30 July 2014

Refinancing the Mortgage on the Academy's Soul

Image from http://www.fhmtg.com/
How's this for a tasty morsel of righteous indignation?  As reported by Eric Hoover at the Chronicle of Higher Education,
At the ACT’s annual Enrollment Planners Conference here on Thursday, Mr. Niles, founder of Target X, recommended five “dirty words” colleges should use regularly.... 
Finally, Mr. Niles asked for other words that colleges should embrace. “Closing,” said one admissions official (as in, closing the deal with an accepted applicant). “Fire,” said another (as in, letting an ineffective staffer go). “ROI!,” someone else exclaimed. “ROI!”And then, just maybe, everyone went and washed their mouths out with soap.
The words? Customer, Sales, Competition, Experience, Accountability.
Ho hum.

We're surprised? “'You are a business,' Mr. Niles told his audience. 'Why do we think that’s a bad thing?'"  We're not a business, and being a business would be a bad thing, but the "why" is a question that the academy has been remarkably unwilling to answer in any vigorous way, outside of comfortable collegial griping.  In the meantime, as public support for higher education diminishes, the bills keep coming, and the "but we're not a business!" methods for coping with them tend to further diminish the role of the humanities.  At my institution, faculty are encouraged to pursue grants to fund their research, and the hefty percentage that the university skims for overhead is a source of deep resentment.  So is the fact that reliance on external funding falls awkwardly on departments for which there are few external funds, like most of the humanities.   My institution recruits students who pay full sticker price, and the enrollment of international students has soared accordingly (and students for whom English is a second language, and for whom tuition represents a family investment generally choose not to major in humanities).

So tuition dollars matter more than they once did, and in the absence of public commitment to higher education as a shared good, it's up to  participants in the academy to channel them in desirable directions.  This reductio ad sales pitch is being carefully skirted wherever faculty gather to wring their hands about declining enrollments in their departments.  Everyone knows we need aggressive marketing campaigns to draw students to our fields of study; everyone knows we're competing with adjacent fields for the handful of remaining students who gravitate towards learning-for-its-own-sake; no one wants to say it, much less act on this knowledge.   We rightfully recoil at any framing of our work as a commodity, but we recoil so far that we miss the opportunity to market any alternative.

Timothy Burke of Easily Distracted takes a rare stab at the issue of how we can defend the most liberal of the liberal arts without resorting to, on the one hand, a narrow careerism or, on the other hand, mushy (and intrinsically elitist) claims about humanizing self-improvement.  Burke argues that finding that sweet spot involves: (1) acknowledging the provisional nature of the improvement we offer ("Yes, we’re cultivating humanity, it’s just that we’re not very sure what will grow from any given combination of nutrients and seeds. In our students or ourselves."); and (2) redesigning undergraduate curricula around those provisional aims rather than conventional disciplinary structures:
Right now, many faculty want...to have rigorous programs of disciplinary study that are essentially instrumental in that they primarily encourage students to do the discipline as if it were a career, justified in a tautological loop where the value of the discipline is discovered by testing students on how they demonstrate that the discipline is, in its own preferred terms, valuable. 
If we want people to take seriously that non-instrumental “dark side of the moon” that many faculty claim defines what college has been, is and should remain, we have to take it far more seriously ourselves, both in how we try to live what it is that we study and in how we design institutions that increase the probabilities that our students will not just know specific things and have specific skills but achieve wisdoms that they otherwise could not have found.
"Wisdoms" are an uncomfortable sweet spot, particularly when one tries to imagine the  committee room in which a group of faculty try to agree on the learning objectives that will constitute a content-free yet meaningful vision of mutually acceptable moral improvement.  Even if the aim is a stated "probability" rather than "certainty" and cloaked in delicate circumspection, anything substantive enough to provide college level rigor will fall far short of consensus, and anything vague enough to satisfy all parties will be unteachably inchoate.

We don't need to dissolve the conventional disciplines in order to offer a meaningful college curriculum, but we do need make a stronger and more persuasive case for them--which doesn't have to be an argument for the moral improvement they offer.  Studying something in depth makes you smarter, and the more complex the material you are working with, the farther in takes you from realms with which you are already familiar, the smarter it can make you.

Smarter in ways that an employer will value?  Sure.  But also, smarter in interactions with other people, smarter in understanding the complexity of any problem, smarter in recognizing what you don't know, smarter in filling in those gaps.  Burke is right--it may not necessarily be an improvement that makes you more humane.  "Smarter" may make you better at manipulating, not empathizing, better at amassing wealth, not improving the world.

Either way, though, "smarter" gives college graduates more control over the choices they will make, in every dimension of their lives, and it's an objective we should reclaim from the realms of human endeavor where wealth is taken to be the only measure by which "smarter" can be measured.

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