Against Perverting our Universities

Judging from stories in the media, universities are facing a crisis. Certainly there is a severe and pressing problem with the dual challenge of skyrocketing tuition and an inability to find a job after graduation. Today’s great lie is: get a degree, even if it means going into debt, and you’ll get a good job, pay off your debt, and on top of that you’ll make a good life for yourself. More and more often this doesn’t happen. It seems that the main purpose of the student is increasingly just to perpetuate the university system; universities need to churn students through the machine to justify their existence. Arguably, quality of instruction could also be much improved (when in college, this author was struck by the professors’ amazing intellect for research problems but lackluster interest and ability in the classroom). Some pundits propose any of a number of technological innovations that they argue would revolutionize education, if only universities would adapt them quicker. This author is skeptical, but at the moment uninterested in this question. Of greater interest is that It is becoming increasingly difficult to argue for the current system, whose main task seems to be to place masses of students into classrooms, to watch unispiring lectures, cram for exams, and then promptly forget everything they learned (if it can even be called learning). If this is not what we want, then what is the purpose of a college education?

A popular class of answers emerges from a business point of view, such as that in a recent Forbes article. The main task of this article is to analyze the possible “disruptive innovations” that could take place in the higher education marketplace. These predictions may be right or wrong as they concern the day-to-day operations of universities in the future, but more interestingly, hidden within the article is an insidious ideological move: turning higher education a marketplace and education a product that is offered in this marketplace (instead of a social function with justifications of its own). In a related ideological move, the article argues that “…we are beginning to see widespread frustration crystalizing into a variety of efforts to unseat the ‘monopoly position’ that university education has traditionally held on job-seeking preparation, and replace it with different, often less-costly alternatives.” The whole purpose of college education is thus reduced to job-preparation! It follows that if the purpose of college is job-preparation, then the purpose of students must be as job-havers, whose purpose is to serve the needs of their bosses.

Perhaps, then there is still hope in two of the problems highlighted in the article: “impractical learning” and “out-of-touch faculty”. If impractical learning is learning that supports intellectual pursuits above and beyond finding a job, then it should be fostered. If faculty are out of touch with the interests of bosses who need employees, then perhaps this out of touchness should be cultivated. (Even from the point of view of a capitalist economy, why should the faculty have a vested interest in creating well-trained employees? Do they receive shares of the profit? Are they hired as educational consultants?)

The faculty (together with students) should make strong arguments against a university system that would be confined to providing employees for companies. They need to argue for the greater social benefits of a well-educated citizenry of critical thinkers. This argument cannot be made against the bosses, but needs to be made directly to all sectors of society, to convince them against a system that is designed to train wage slaves and in favor of a system that contributes to empowering students to engage critically with their lives and in their communities.

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One Response to Against Perverting our Universities

  1. Žižek says it well: “The underlying idea of this reform, the urge to subordinate higher education to the needs of society, to make it useful in relation to the concrete problems we are facing, aims at producing expert opinions meant to resolve the problems posed by social agents. What disappears here is the true task of thought: not only offering solutions to the problems posed by ‘society’ (the state and capital), but to reflect on the very form these ‘problems’ take, to re-formulate them, to discern a problem in the very way we perceive such problems. The reduction of higher education to the task of producing socially useful expert knowledge is the paradigmatic form of the ‘private use of reason’ in contemporary global capitalism.”

    Žižek, Slavoj (2011). Living in the end times, paperback edition, Verso, p 411.

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