Given our nominal democratic ideals of ever-expanding college access, we ought to be a more and more reason-based society. As the recent elections shows, nothing could be farther from the truth. I think one good reason that our politics have become so profoundly anti-intellectual– often counter-factual if not paranoid– is that our higher education system is so focused on what a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article called “institutional self-interest.”
It’s the all too visible hand of the market. Decades of attacks on federal funding in general, and on higher education in particular, have helped to produce a hyper-competitive administrative culture bent on a cutting costs by shrinking full time employment and increasing revenues through expanded marketing. Whatever the drawback of the traditional liberal arts system, and there were many, it at least promoted the ideal of substantive learning.
Mass-marketing can’t focus on the personally transformative, difficult work of learning. It promotes the “college lifestyle”– a sentimentalized image more directed at parents than students. Perhaps this baby-boomer nostalgia is inescapable. The real damage is deeper: the undermining of full time employment and resulting loss of academic freedom of speech. If we don’t promote challenging thinking, we don’t get it, especially in elections.