A Ghost Town With a Quad

In case you missed it, there was a very disturbing article in Slate by Rebecca Schuman offering a possible view of the future of education in America. It definitely deserves reading.

A Ghost Town With a Quad: Is that the future of the American university?

The Challenge of Higher Education
The Challenge of Higher Education

The doom being suggested revolves around today’s heightened (or is it lowered?) devaluation of education and critical thinking. If you accept the argument that the primary reason for education is to create a trained pool of sentient workers who know enough to do the tasks assigned to them by their billionaire overlords and not enough to question the disadvantaged and tenuous state of their meager lives, then you might find this idea of the future of higher education totally believable. But what about those trouble-makers who insist that man is not adequately educated until fully exposed to the less commercially practical fields of education, specifically in the Humanities and the Arts.

Let us consider the proposed elimination of English from the universities. First,

If you’re planning to attend either Minnesota State University Moorhead or the University of the District of Columbia, best get in your Romeo and Juliet now—and while you’re at it, you should probably learn the formulas for velocity and momentum, and study up on the Spanish-American War. Because soon, these regional public universities may have no departments of English, physics, or history—nor a host of other programs often associated with “college,” including political science (MSUM), philosophy (MSUM), computer science (MSUM), and even economics (UDC).

The English Department isn’t just English majors reading and discussing arcane literature written by long dead authors, it also teaches students how to write clearly, read with understanding, and think critically. These are just the kinds of skills that would make Ioseb Besarionis dze Jugashvili roll over in his grave. Any study in the English Department has the potential for improving any student in ways that are not easily assignable to future professions or their earning power. A degree or even limited study in the English language and literature pays benefits that can last a lifetime, no matter what career realities govern a person’s future.

But one thing a study of the humanities, including literature, engenders in the student is a belief that there is more out of life than is generally offered by the ruling Plutocrats. The last thing any powerful CEO or multi-billionaire corporation wants to hear is, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

It gets worse

… they are also not going to reduce offices and amenities that boost enrollment. These days, no self-respecting undergraduate would think of matriculating somewhere without an indoor rock climbing wall, so MSUM has to have one of those. And without perky recruiters and extensive alumni outreach, matriculation and endowment will both crater even worse than they already have (declining enrollment is the source of the entire budget fracas in the first place). So, again, this would seem to reveal that amenities and administrators are indispensible, and thus the entire burden of the budget cuts rests squarely on the slouching, poorly clothed shoulders of the faculty, who are now to be foisted upon that dreaded “real world” they seem to hate so much.

And therein lies the rub. What is a university without departments? The MSUM and UDC decisions demonstrate something crucially important and monumentally depressing about the state of the American public university: It is an immaculately landscaped corporate park with its own apparel store, full of the sound of tuition money disappearing and the fury of a thousand feet on a rock wall, but signifying nothing.

Universities need to teach things, or else they are strip malls.

MSUM and UDC’s new vision—whose implementation will be closely watched by hundreds of institutions with similar profiles—is not a university at all. It is a ghost town with quads and a gourmet cafeteria, one that consists of amenities, sports, and administrators—but no faculty. (If only MOOCs actually educated people, I guess this wouldn’t even be a problem.)

I get that university professors have a questionable (and wholly inaccurate) rap as slacker lotharios who use class time to yell about Vietnam, get drunk on Tuesday at 10 a.m., and can never be fired no matter how boring they are. But even if you think this is true, the idea of decimating entire academic departments is ridiculous, because universities need to teach things, or else they are strip malls.

classSchuman concludes with an astute observation that Americans, especially anti-intellectual Americans, are not going to invest ten-thousand dollars a year to send their child to a “fake-college” … especially when you can use the money for a chrome and spandex gym membership.

As does so much of American life, higher education has become yet-another arena for political ideology and corporate greed. To assume that an education is important to enhance the lives of Americas and to assist in building a better life for all Americans is evidently anathematic to the American way.

Maybe Conan was right and the good life is not to have a better understanding of what it means to be human, but rather

To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.

What are your thoughts on this?

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