributed to him]