Professor’s Corner: Concerned with future of university education

Gabriel Brahm

What’s a university for? What does it mean to be an educated person — or a “college educated” one? What should this place be expecting of students while they’re here, and what can students hope to take with them when they leave — other than fees on the one hand and student loan debt on the other? Is a marginally more “multicultural” and “politically correct” attitude enough to supplement the really important lessons in science and technology that students receive?

Gabriel Brahm: Associate English Professor
Gabriel Brahm: Associate English Professor

Answers to such questions have been moving steadily in one direction for several decades — away from idealism and the privileges associated with what youth needs to flourish under the best circumstances, and toward the cold, hard facts of life.

In 1971 the top three answers given in surveys to the query “Why are you in college?” were, as reported by Frank Donoghue, in his recent book, “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities”: (1) “to help others who are in difficulty,” (2) “to become an authority in my field” and (3) “to keep up to date on politics.” Being “very well-off financially” ran a distant fifth at the time. Is there any doubt where that fifth-place answer comes in now?

With changing demographics (who goes to college and who teaches), a changing economy (why they feel they must go and what they believe they must submit to afterwards), has come a change in curricular priorities. The consequences have been vast and various—but the overall result has been the precipitous decline of a once-standard view that going to college was not to be confused with vocational training. Rather, it was all about getting a “liberal education,” or preparing the best and brightest for active democratic citizenship steeped in a “life of the mind” founded on the internalization of great books. As Donoghue documents, however, 1969-70 was the last year when this was true for even half the student body — 50 percent graduated with traditional liberal arts majors that year.

Since then, bachelor’s degrees in English have shrunk to four percent from nearly twice that 40 years ago. Foreign language study has experienced a proportionate retraction (down from over two percent to just one percent now). Math majors have been subtracted as well — down from three percent to 1 percent. And social science and history are at just 10 percent combined today, as compared with nearly double that when this was a different country — before we were history.

Where have the numbers risen by contrast? What areas of study have grown in popularity? Can the reader guess?

Business majors are up and (not coincidentally) for-profit online “universities” are booming too. “STEM,” as faculty were instructed at this year’s glorious Fall Convocation, is important. What separates us then from DeVry (which openly advertises that it teaches/sells what corporations want to pay for), University of Phoenix (which is neither a university nor in Phoenix), or Trump University’s program in the selling of real estate (which recently netted The Donald some five million dollars in pocket change)? For it seems that just as students have given up on the once-popular fantasy of becoming more interesting and “engaged” people during four short years of freedom from the pressures of either the family or the marketplace (who knows how long they take now, studying part-time and working part-time as they go), so too have faculty abandoned fond hopes of leavening the citizenry of a “commercial republic” with a pinch of Homer, Plato and Shakespeare.

And, well, so what? It’s unsustainable. The current compromise on offer — a muddled combination of generalized skills acquisition courses and courses in basic literacy shorn of any overarching vision of why it’s better to be educated than not — can’t last.

Universities that don’t know what they’re for anymore (besides training a “workforce” whose jobs have been disappearing: and will many college classes ever really set out to prepare people for particular jobs anyway?) are becoming midwives in practice to corporations who want docile, disciplined and submissive conformists to do what they are told without asking hard questions. The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously observed that “mankind will endure any how for a why.” But he worried what people might do if deprived of the latter. People, in other words, will put up with a lot if you give them a reason. But take away all the incentives that a self-respecting person would admit to pursuing — leaving fear of crude punishment and hope of cheap reward — and your days are numbered.

In The Last Professors — one of a spate of books out recently on the imminent demise of our system of higher education in the U.S., where ballooning costs of a college degree (notice I did not say “education”) are matched by proliferating gangs of administrators, shrinking percentages of tenured faculty relative to lower-paid/lesser-qualified contingents, and (surprise, surprise) shameful rates of illiteracy across society as a whole — Donoghue argues persuasively that a new economic model, one treating professors as employees and students as “raw materials,” is taking over from cherished notions of academe as a sort of Shangri-La devoted to freedom of thought and unconstrained inquiry into the human condition, fueled by copious consumption of books and beer. Now it’s not merely beer any longer, but prescription medications, designed to make students more productive, while nearly 80 percent of American households do not buy or read a single book in a year.

Albeit, the war on higher education waged by economic elites with little use for poetry (let alone the kind of “counterproductive” social experimentation and radical politics American campuses once were home to in the days of the Civil Rights, anti-War, Free Speech, Women’s Rights and Gay Liberation movements of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s) is not an entirely new conflagration; it’s been going on in one form or another for a century. But it’s gotten worse of late.

With the richest one percent of Americans known to be clutching onto 90 percent of the wealth, it’s clear who is winning and who is losing. Impatience concerning freedom of mind and indifference toward the needs of the human spirit — for the other 99 percent of us at least — has lately intensified to the point where the whole concept of what makes a university per se something necessary and desirable seems suddenly in danger of being altogether lost.

You would think that professors, of all people, might say something. But in fact, for the most part, they do not say anything. Why not? Low self-esteem, maybe. Self-loathing, perhaps — which they model for their students, demonstrating by example how to cut back on both quotidian self-respect and outdated “romantic” notions of the “college experience” as something designed to make you a better person by the time you graduate.

As one of America’s most eminent scholars, Stanley Fish (currently the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and a Professor of Law at Florida International University, as well as Dean Emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago) has put it, rather piquantly, “Academics like to eat shit, and in a pinch they don’t care whose shit they eat.”