The Best for the Rest

Average folks and higher education researchers have conflicting views of academia. Average folks believe that most college teachers are tenured professors and that most students are residential students who play ultimate Frisbee on the quad. Higher education researchers have a different view. We know that most teachers are actually part time adjuncts and graduate students. Residential college is for the top of the pool. Most students are part time commuters or community college students. The mistake that people make is that the most visible forms of higher education (e.g., elite research universities and liberal arts schools) are the most common.

orgtheory by fabiorojas, as quoted by Vanessa Vaile

Here’s the thing. If you take unions, and to a lesser extent, faculty governance, completely out of the picture you end up with a version of higher education that fabiorojas, in this post, calls “the best and the rest.” In other words, you get a system which has fully abandoned the goal of an educated society, and that no longer believes that scientific literacy is crucial to the future of human society. It’s a vision of utter powerlessness.

Instead, you get a system in which, as fabiorojas, says, a small minority of students “want genuine engagement and learning.” It’s expensive, though, and only available to the socioeconomic elite. That’s the best; taught by tenured faculty. The rest get “a credential and some basic vocational instruction.” That can be done on the internet, or at junior colleges, or community colleges, taught largely by adjuncts and graduate students.

I think fabiorojas is wrong on at least two counts. Humans, including teenagers, are seekers, programmed to be curious and interested in knowledge and understanding. If the system made some sort of sense, I think lots of people would choose, at various points in their lives, to immerse themselves in knowledge for a time. I also think the writer is wrong insofar as he or she implies that our current system is a tenable– or even stable– state of affairs.

Democratic culture won’t survive unless we continue to expand intellectual literacy. We can’t make good decisions otherwise; technological culture isn’t going away. In the U.S. fewer than 1/3 of us have undergraduate college degrees; that needs to double and then triple and it needs to happen sooner rather than later. It won’t happen, on or off-line, unless teachers put their own power back into the equations in the form of aggressive, unionized faculties.

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 I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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