Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

Higher Education, Syria, and Other Things That Are Messed Up

I’ve known for a long time that writing does not come easy to me. I don’t consider myself a poor writer, but I’ve never been adept at sitting at a keyboard and having words flow from my not-so-fast-moving fingers. I’m not one who works out his thoughts by writing. Rather, I like to read and sit with my ideas. I work them out best, usually, in conversation with colleagues. This was a lot easier years ago in graduate school when I was surrounded by fellow students and professors eager to discuss all sorts of things. Now that I’m in the “real world” these opportunities for conversation are not as frequent. Although, I do work with an incredibly bright group of folks. All of my editorial colleagues are better writers than I, as evidenced by their publications and their thoughtful and well-written blog posts. However, we don’t often get the time to just sit around and talk about heady stuff. We’ve got books to publish!

All of this to say, I have pretty strong feelings about some important issues current today, but I don’t have the time—it would take me weeks to get the words out—or energy—parenting three little boys is hard work!—to say much about them. Instead, I’d like to point to some very good writing on the subjects.

On Higher Education: “Academy Fight Song” by Thomas Frank from The Baffler no. 23.

Frank tackles many disturbing aspects of the educational-industrial complex (my term, not his). From the dream of education…

No one knows for sure how it works, but everyone can see that it does work, and that’s good enough. Get yourself a bachelor’s degree from a “good school,” and those dreamy dreams of yours can come true. Get something else, like a cosmetologist license or a membership in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and you lose.

…to the cabal of the good schools…

Yes, there are many colleges one can choose from—public, private, and for-profit—but collectively they control the one credential that we believe to be of value. Everything about them advertises it. The armorial logos, the Gothic towers, even the names of the great colleges, so redolent of money and privilege and aristocracy: Duke and Princeton and Vanderbilt. If you want to succeed, you must go to them; they are the ones controlling the gate.

…to academic capitalism…

Colleges and universities clamor greedily these days for pharmaceutical patents and ownership chunks of high-tech startups; they boast of being “entrepreneurial”; they have rationalized and outsourced countless aspects of their operations in the search for cash; they fight their workers nearly as ferociously as a nineteenth-century railroad baron; and the richest among them have turned their endowments into in-house hedge funds.

…to the student loan crisis…

But by and large, once all the factors I have described were in place, it was a matter of simple math. Grant to an industry control over access to the good things in life; insist that it transform itself into a throat-cutting, market-minded mercenary; get thought leaders to declare it to be the answer to every problem; mute any reservations the nation might have about it—and, lastly, send it your unsuspecting kids, armed with a blank check drawn on their own futures.

…to the cartels of textbook publisher, standardized test makers and preppers, enrollment management companies, etc. …

The truth is that rip-offs like this [textbook example] abound in academia—that virtually every aspect of the higher-ed dream has been colonized by monopolies, cartels, and other unrestrained predators—that the charmingly naive American student is in fact a cash cow, and everyone has got a scheme for slicing off a porterhouse or two.

…to the extravagant spending on unnecessary accoutrements…

It’s not just the showy new buildings, but the sports teams that give the alumni such a thrill, the fancy gymnasiums and elaborate food courts that everyone thinks you have to have if you want the cool kids to choose your diploma mill over all the others. It’s the celebrity professors everyone has decided they must furnish sinecures for regardless of whether those celebrities know anything about the subject they are hired to profess.

…to the rise of the administrator…

While the ranks of full-time professors have grown at about the rate of university enrollment generally since 1975—which is to say, about 50 percent—administrations have expanded at an amazing pace. Administrators proper are up 85 percent, Ginsberg reports, while the number of “other professionals” employed by universities has grown 240 percent. Their share of university budgets has grown by similar margins.

…and the fall of the professor…

The de-professionalization of the faculty is another long-running tragedy that gets a little sadder every year, as teaching college students steadily becomes an occupation for people with no tenure, no benefits, and no job security. These lumpen-profs, who have spent many years earning advanced degrees but sometimes make less than minimum wage, now account for more than three-quarters of the teaching that is done at our insanely expensive, oh-so-excellent American universities. Their numbers increase constantly as universities continue to produce far more PhDs than they do full-time, tenure-track job openings, and every time cutbacks are necessary—which is to say, all the time—it is those same full-time, tenure-track job openings that get pruned.

…and finally to the coming dystopia.

What actually will happen to higher ed, when the breaking point comes, will be an extension of what has already happened, what money wants to see happen. Another market-driven disaster will be understood as a disaster of socialism, requiring an ever deeper penetration of the university by market rationality. Trustees and presidents will redouble their efforts to achieve some ineffable “excellence” they associate with tech and architecture and corporate sponsorships. There will be more standardized tests, and more desperate test-prep. The curriculum will be brought into a tighter orbit around the needs of business, just like Thomas Friedman wants it to be. Professors will continue to plummet in status and power, replaced by adjuncts in more and more situations. An all-celebrity system, made possible by online courses or some other scheme, will finally bring about a mass faculty extinction—a cataclysm that will miraculously spare university administrations. And a quality education in the humanities will once again become a rich kid’s prerogative.

I’ve quoted a lot from this essay, but there is much more to it and it’s well worth your time.

On Syria: On Syria, the War on Terror, and the Loss of Souls” by Tod Kelly in Ordinary Times

One short quote ought to do:

This, then, may be the final and greatest tragedy of the never-ending War on Terror:  When war is the natural and ever-present state of things, war itself becomes passé.

On Other Messed Up Things:

  • Why my boys will not have my blessing to play American football (of course their size may prevent them from even trying): concussions.
  • And what list of current messed up things would be complete without Miley Cyrus. I don’t really have any strong opinions about this person. I just felt obligated to include her in the list. Though she may very well be messed up, it is our fascination with her and people like her that is the most messed up bit about the whole thing.

2 Comments

  1. To supplement your post-secondary critique, up to 40% of high school graduates who head to college need remedial courses. Combining that with comparable drop-out rates raises questions about K-12 efficacy.

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