Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Attack on Higher Education: Iowa Edition

Rick Santorum's ideological assault on colleges and universities as bastions of Satan reflects a broader conservative targeting of academia. Instead of being viewed as an important social resource, an institution where wisdom, knowledge, and critical understanding of the human condition are developed and disseminated, academia as we know it is viewed as dispensible at best and a threat at worst.

To attack tenure--as one Oklahoma state senator has recently done--is one way to express such disdain. Tenure isn't necessary if all you want to do is pass on technical skills and job training, because academic freedom isn't crucial for preparing people to work for the companies that currently enjoy power and influence in society. You do need academic freedom, however, if you're conducting social research into the relations between business practices and the conditions for human flourishing and you've found good reasons to think that the current business system undermines the general welfare of society for the sake of certain privileged elites. If you're right about this, then this is clearly something people should know--but it isn't to the advantage of those in power that you be protected from summary termination as you communicate these discoveries in your teaching and research.

To attack tenure is to operate as if academia is all about job training as opposed to being the kind of independent center of inquiry that can and should expand social wisdom unimpeded by the interests of those who are currently privileged by the existing status quo.

But there's another way in which academia is coming under attack--and that attack is particularly evident in what is currently happening at the university where I was teaching before I came to Oklahama State. The University of Northern Iowa is currently facing cuts--an inevitable feature of the education landscape given the economic realities we face in the US today. Belt-tightening is sometimes inescapable. But how the belts are tightened is going to be a function of the values of those who are in charge of the tightening. And at UNI, the administration's proposed strategy for cutting expenses reflects a value system that, to put it bluntly, is at odds with what academia is about.

Specifically, UNI's administrators have proposed cutting programs based on how many majors those programs happen to have graduated in the last few years. If a program has graduated on average less than ten majors a year for the last few years, then it faces the axe. So, physics? Gone. Philosophy? Gone. Religious studies? Gone. Geography? Gone. You get the idea.

The question is, what priorities are reflected by this strategy for belt-tightening? And how do these priorities relate to the mission of academia?

If you don't value a comprehensive education--that is, an education which exposes students to the range of academic inquiry in a diversity of fields--then you don't value academia. If you don't value preserving a physics department for the sake of the intrinsic importance of expanding and disseminating knowledge about the physical world,  regardless of how many students major in physics, then you don't value academia. If you emphasize programs that advance the technical know-how and means-ends knowledge that employers want their employees to have in order to better pursue their business ends, but do so at the expense of a more holistic vision of the human condition that can help us achieve the wisdom to decide which ends are really worth pursuing, then you don't value academia.

If your priorities in making necessary spending cuts are determined by the current priorities of the business world--if, in other words, you let the status quo that defines current job prospects determine what will be cut and what will be preserved in an academic institution--you are (a) compromising the academy's historic role of critically assessing the status quo, (b) compromising the academy's capacity to lead the way in new technological and social innovations, and (c) compromising the academy's capacity to anticipate and adapt to changes in the broader social landscape. And so, if academic administrators take their cue from business when making spending cuts, they are compromising the very essence of what academia is about.

To use an ecological metaphor, an ecosystem's capacity to successfully weather environmental changes depends on its diversity. And the academy, with its comprehensive range of academic programs and offerings, is a social bastion of diversity in a broader social environment in which there is enormous pressure imposed by existing employers to have educational programs that simply service their existing job needs. The result is that crucial veins of wisdom will be lost to the demands of the job market. The diversity from which innovative solutions to new challenges can spring will be lost. The critical voice that courageously questions the wisdom of the status quo will be silenced.

Now college students are products of their culture, which is powerfully shaped by the interests of the existing business world--for example, through advertising, which reflects the interests of businesses in the marketplace. College students also have a sincere interest in making a living once they graduate, an interest that leads them more often than not to reflect in their priorities the priorities of the existing business world. While students often care about other things--while they are often hungry for critical reflection, humanistic learning, wisdom in the broader sense--they routinely choose their major based on more practical considerations. And so, making cuts based on what students major in will in general mean shaping the university to reflect the priorities of the current business culture.

And of course colleges and universities need to take those priorities into account. But they can't be defined by those priorities without ceasing to be what universities were created to be--a kind of institution every bit as necessary and important today as it has ever been. Perhaps more so. We need institutions that are truly diverse centers of inquiry, where the current preferences of the status quo don't truncate the scope of research and education in a short-sighted way. We need institutions that objectively and rigorously assess the status quo, unafraid to crticize, to advocate improvements, etc.

And perhaps most importantly, we need educational institutions that aren't just devoted to expanding students' technical know-how, the skills they need in order to be able to effectively further the ends they (or their employers) happen to have. We need educational institutions that invite students to consider which ends are most worth pursuing and why. We need educational institutions that inspire students not just to look reductionistically at how things are put together so as to be able to do effective means-ends reasoning, but to look holistically at the human condition in ways that help to generate the wisdom needed to choose the right ends. Doing that won't get you a job--so few students will major in the fields that promote such wisdom. But such wisdom is essential for human flourishing.

Academia has historically been the kind of institution that does these things. And we need institutions that do these things. But if academic administrators cut programs according to how many majors the programs happen to be graduating right now, academia will cease to be these things. A crucial resource of critical reflection, holistic thinking, and diversity of thought will die. And the wisdom that can put the "bottom line" monetary interests of business into a broader context, that can encourage us not to forget what is most essential for good lives and healthy societies while we pursue our jobs and get things done--that wisdom will wither.

It's no wonder that UNI's faculty just voted no confidence in UNI's administrators. These administrators are operating as if ensuring that an academic institution continues to do what academic institutions are supposed to do, that it continues to be what the academy crucially has to be, shouldn't be crucial in shaping hard decisions. Someone who isn't committed to what academia as such is about is not the best choice to lead an academic institution. That seems clear.

The problem is that there are broader social currents that are putting such people in charge of academia, precisely because there are influential forces in society that don't care about academia and its mission. But all of us should care. Our future flourishing may depend on it.

1 comment:

  1. Making universities into super fancy high powered vocational schools boils down to a massive government subsidy to the corporate world--the taxpayers pay the corporate training costs so corporations can use their profits for more useful things like jets and political donations. You'd think the conservatives who tout the magic of the free market so much would be a little embarrassed.