Discontents

I drove through Charlottesville, Virginia a couple of summers ago on my way back from New York. It was a serene afternoon, and I had not set foot on Jefferson’s campus in over 30 years. The Rotunda was caged in scaffolding, unfortunately, but I enjoyed meandering around the semi-vacant grounds, peering into Poe’s old dorm room and trying to get decent angles on the crinkle crankle walls using my cellphone, before crossing over into the town in search of a used bookstore. There, I found an excellent copy of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, a book I was to find less useful as a student of higher education than as an occasional voyeur of the macabre like the rest of us, drawn into its analysis of how the public cruelties of the “punitive city” matured into the surveillance society, as embodied by the metaphor of Bentham’s panopticon. “Perhaps we should abandon the belief that power makes mad and that, by the same token, the renunciation of power is one of the conditions of knowledge,” wrote Foucault. “We should admit rather that power produces knowledge…that power and knowledge directly imply one another.”

***

At the risk of asking what my students call a stupid question, I have to wonder: how did universities go from being one of this country’s most revered institutions to among the most – if not the most – reviled? Economically speaking, everyone seems to agree that whatever a college degree actually represents, having one greatly enhances your career prospects. Philanthropically speaking, a lot of people seem to think our higher learning organizations are worth throwing money at: according to NCES, the market value of college and university endowment funds topped half a trillion dollars in 2014. In 2016, the number of international students at U.S. institutions surpassed one million individuals, suggesting that on the world market, an American tertiary education is still considered the gold standard. So why does so much that we read about HEIs leave such a sooty residue? How did universities become deserving subjects of disrepute?

The short answer is that it would take too long to count the ways. But it’s fun to hypothesize.

Much of what is written about higher education is written by people in academia. Academics are trained to think critically in the first place, eschewing the facile and the anodyne. Throw in the fact that as a faculty member, you are increasingly likely to face a lifetime of professional and financial insecurity, and the emptier qualities of the glass before you are likely to stand out.

Most universities are non-profits, yet the price they demand of the average parent and/or student to be admitted into their embrace amounts to the kind of money paid to doctors, car dealers, mortgage lenders and other kinds of bottom-liners.

Nobody likes teachers anyway. At best, they know n + 1 more than you do, give you homework, and worst of all, they assess. (Hence the sweet revenge of the student survey.) Even researchers still can’t agree on whose input is more important in education, the instructor’s or the student’s; the answer often rests on the self-regard of the person you ask.

The universities did it to themselves in the 1980s when, in the halcyon days before nothing but a STEM degree really mattered, humanities departments used what was left of their cultural influence to declare the Western Canon – and the West itself – obsolete, leaving a generation of English majors armed for battle with a degree that ten years later wouldn’t mean squat anyway.

Universities are, by definition, bastions of snobbery. Everybody actively associated with them has an exaggerated sense of self-importance, at least for as long as they are associated with them. Worse still, it isn’t always clear what they actually do, despite their healthy paychecks.

It is not the universities, but post-industrial American society itself, that is to blame. It was employers, not post-secondary institutions, that suddenly decided at some point in the last three decades that any résumé without a B.A. or a B.S. would end up in the shredder. (After all, they weren’t going to train them.) The result was a bank run on what had merely been a prestigious, even highly recommended, sector by people from the length and width of the socioeconomic spectrum, with predictable results.

It’s not the universities, but the students, that are to blame. Can professors help it if undergraduates arrive having never written a five-paragraph essay, much less a research paper (at least, one they actually wrote themselves)? If they need to be cushioned against the experience of information and ideas that disrupt what they were brought up to believe?

It’s not the universities, but the media, that is to blame. Journalists may be college-educated, but they are too far removed from academe to know how things actually work, if they ever did. They get their numbers from U.S. News and World Report, not realizing that the herniated tuition figures are the institutional equivalent of horns or plumage. Nobody but international students actually pays that much.

***

Forbes reported recently that the number of Chinese students coming to the U.S. for a high school education has more than tripled over the past ten years. Though Chinese nationals have long constituted the majority of international university students here, the surge in numbers at the secondary level suggests that more students (and parents) are recognizing the value of American high schools as academically and linguistically immersive environments – in short, an invaluable university preparation experience.

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