What We Talk About (When We Don’t Want to Talk About Class)

For years, parents, students, and taxpayers have lamented the spiraling cost of higher education — with too little effect. Between 1982 and 2007, college tuition and fees increased 439 percent, adjusted for inflation, while the median family income only rose 147 percent. Pleas by ACTA and others to cut costs fell on mostly deaf ears.

The recession is now compelling at least some universities to cut back on all the pricy extras that drive up cost and shift the focus back to the fundamental purpose of their institutions: education. In January, ACTA praised the Pennsylvania State Board of Education for approving a proposal to create a “low cost, no frills” bachelor degree. Now comes news of a similar degree at Southern New Hampshire University — a “low-cost airline equivalent,” according to its president — and plans to create a new affordable state university in Arizona with no football team or research programs.

ACTA’s Must Reads, Posted by David Azerrad on May 07, 2009

The ACTA is reliably reactionary, much more interested in the academic trains running on time than in education generally or employment issues. Antonio Gramsci himself would rise up out of his grave if they mentioned the exploitation of graduate students or the commercialization of education.

Yet their concerns are, as the theorists used to say, symptomatic of the anxieties and concerns of our nominal rulers. I am not sure if they represent a cadre of the technical elite or of the financial elite or both but they are ideally positioned to judge the temperature of our ongoing cold (class) war.

So it’s fascinating that they are concerned with the increasing scarcity of the cultural capital represented by traditional liberal arts colleges. I don ‘t think you can attribute this to bourgeois sentimentality. The more bloated these increasingly boutique universities become, the better the chance of some sort of backlash.

The rhetoric of education in the U.S. is democratic; everyone can work hard and get the education of their choice. In fact, only 1/3 of us have college degrees; the percentage who have gone to these elite colleges is much smaller. Yet these schools play a disproportionately important role in our educational self-image.

If these schools become even more inaccessible, and the mass market schools follow by continuing to raise tuition and fees, the U.S. might seem too obviously undemocratic and class ridden. We can’t talk about that, though, can we? So we talk about ‘budget schools’ that might siphon off a bit of that class tension.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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