Wednesday, February 05, 2014



In my sophomore year of college, I took a history course on Tudor and Stuart England with Prof. Dudley Bahlman, who was as close to a human incarnation of Mr. Magoo as I have ever seen.  (If cameraphones had existed then, I would have snapped a few shots of him on his moped.)  He was in his last semester before retirement when I took his class, and he wore his dinosaur status with pride.  There was no social or economic history for him.  For him, classes were lectures, history was royals, and stories were laugh-out-loud funny.  

The highlight of the course for me -- and I’m pretty sure for him, too -- was the early Restoration period, when Charles II ascended and put an end to the Cromwellian interregnum.  As Mr. Magoo presented it, the early Restoration period was a sort of extended Fat Tuesday.  After a decade-plus of extreme suppression by the Cromwells, the English took the Restoration as an opportunity to let their freak flags fly.  I remember him reading with palpable glee from Pepys’ diaries, portraying bacchanals with just a little too much enthusiasm.  

But the party ended, as parties do.  After the initial relief, the usual intrigues started to bubble again, factions arose, and it wasn’t long after the end of Charles II that William of Orange upended the whole thing.  The Restoration may have been fun, in its way, but it was short-lived.  The tensions that caused the house of Stuart to fall had never really gone away.

I thought again about the Restoration when some folks on Twitter pointed me to this piece by Overworked TA.  It’s a rumination on college as a process, rather than a product, and it’s well worth reading.  OTA argues that much of the focus of policy types on improving the “efficiency” of higher education derives from mistaking the “product” of college -- the degree itself -- for the process of attaining it.  Shortening the process of attaining it and stripping away anything “unnecessary,” whether it’s the junior year abroad or the gloriously self-indulgent course on seventeenth-century England, misses the point.  The journey is the point.

It’s a familiar argument, and much of it is true.  Students who had the option of the junior year abroad often swear by it.  Serious students often tell tales of serendipity, in which a random moment unexpectedly became incredibly important.  (I can trace much of my adult career to a single conversation I had with a professor during office hours in my junior year.  A single conversation.)  There is certainly much to be said for the vision of giving students time away from the pressing concerns of day-to-day economics, and for letting them wander a bit intellectually until something clicks.  And yes, some of the initiatives that OTA condemns are worth some skepticism.

But still.  I’ve got two nagging objections I just can’t shake.

First, and most obviously, the classic vision of the pastoral campus with lovable Mr. Magoo figures sharing wisdom with their young charges was romanticized and exclusionary in the best of times.  Economic pressures and family obligations are real.  If we define higher education such that only people who can afford to spend four years at residential liberal arts colleges are eligible for it, we will return it to its historic roots as a holding tank for the second sons (and now daughters) of the aristocracy.  If we believe instead that talent is distributed much more evenly than wealth is, then we need to develop models that real people, in real lives, can use.

Second, though, underlying the piece is a strong, if wistful, wish for Restoration.  Notice the language:

Will the market ever recover?  Will we go back to having more TT [tenure-track] positions? I don’t think so.  That’s terrifying, actually...I will defend a liberal arts type of education to the death…

Past good, present bad.  Restore past, and all will be good again.  

I don’t mean to pick on OTA.  S/he stakes out a commonly held position, and does so uncommonly well.  I have been known, from time to time, to say similar things myself.  Just as students need time and money to get education, professors need time and money to provide it.  The model under which those conditions were met still exists, even if it’s withering, so it’s easy to assume that those conditions can only be met under that model.

But restoration is not a sustainable answer.  The old model has been decaying for longer than it thrived, and there are important reasons for that.  “Will the market ever recover?”  It will never be 1967 again.  Hell, it will never be 1997 again, and that was no picnic for newly-minted Ph.D.’s.  

I agree with OTA on the need for an economically sustainable model for faculty, and I’d add “for students” as well.  Add “for taxpayers” while we’re at it.  The current model features tuition spirals, underpaid faculty, and high student loans.  It’s time for a new model.

To my mind, the energy directed toward Restoration is misdirected.  The necessary -- urgent -- discussion should be around developing a sustainable model that manages both to be cognizant of very real economic needs and effective at maintaining -- and improving -- the best of the past.  I’m guessing that technology will help, though the form it takes is still very much up for grabs.  Competency-based education holds promise, though there, too, we’re in the early stages of the learning curve.  Maybe it’s something else.  The future is just sitting there, waiting for passionate and thoughtful people to shape it.  

But the past is gone.  Mr. Magoo retired, riding his moped into the sunset.  The Restoration fell.  I don’t see much to be gained in raging at the sun for rising, or in waxing nostalgic over a past that relied on a set of exclusions that we should be glad to bury forever.  The urgent conversation in higher ed shouldn’t be about how to move backwards.  It should be to figure out what “forward” can look like.

I'm in broad agreement.

Honestly, if the hope of making higher education functional for the next generation is the goal, I think most people are. The past isn't worth going back to for most of us - it wasn't actually meritocratic, misconduct and abuses abounded, and if we long for anything about that era, it's the benefit of reflection and "the journey" - only we want it for EVERYBODY who could benefit from it, not just the privileged few.

So I really think you're overreading OTA's wistfulness. I think we WANT "good jobs for good people", as the long-standing promise to the grad student goes; I stand against a lot of my peers when I believe that is an earnest hope for the majority of graduate advisers, and not just a tool to get cheap TA labor out of abused grad students. I think we want a robust and robustly available liberal arts education, and I think we recognize that we're in a political climate where the public, at large, doesn't want to pay for that. You talk about a culture that doesn't know how to sustain a middle class all the time, DD. I see a lot more of that frustration in OTA's takes ("We don't spend enough time focusing on experience. That's a big problem with academia as it currently stands. Budget cuts severely limiting funding for students are only making this problem that much worse.") than I do a longing for some mythical "good old days" that never really existed.

I think a lot of the chasm between the administrator class, the full-time/TT faculty class, and the adjunct class comes from each imposing stereotypes on the others when we're a lot more on the same team than we realize. And it goes EVERY way - obviously the admin is just counting beans and is going to push all the faculty towards adjunct status because it's all about that money, obviously the TT faculty has grabbed hold of the privilege and they're not letting go of it and they're using their position to keep from expanding their ranks, obviously the adjuncts are refusing to face political reality and should be grateful that they have ANY job at ALL when the legislature continues to demand the budget cuts. All of that's bull, at every step, and yet I continue to hear it, repeatedly, from people who should be one another's allies.

I know this isn't the worst instance of such a stereotype. But the stereotype is still in there - the young academic who doesn't want to deal with modern reality. And honestly, OTA's post struck me as dealing with as exceptionally mature for its content. So I don't think the "nagging objections" are worth dwelling on. I think OTA's post is a legitimate form of mourning, and as a post of mourning for something she had access to that she can't provide access to for others, I think that mourning should be affirmed, not nit-picked.
I think OTA's post is a legitimate form of mourning, and as a post of mourning for something she had access to that she can't provide access to for others, I think that mourning should be affirmed, not nit-picked.

Mourning for the exclusionary and elitist higher education system of the past is analogous to mourning for the end of the plantation system in the South. Yeah, it was great for the upper classes who could afford study abroad, but it was (and in elite institutions, continues to be) a system of credentialing that perpetuates inequality. The good old days? Good riddance. We can do better than that.
I understand the call for a model that is more inclusive and sustainable. However, sustainable is always (and understandably!) code for "less costly", and there's actually a tension between "less costly" and inclusive. Ask anybody involved in diversity initiatives, STEM Education initiatives, opportunity for first generation students, etc., and they will tell you that inclusivity requires more than just teaching the classes, teaching them well, using that class time as effectively as possible, etc. You need lots of extra support services, special programs, etc. All of those things require more personnel than just the faculty teaching the (preferably small) class section. They require peer tutors, resource center coordinators, grant administrators, etc.

When the faculty feel threatened, it's explained away as self-interest (duh!) and also a privileged nostalgia for the past. The second part is partially true, but only partially true. The administrative class has an easy time telling themselves that the model they want is one that's good for the students and inclusive, but it's also a model that just happens to shift the balance of power from faculty to program coordinators, grant administrators, resource center directors, etc. etc. Faculty self interest is just privileged nostalgia for the past, but administrative self interest is apparently enlightened concern for students and a progressive desire for an inclusive and fiscally sustainable model. Except the fiscal sustainability is not clear to me.

And yes, I know that some of the people running these programs have the job title "faculty" on their paperwork. However, when they spend less time in the classroom and more time coordinating programs, they are on a trajectory that has more in common with admins than other faculty. They are particularly divergent from the adjunct faculty.
I discovered OTA's response here and it saves me a lot of typing. If you have a background in small private schools, you may not realize what is available at quality state schools like OTA attended, or what was availabe at one that I attended some decades earlier. They made available a great liberal arts education to those who wanted one back then, and still do so today.

The (very large) number of students has not changed. It still reaches both the elites and the masses. I believe faculty pay is well ahead of inflation and teaching loads are down, explaining part of the change in per student cost (state plus tuition) from back then. You just must improve your ranking! But there are other cost increases not tied to the classroom, and even my CC is suffering from those.

I simply don't buy your negativity about funding education. Maybe you are correct and the United States is not as rich, per capita, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, or even the 1990s. I don't think that is the case, yet, but what has changed is that the government spends rather than invests. I hope to live long enough to benefit from Medicare, but I know that you can't add all of that to our budget (plus the increased medical costs it helped drive) and have as much left for education.

Unless you think it is important enough to make it a priority.
I was hardly "upper class"; I self-funded through a state school.

Study abroad was an option for me. I chose not to take it, but it was there. I did take a summer in DC and it went well.

No, the point is that 20% unemployment as the New Normal and endless Class War as punishment for electing a non-white-male to the Presidency is a lousy way to run a society.

I don't see DD's "focus on the future" as helpful. Sometimes, the point is that the past was a lot better, and it makes no sense that the future can't be better, too. The big question is: why is our Social Contract in tatters (conservatism) and what can we do about it (expose conservatism)?

"Maybe you are correct and the United States is not as rich, per capita, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, or even the 1990s."

Per capita, we are far, far, far richer than any of those times.

Median . . .

I'm not going to look up the data to question your sense of scale, Punditus, because I simply rely on the fraction of the GDP being spent by the government. The changes, up and down, in that fraction are not nearly as signficant as the changes in how it has been allocated.

Health care is devouring it.
Per capita, we are far, far richer than we were then. If we CHOOSE to spend that on Mitt Romney's car elevator rather than higher education, that is a societal choice. Doesn't change the fact that we plenty of resources if we care to allocate them sanely.

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