Part Two: “Good for Wall Street – Bad for Students” and Teachers

Higher education stands as a monolith in a dynamic, rapidly evolving society in which access to information has been democratized through technological innovation while much of academia clings to traditional conventions of closed sources of information. The way people work and play have changed, but the way students are expected to learn, for the most part, has not.

2011 Annual Academic Report, “Why Higher Education Must Change”

The ACTA ‘s blog presents a concise version of  the corporate sector’s agenda in public higher education.  In fact, they represent corporate power as influential trustees and alumni. They are usually coy about their 1% bona fides, but their last “Must Reads” post points to what it calls the “Phoenix challenge” to higher education embodied in that company’s “2011 Annual Academic Report.”  The report begins with a neat summary of the ideological and historical overlap between neo-liberalism and academia.

Corporate america is hardly the bastion of democracy, either in the workplace or in its political advocacy, or an exemplar of administrative transparency and open information.  The public sector can be at least as good at reducing costs, if not better, through administrative efficiency.  Still, the report illustrates how the academic desire to promote education outside of its traditional social boundaries, faced with an entrenched bureaucratic culture, turned to technology and a market ideology for a rationale.

It’s a conveniently self-justifying rhetoric for greed.  It also suggests that the roots of the for-profit sector lie deep in the failures and frustrations of (public) U.S. academic culture.  If the last three decades has taught us anything, however, it’s that the unregulated market has only reproduced and exacerbated the very problems it was said to solve.  The for-profits are making education more accessible but also duplicating its high expenses,  student debt, opaque administration and antiquated labor practices.

“Good for Wall Street – Bad for Students” and Teachers

I was happy to see that the SEIU is taking the lead on organizing in the for-profit university system, although they are a very long way from unionizing any online faculty. Still, both their website, For Profit U, and a recent online seminar, summarized in both Truth Out’s ‘”Good for Wall Street – Bad for Students’: SEIU Hosts Webinar on Predatory, Proprietary Colleges and Universities” and Pittsburgh’s Post Gazette’s “Service union’s criticism rankles EDMC” are a breath of fresh air. I think, though, that they don’t understand the industry.

The Truth Out summary of the for-profit industry’s roots in neo-liberalism, and its use of unethical recruitment practices is right on target. I also think that SEIU has good reason to target EDMC which, as its recent layoff process suggests, seems to have a profoundly paranoid corporate culture.  (Full disclosure: I was recently laid off from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh Online, which is owned by EDMC.) The tone of the SEIU website seems a little off-putting to me, but the real issue is how the SEIU is portraying teachers.

The seminar participants underplay the role of traditional academics in the for-profit schools, which were largely founded by professors and academics with established careers in the public higher education system. This is a profoundly conservative strain in academia that’s not often discussed.  More importantly,  none of the participants seems to realize that the for-profit system is full of teachers that are, in effect, refugees from thirty years of decline in professional conditions. They are not the enemy of the public good.

The public and for-profit  higher education systems share in the erosion of tenure, the loss of academic freedom of speech and full-time employment. The for-profits, in a sense, are the creation of academics and administrators who felt that the destruction of the old system was going too slowly.  The for profit system is a direct development of  the long-standing desire, largely realized in the public system, to take power away from teachers. The focus on students is laudatory, but the SEIU also needs to focus on the teachers.

Juxtaposition and Critical Thinking

Continental European capitalism, which combines generous health and social benefits with reasonable working hours, long vacation periods, early retirement, and relatively equal income distributions, would seem to have everything to recommend it – except sustainability.

Is Modern Capitalism Sustainable“– Kenneth Rogoff

Mike Konczal assembles some striking quotes from Federal Reserve transcripts showing how obsessed the monetary overlords are with keeping wages down. I won’t recycle any of the quotes—check out his post for the full flavor.

The Fed and the Class Struggle” — Doug Henwood

Here’s an juxtaposition that might be used to teach critical thinking. The contrast between these two ways of seeing the economy isn’t simply a matter of right and wrong, yes and no, or even “subject positions,” although that certainly has a role.  Rogoff is an academic at Harvard and a former IMF economist.  It’s in his self-interest to support capitalism, of course, since he has so much riding on it.  He’s no apologist though and he’s in a bleak mood. Henwood’s successful too, but far outside the academic charmed circle.

What’s interesting is that Rogoff seems at a loss for words when it comes to the crisis undergoing capitalism. The most generous forms, he says, without any explanation, are “unsustainable.” Reading Henwood next to Rogoff gives us a sense of the reality behind the assertion.  No market is going to create what Rogoff calls “a better balance between equality and efficiency.”  Once we pull back the curtain, it’s the political struggle over resources–aka the class struggle– that lies at the hear our current problems and our hope of any solution.

Dumb Memes

I am starting to believe that there must be an inverse relationship between the blunt stupidity of an idea and its longevity as a cultural meme. I’m not talking about Obama’s birth certificate and the Pentagon conspiracy to bomb the World Trade Center, although those memes seem to endlessly circle around deep stinking pools of stupidly. Those are bad enough but they are just side-shows in the long run.

I’m talking about ideas that seem to quietly persist against all logic and across decades. When Reagan was elected more than 30 years ago he made his plans very clear. “Trickle-down” economics meant a sweeping redistribution of wealth from the poor, working, and middle classes, to the rich. If we give them our money, Regan said, they will give a trickle back. It’s made us all poorer but it’s an idea that just won’t die.

That’s what they did, too, as recent statistics have shown. Still, the Republican party and its “base” keep repeating the idea as if it were new and as if it were fine to give everything to the rich and then be happy with the trickle that comes back. There are lots of parallels in academia, too, dumb-as-hammer memes that seem to persist against all odds. One of the worst and dumbest academic ideas is the student evaluation.

Every year or so someone in the education press will publish yet another article explaining the “grain of truth”  that we should all glean from student evaluations. We can’t do anything about them, we are told, and they will be used to assess our work,  so we need to try to see what they might tell us.  Never mind that they have no legitimacy as data and that they can and will be used for the usual sorts of political pettiness.

The Hollow Men

I hate to go all ad hominem, but if I am, especially when it comes to someone like Harold Bloom (see, “Harold Bloom by the Numbers“) , I have to go for T.S. Elliot: “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!” It’s not so much Bloom’s freakish careerism, if not greed, that’s so bothersome, although that’s disturbing enough.

What gets my goat is that Bloom– and the journalist, Carlin Romano– seem so blissfully unconcerned about the ways that Bloom’s ideas reflect the self-serving decadence of academic intellectual work at this particular time in U.S. history. “This is cactus land / Here the stone images / Are raised, here they receive / The supplication of a dead man’s hand / Under the twinkle of a fading star.”

Romano calls Bloom an “unsteady Midwest autocrat… oblivious as his ritual pronouncements fall on deaf ears.” Fair enough. What’s disturbing is that way that Bloom’s status seems to excuse him from complicity in the long list of problems– from labor exploitation to administrative salaries to rising tuition– facing academia. Isn’t there a connection between these problems and the old autocrats like Bloom?

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How Not to Change

I’ve said before that I think the electronic textbook is both inevitable and desirable. In the long run, I think collaboratively run Wiki’s make the most sense for college learning, because they are flexible, collaborative, and cheap.  They create dramatically collaborative models– symbols, really– of knowledge production. These new textbooks would signal a profound shift away from old models of intellectual property that continue to hinder both the production and the democratization of knowledge. It’s a tool with enormous potential.

Access can be tailored to need or to pedagogical or even national style. Some teachers might make editing the textbook a part of their curriculum; some not.  Wikis can be modified and maintained, creating local or regional iterations of the textbook; or, if necessary, abandoned and relaunched at the start of each session. The textbook ceases to be an object and become a network of evolving knowledge. All that is well and good. What worries, me, however, is that, as in other industries, new technologies will promote disenfranchisement rather than power.

That’s what I thought as I was reading, “Early Finding of Cal State U. E-Textbook Study: Terms Matter.”  It’s an instructive example. We should  survey students about their preferences, but if 2/3’s of them are either neutral or unhappy about the technology, then I think it makes sense to develop some sort of hybrid strategy, combing print and digital technologies, at least for the near term. E-books, and my “dream Wiki” need to be easily printable in an attractive format. We just don’t know yet if digital is the future or a cognitive style or, perhaps more likely, both.