Why Every Article About the University Crisis is Wrong

This article really pissed me off. This is what really annoyed me:

Education is neither analogous to customer service nor does it need an analogous paradigm at all. It is its very own paradigm, one that has been established since before Socrates patiently nudged Glaucon into the light.

As much as I hate (and I’ve been consistent about hating them) student evaluations of instructors, it’s possible I hate this article and every one like it even more. This is tone-deafness and blindness to systemic problems at its very worst.

For me, this is the perfect example of an unfortunate confluence of both disagreeing with the basic premise of the article, and wishing the article were true. (At least with regards to certain ideas.) The author literally alludes to Socrates and the nostalgic Grand Old Idea of the university, which I think supremely glosses over the history of universities in very much the same way that nostalgic conservatives gloss over the real history of the “glory days” of the forties and fifties. Universities as we know of them today, descendants as they are of the old British system of higher learning were wrapped up in a lot of dynamics involving religion (earlier on) and then class and race (later on.) It’s no coincidence that the commissioning system for officers in the US military is very much a function of whether a person has a degree.

Indeed we see it in almost every walk of life in America: Degrees are increasingly necessary for attaining even modest social and class status in our society. It puzzles me that academics react with shock and surprise when the education system which is so heavily subsidized by tax dollars is increasingly treated like a thirteenth grade. Perhaps it’s insulation, or parochialism, or simple institutional or professional inertia, but the writing has been on the wall for a while and the issues run very deep and dark; yet professional academics seem to be unable to cut to the real heart of the issue. The real heart of the issue has been poisonous to the Grand Old Idea of the university from the start: It was always about making sure the right kinds of people were in a better position economically and intellectually to direct and manage the affairs of society. The democratization of education has led to this current state of affairs, in part, because the only real way we democratize anything in this country is by commodifying it.

I’m sympathetic, certainly, to the plight of professors and adjuncts facing new labor issues around the manner in which universities are run in this world where everything needs to be monetized to function. However the way forward cannot be a “return” to a fantasy land of ether-headed, ultra-pure, high-minded idealists pursuing high-minded ideas unpolluted by politics. That never existed. Perhaps the commodification of higher education has gotten worse, and perhaps it’s throwing some grim realities under some very bright lights, but the solution is not to sweep those realities under the rug and pretend that the cozy relationship between universities and the class and labor system never existed. This supposed former purity of academia is a myth that needs to die a cold hard death. And academics should be the first to kill it, not the last.


OOOO!!! An academia thread!

I agree with you, that the democratization of the academy in the US was driven by it’s commodification, as that has been a key mode of creating greater diversity and democracy in the US… Lizbeth Cohen (among others) has focused on that in her work (esp. A Consumer’s Republic, though she doesn’t deal directly with academia in that book). It’s also very much a myth that at some point, it was the life of the mind and that it’s gotten frittered away by allowing “the wrong sort of people” into the academy. It’s a ridiculous proposition. The job market has long driven the dictates of the academy and not understanding that is just ahistorical and wishful thinking.

I’ve found many of the academics, those who are tenured and comfortable, to be completely out of touch with the rest of us here, who have something to say, but are not getting a platform to say it. It was years before PhD GTAs in my department got a raise, and yet they didn’t want us going out and having any sort of employment outside of our stipends… when many of us have to deal with having families or the rising cost of living in a gentrifying city (which many of the profs are actively helping to gentrify). They want us done in 5 years, and it’s hard for many people to do that without actually going hungry. The majority of tenured faculty got their degrees in a completely different environment and they need to acknowledge that things have changed, but they just aren’t willing to do so. In way, they are rather conservative thinking, even when they are “liberal” minded… if that makes sense.

Incidentally, I was just talking to a friend who is the daughter of academics today, and she says things have always been political and kind of shitty. Both got their degrees and jobs in the 1970s, and both have been at or near the top of their departments. It’s never been this pure, life of mind place, but has always been politically driven environments.

Anyway… time to revive this thread and fix the university system, maybe?


I can’t help but disagree.

The article, and others like it, may well be pitching an over-sanitised version of the past, but a revolt against the commodification of education and the consumer mindset is absolutely essential, and shouldn’t really be surrendered to as a lost cause.

The thing is, as the linked thread discusses, the big questions that we’re failing to tackle is “What should Universities exist for” and “How does society choose to educate itself.” The current capitalist consumer/product mode of looking at education is clearly a sick and diminished one, but it fits with the current prevailing dogma of “Hey, truth is approximate and reality is subjective, so instead of any coherent thought, here’s a smorgasbord of opinion- pick your own. It’s consumer choice, or something”.


This topic was automatically closed after 333 days. New replies are no longer allowed.