Wednesday, July 09, 2014

The Hidden Injuries of Austerity

In the early 1970’s, Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb published The Hidden Injuries of Class, which quickly became a classic.  It’s an examination of the social-psychological effects of economic stratification in Boston at the time.  Although somewhat dated now, it’s well worth the read for the clarity with which it outlines the conflicted feelings that working-class parents have as they watch their kids get educated away from the community.  (Jennifer Silva published a terrific follow-up, Coming Up Short, last year.  My review of Silva’s work is here.)

I’m thinking it’s time for someone to do a piece on the hidden injuries of austerity.  

In the context of higher education, the visible injuries of austerity are obvious: program closures, layoffs, the shift towards adjunct faculty and part-time staff.  The hidden injuries bear closer examination.

In the context of community colleges, for example, extended austerity can easily lead to a certain provincialism.  When budgets are tight, travel is one of the first things to go.  In the very short term, that makes sense; it isn’t a fixed cost, for the most part, and missing a meeting or conference or two doesn’t usually do immediately visible damage.  But over years, the message that “there’s just not money for travel” often leads -- predictably enough -- to people losing touch with what else is going on out there.  (At the recent CUR conference, for example, I asked a room of several hundred people for a show of hands to see how many were from community colleges.  Fewer than ten were.)  That can lead to staleness, of course, but also to a certain fear-based defensiveness.  Some people know they’ve lost touch, and harbor a half-acknowledged fear of being exposed.  That can lead to some unhelpful dynamics when something new comes along.  And it leaves the conversation at many conferences impoverished, to the extent that they fail to reflect the real diversity of circumstances in the field.  (To their credit, the CUR organizers are aware of the issue and trying to address it in their own context.)

Over time, a sort of psychology of austerity sets in.  It can take the form of a longing for a perceived Golden Age, before the last few rounds of cuts.  Sometimes it becomes a fetishization of the Beautiful Loser, in which people take a moralistic pride in a quixotic attempt to stop the future.  Or, and closely related, it leads to a sort of denial and bitterness about the entire institution.   Sometimes it just becomes a sort of hangdog defeatism that sees the seeds of failure in every new attempt.

The hidden injuries of austerity aren’t just psychological.  They find their way into the workings of institutions.  IT solutions that cost too much don’t happen, so the austere institution makes do with patches, and then with patches of patches, and then with workarounds for failed patches.  At each step of that process, the immediate decision makes short-term sense.  But the effects snowball.  Over the years, third-derivative workarounds outlive their creators and take on lives of their own.  

Austerity can become self-reinforcing.  When resources are too tight for failure to be an option, it becomes harder to take the kinds of risks that lead to real growth.  When there’s no slack left to cut, there’s no room to experiment.  

In Sennett’s case, the hidden injuries of class were internal, and really couldn’t be solved at the individual level.  In Silva’s case, the hidden injuries of risk are both internal and external, and are solved psychologically through stories people tell of overcoming traumas.  In this case, the hidden injuries of austerity are both internal and external, but should actually be easier to solve.  

Until then, though, there’s a hell of a book waiting to be written...