Educational Destruction, Part 2

A University of Wisconsin–Madison professor, William Cronon, is the subject of a witch hunt because he dared to voice an opinion. The Republican Party in Wisconsin has requested all his emails under the FOIA in an attempt to discredit him, but also as a way to chill the kind of debate and free expression of ideas that citizens of the United States have come to take for granted. Cronon is an excellent historian and writer: His book, Nature’s Metropolis, is a terrific “biography” of Chicago as a linchpin of the natural/manufactured world. He has created a blog about his recent experiences with the GOP’s brand of McCarthyism called Scholar as Citizen, which you can see here. His own web page also deserves a look.

I mention Prof. Cronon not only because I believe his situation is appalling but also because I believe it is related to the National Governors Association’s report I wrote about yesterday. By taking a position opposing Gov. Scott Walker’s recent meat axe approach to governance, Prof. Cronon has aligned himself against business interests, which incurs the wrath of the Republican Party. If the NGA report’s recommendations were to be adopted, it seems very likely to me that he would not have been able to say anything at all. Let’s take a closer look.

First of all, while we may decry our educational institutions from pre-school through grad school, the United States has a very proud and long tradition of respect for education dating back to the Founding Fathers. Even more, however, was a reverence for free inquiry as an essential part of democratic society: “Knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” (Northwest Ordinance, 1787; citation here.) (Note how “knowledge” is inextricably linked both to “good government” and “the happiness of mankind.”)

As the U.S. expanded and became more mechanized, legislators and others realized that having an educated citizenry would be a benefit to American society and economy. As a result, the Morrill Act was passed in 1862, bringing education within reach of those who would not ordinarily have ever seen the inside of a college classroom. Originally emphasizing agriculture and the “mechanic arts,” the institutions gradually combined practical with liberal arts educations. Sixty-nine colleges were funded by these land grants, including Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Nebraska, Washington State, and Clemson. (citation here.) [At the time, a “classical” education–Latin, Greek, and so on–was generally reserved for the wealthy or those entering the ministry, and men. The land grant institutions changed all that.]

One can argue that the land grant institutions were founded in service to economics, and one would be partially correct. Students learned new agricultural techniques, engineering, and so on. They also became acquainted with ideas about society and culture; they read more widely than they might have otherwise, and helped pioneer the idea of academic freedom that is a cornerstone of American university life. The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s current president puts the case succinctly:

Academic freedom is one of the university’s greatest contributions to a democratic society.  No other institution is charged specifically with protecting the pursuit of knowledge, wherever it may lead. Individual faculty, staff, and students inevitably consider and advocate positions that will be at odds with one another’s views and the views of people outside of the university.

This academic freedom has given us innumerable inventions, ideas, and controversies over the years, all of which in one way or another have made American higher education one of the liveliest and most creative institutions in the world.

But the National Governor’s Association’s Center for Best Practices would like to dismantle all of that and chain American public higher education to its needs, without all the “frills” of the liberal arts. The NGA has produced a report called “Degrees for What Jobs?: Raising Expectations for Universities and Colleges in a Global Economy.” It proposes that, rather than encouraging openness and free inquiry, the better to discover possibilities and build an intelligent citizenry, public colleges and universities focus on “strengthen[ing] their universities and colleges as agents of workforce preparation and sources of more opportunity, growth,and competitive advantage.” Of course, it won’t be easy: “Given the longstanding independence of institutions of higher education—and their emphasis on broad liberal arts education—getting such institutions to embrace a more active role in a state’s economic developmentis often challenging.” Read on…

Preparing students for the working world is certainly part of the reason to get an education; we know that earning a post-secondary degree is more and more crucial to employability these days than ever. However, the report is not interested in promoting “Knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.” It is interested in creating workers, not citizens. Its five basic tenets point toward a radical restructuring of American higher education that will make it merely a supplier of well-trained, pliable drones geared specifically toward satisfying the interests of state and regional economies. Here is the list:

1. Set clear expectations for higher education’s role in economic development. Articulate the expectation that postsecondary education in the state will contribute to the success of industry and the state in a global economy by preparing a 21st century workforce.

2. Emphasize rigorous use of labor market data and other sources to define goals and priorities. Ask institutions of higher education to use data on global, state, and regional labor market needs to develop courses and degree programs that prepare students for high-paying, high-demand jobs.

3. Encourage employers’ input in higher education.Encourage—even incentivize—institutions of higher education to seek state and regional employers’ input about how best to ensure that students have the 21st century skills employers need.

4. Require public higher education institutions to collect and publicly report impacts. Track higher educational institutions’ impact on students’ employment outcomes, workforce gaps, employer satisfaction, and state economic growth.

5. Emphasize performance as an essential factor in funding.Use performance-based funding for institutions of higher education to get—and reward—outcomes aligned with state strategic goals. Award funds on a competitive basis to develop industry-oriented curricula and create new efforts to meet the workforce needs of specific key sectors. (Emphases mine.)

Let me say again, I’m not against employability as an outcome of higher education. But the NGA’s recommendations make the idea of “education” as a broadening of one’s horizons as quaint as a powdered wig. This is a prescription for training narrowed to fit the needs of whatever industry happens to be in the area. It recommends that businesses set university curricula; that “labor market data” be a major determiner of what is taught; that universities be held responsible for economic growth; and that they be rewarded (or punished) when their “outcomes [align] with state strategic goals.” This is a brave new world of higher education that lets business and economic conditions determine what should be taught in universities. Instead of free inquiry that may lead in any direction, the NGA advocates a focused, utilitarian approach to education that replaces the concept of “knowledge” as a good in itself (and which may or may not be immediately useful or important) with that of “training” that’s only good if it has some direct, positive economic result.

Assume for a moment that there are plenty of reasons to have colleges operate at the behest of the business world. Many controversies have already erupted over private company funding for university-based research, including questions about its objectivity and accuracy. Typically, university research is performed with dissemination of knowledge in mind, but private funding results in privatization of knowledge. If business dictates university course content and outcomes, that would take the idea of privatization light years further–classes could be copyrighted, student papers could be restricted, and so on. Business is not a monolith; competing companies that had a say in university governance would have no reason to encourage sharing of information, to the detriment of the whole enterprise.

The American system of higher education, for all its faults, is still the best in the world. Its fractiousness and messiness help keep it vital. The NGA wants to create a sleek, focused, edgeless assembly line that will stamp students with an “OK for Use” sign and send them into the waiting maw of the working world. It’s a formula that will almost surely turn American higher education into the next Rust Belt as the world changes around us. What’s ironic is that if businesses get their way here, they will almost certainly eradicate the very intelligence, independence and creativity they might need to keep our economy going into the 21st century and beyond. It’s the messiness and unexpected sparks of discovery that make “education” truly useful, and that is something the NGA clearly doesn’t understand.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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