The Attack on Higher Education

This post is a bit off topic, but I think people interested in higher education (which include many followers of SO) need to know that higher education is presently under strident, well-funded, ideological attack here in Texas. Be warned. If it succeeds here this campaign will be coming soon to a neighborhood near you:

Presently there are some who claim to value education, but think that public higher education needs drastic reform. These individuals think that the taxpayers would be getting a much better deal if higher education were reformed in terms of a “business” or “free market” model. According to this model, students are customers and higher education should be in the business of satisfying its customers. These “free-market” advocates think that professors do not teach enough. Instead, they charge, academics spend far too much time on research of dubious value. Research should be radically deemphasized, they hold, and professors should teach more and bigger classes. For instance, in a given term I will teach three classes that average out to 20-25 students per class. If, instead, I taught five classes of 30 -35 students, I could save the taxpayers a lot of money. If we greatly increase the teaching load of faculty, we would need a lot fewer of them, and could cut costs and tuition significantly if we had less than half the faculty we have now.

The people who make these criticisms are the kind of people that playwright and wit Oscar Wilde was talking about when he mentioned “those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Producing knowledge is not like producing widgets. Assembly-line methods work poorly at any level of education, but especially in higher education. Higher education, in particular, is more than pouring information into a passively receptive brain. Teaching is mostly about engaging minds, not stuffing them. Further, all education, and especially its upper levels, is ultimately self-education; all any teacher can do is to lead the proverbial horse to water. Students will only drink at the fountain of knowledge if they want to, and my job is to inspire, belabor, challenge, encourage, frustrate, or whatever it takes to do to motivate them to want to know. This is a process that is complex and nuanced; it requires give-and-take, flexibility, and improvisation. Learning is something you can only help to happen. It cannot be forced. You maybe can hammer a widget into shape, but not a mind. In short, teaching is a creative art, and it cannot be produced on an assembly line basis.

As for research, it is hard to escape the impression that the opposition of the “free market” zealots to academic research is at bottom ideological and not economic. The denizens of the far right do not like academic research because its results tend not to line up behind their favored dogmas. Academic research, for instance, supports evolution and human-caused global warming and tends to debunk “trickle-down” economic theories and abstinence-only sex education. Right-wing critics of higher education often promulgate a stereotype of the college professor as a tweedy elitist who does little work but spends his time sipping Chablis in the faculty club while making condescending remarks about God, patriotism, and NASCAR. Of course, all those who perpetuate such stereotypes thereby only succeed in revealing their own biases and ignorance.

Further, far from being detrimental to instruction, research and teaching go hand-in hand. Teaching at any level is enhanced if the instructor knows what the best and the brightest are doing in his or her field. Academic fields change constantly, and one who does no research can only teach a course that is frozen in time, static in ideas, and increasingly irrelevant. Also, advanced students are directly involved in research, and guiding such students—the researchers of tomorrow—is one of a professor’s most important teaching responsibilities.

The criticisms of the “free market” zealots are therefore specious, arising chiefly from ideologically motivated antipathy and baseless stereotypes. The recommendations of these critics would ravage higher education, driving good students and good professors elsewhere and would wind up giving the taxpayers a much worse deal than they have now.

But if higher education is not to be conducted on a “business” model, what is the model? What is higher education like if it is not like making widgets? A better model of the relationship between student and professor might be the relationship between patient and doctor, or, at least, the way that relationship has been portrayed since Hippocrates. The salesman gives his customer what the customer wants; the good doctor gives patients what they need. We often do not want what the doctor prescribes, e.g., to quit drinking or smoking or to lose weight and exercise more. Again, though, if the doctor is a doctor and not a quack, what the patient wants is not what matters, only what is good for the patient. Likewise I have to want what is good for my student even if that means giving them grades and feedback they do not want. Students generally want good grades with little work, but this is not good for them and it is my job not to let them have it.

Herding students en masse through a curriculum of large, impersonal surveys and online junk courses and then giving them a piece of paper at the end also is harming them and harming society, though it would certainly be cost efficient. So, sure, we could make education more cost efficient. The only downside is that we would no longer be educating but only manufacturing lots of dopes with diplomas. A high school diploma from many public school systems currently signifies little. Its possessor may not be able to read or write. With only a little effort we can make a college diploma equally meaningless. Will this be a good bargain for the taxpayers of Texas?

A concluding reflection: There was a time—n0t that long ago—indeed, within the living memory of many of us today, when everyone at all levels of society, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, agreed that there was more to value than a bottom line. Those days now seem as distant as a quasar. In the current zeitgeist the only recognized value is the kind with a dollar sign in front of it. If that is what we have become, then philosophy and the other humanities can have no value because our humanity has been lost. In that case, it is not education that has failed us; rather, we have become unworthy of it. However, I think that there is hope for us and we might still recover the great truth, known to sages, poets, philosophers, and great religious leaders throughout history, that value and price are two very different things. The true importance of the humanities is to remind us again and again and again that the true values are those of truth, beauty, and goodness—not acquisition and aggrandizement.

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