what would a left critique of higher education look like?

Well, it certainly wouldn’t look like this piece by Matt Yglesias, which reads like every other piece by Yglesias on education policy, though every Yglesias piece seems to conclude with a solemn reference to Kevin Carey‘s opinions on technology, distance education, and enhanced classroom “productivity.”  I would forgive the naivete about teaching (has Yglesias ever faced a classroom full of students, let alone tried logging onto Blackboard?), if Yglesias didn’t also resort to union- and teacher-bashing in many of these posts.  But sadly most of these pieces reiterate over and over again the notion that boosting teacher “productivity” equals better “access.”  And it’s striking to me how Yglesias, along with many others, keeps offering ramped-up accountability measures as a way to stave off public disinvestment.

In contrast with Yglesias’s neo-liberal approach, this interview with Christopher Newfield seems to take a longer-term and more dialectical view of accountability and disinvestment, and sees them as two sides of the same conservative impulse that has been undermining public higher education since the late ’60s, when “Ronald Reagan ran against Berkeley.”  As Newfield states:

The other flank of the culture wars is the budget wars and my argument is they are basically the same thing. The goal was to discredit fields that had studied negative aspects of American life. The second goal was to use budget pressures to de-fund disciplines that seemed too critical of the established order. History, literature studies, anthropology, sociology — anything that isn’t econometric and efficiency oriented, anything too skeptical, all of that stuff should only be tolerated if it can pay its own way.

What Newfield suggests is something that I have observed repeatedly, which is that the humanities–no matter how “uncontroversial” they become–will not escape the efficiency-and-accountability regimes being discussed in most statehouses.  Faculty in those fields will have to start arguing directly against these models for instruction, if they hope to retain any public support for what they do.

The other part of Newfield’s argument, which I am becoming more and more persuaded of, is that universities will need to become much more transparent about where their money comes from and where it goes: the public imagines that tenured professors sit around all day long teaching a handful of students and producing hoity-toity research that no one sees.  The structural imbalance between the costs of humanities and scientific research is never brought to the public’s attention, and humanities research itself disappears from view in most of these accounts.  So putting the institution’s focus squarely back on enrollments and teaching would actually benefit the humanities both internally and externally.  And I believe that universities would sound more plausible describing themselves as longer-term investments in the public good, if they behaved this way more often.



8 responses to “what would a left critique of higher education look like?

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    Thank for this post! It’s hard to know where to start re The Olive Garden as a model for higher education, but I can’t resist. As so many of the comments suggest, The Olive Gardens of the world, in their pursuit of profit, have significantly contributed to much unhealthiness. The Marlboro Man was good marketing as well, and also managed to distribute a product with consistent quality. Shards of glass, anyone? Shakespeare and calculus have proven somewhat less addicting–or at least, the addiction takes longer to take root.

    Of course, even to make that analogy is to capitualte to the assumption that education is a business like any other.

    I also agree that transparency is crucial

    • There’s a weird pseudo-populism to his Olive Garden analogy that I find really offensive, and antithetical to any discussion of improving educational processes. You have to set high but reachable expectations of quality for both students and faculty at every institution, then give people the resources and if necessary the additional training to reach those levels. But whatever you propose has to really represent excellence, not your idea of what other people might find excellent, i.e., Olive Garden.

  2. Pingback: Matthew Yglesias » Transparent Universities

  3. James Mulholland

    Great post. You’re correct to the degree that “efficiency-and-accountability regimes” have changed the conversation. To take up the language Yglesias uses, he, as with many people, focuses too much on outputs (what we in higher education increasingly call “student outcomes”) without ever engaging with just how difficult it is to evaluate what sorts of outcomes we would want from higher education. Graduation rate? Retention? Future earnings? Sense of happiness and well-being? How do we evaluate what it means to do things “right” or more productively? These are elements that Yglesias and other critiques of higher education from progressives do not take into account very often.

    However, I would suggest that pointing out how higher education is increasingly corporatized is no longer an effective strategy for us. From my perspective, we must engage with ways of arguing the humanities has an essential role in achieving student outcomes that we are best positioned to articulate and describe within an admittedly corporate university. In short, we need to start forcefully making the case for our own “accountability” regime, and knowing more about how the the money comes and goes is definitely a place to start. This can then be correlated with student outcomes–for example, total number of students taught as compared to percentage of the operating budget, a metric by which the humanities is wildly successful according to even the most corporate of perspectives.

  4. Hi James, thanks and welcome to the blog. Different schools will have different missions and differing student bodies, and so one big problem of the efficiency regime approach is its assumption of uniformity across institutions. Regional accreditation agencies try to honor these differences, but these subtleties tend to get lost in the statehouse discussions or rankings like the US News and World Report. What bothers me about MYglesias’s take is its assumption that accountability and transparency are somehow equivalent, and that they work in concert with his other left-wing values.

    I’ve argued myself that faculty will need to organize around their own improvement-and-information-gathering processes, largely to preempt the worst of the external accountability ideas statehouses keep devising. But there’s a deep confusion even among members of the left about the purposes of public higher education and how corporatization of the Arne Duncan variety still hurts their own agenda, IMHO. That’s why I’d like to see a more robust defense of public higher ed at least from those who believe in the existence of public goods.

  5. Thanks for blogging (and Facebooking) about all this. I really had no idea that the sciences dipped into humanities’ coffers to cover their outlays until I read this. I assumed their huge grants brought money in!

  6. It’s not as if those scientists, if they are successful, don’t bring in money; they do. Newfield’s point is that much of the increase, for example, in administrative costs is related to the management of these grants in terms of personnel, organization, and so forth. The humanities don’t bring in external money, but they don’t require those kinds of lab and administrative budgets, either. The other issue is that grants represent part of the ranking-and-reputation culture that scientists and administrators are sensitive to, but students largely indifferent to. Large grants are the equivalent of winning sports teams, in which large sums of money are spent by a number of institutions, only a few of which will receive the reputational benefit. But the biggest point is that all institutions, regardless of mission, began pursuing outside research dollars when state and federal contributions began to decline. So to whom can universities turn for support, if they make this move toward a more undergraduate- and learning-centered mission?

  7. I’m finally catching up on the back-and-forth here with Yglesias, and just wanted to note my thanks for keeping this conversation going. I completely agree with your point about how the “product” of humanities research is rendered invisible in most analyses of how universities perform as institutions. We won’t be able to counteract this erasure until we generate a compelling public discourse that weds intellectual pursuit, social critique, literacy, and excellence (to borrow your term, Dave) to general quality of life and social health. Somehow, particularly in the US (and Canada, I’m finding), the former terms are seen as being hostile to “everyday life.” The caricature of the tenured professor pursuing nonsense is a way of calling us antisocial pests and parasites. I also think that the contrast between Yglesias’s hasty, easy, and inane Olive Garden analogy and Newfield’s “longer-term” perspective is instructive, since so much of what the humanities produce in sending educated graduates back out into the world can only be measured effectively from a broader perspective than year-by-year outputs.