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.