Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Response to a Reader

What follows is a revised email exchange I had with a frequent commenter. I’m posting it here because I think it speaks to issues of interest beyond the two of us.

[commenter]: It seems to me like you're missing a big opportunity. As you've noted, there are a growing number of voices challenging the conventional wisdom on the value of college. Some of these argue that college doesn't do what it advertises, like _Academically Adrift_,and other studies that show how little students learn. Economists demonstrate that the value of a degree boils down to a credential, not what graduates learn. Others use BLS statistics to show what a large percentage of college graduates go on to get jobs that don't require a college degree. There is a growing chorus that American higher ed depends on unsustainable loans--in many ways it resembles the housing bubble of the late 2000s. There are even philosophical arguments like the one in _Shopcraft as Soulcraft_ about rediscovering the value of working with our hands instead of intellectual jobs. These critiques (as you've noted) come from all across the partisan spectrum, from Krugman on the left to Murray on the right--the idea that "the right hates education and the left loves education" is a shallow fantasy that lazy thinkers use to protect themselves from having to address the critiques.

On the other hand, I have yet to hear any coherent response to these critiques, either from you or on IHE, the Chronicle, or in print. I hear lots of "OMG those Tea Partiers are anti-intellectual idiots"--from you, your commenters, and elsewhere. I hear lots of "OMG, if we don't get more money we'll have to change"--from you, your commenters, and elsewhere. But both of those responses totally miss the point. Even if you believe that Scott Walker and all those Tea Partiers who want to take your money are troglodytes (and your posts certainly create that impression), all the sneering in the world can't refute the host of intellectual critiques listed in the previous paragraph. While critics gain in sophistication, evidence, and scope over time, your responses have become progressively less mature--sometimes stunningly so, like the post in which you predicted that the whole state of Wisconsin will wither away because K-12 teachers can only collectively bargain for salary instead of salary and benefits. Or your post about the coming of "carnivorous" higher ed (try comparing Penn State (4% state funding) and UNC-Chapel Hill (31%) and try to find any meaningful difference in the way they treat tenure or the "student faddishness" of their curriculum--if your post is even remotely close to reality, there should be a huge difference, but I bet you don't find one). I say this as someone who has read your blog daily for years, who has learned a lot from you, and is bewildered by your turn away from reason.

You know a lot about higher ed and are skilled at expressing yourself. Instead of bumper-sticker platitudes and sneering about how people who disagree you are stupid, why don't you become a leader in offering intelligent, evidenced, coherent responses to the critiques? Alternatively, since you also believe that higher ed needs reform why don't you become a leader in saying "yes, those critiques are correct, and X is the kind of reform that will fix it, and our fixed/rejuvenated higher ed will deserve more money?" (Yes, you do that with your anti-"seat time" and anti-tenure writings, but you don't connect those points to meeting the critiques in a coherent way) If people like you--who could offer meaningful responses to the critiques--continue to put their head in the sand and insist that if the right people win elections everything will be good again, you're going to wake up one day and find that the (very real) intellectual strength behind the critiques will have swept the field and you (and me) along with it, no matter who gets elected.

I responded:

Thanks for your note.

Your critique is the exact opposite of what I usually get. I'm usually accused -- also falsely -- of being anti-faculty, of wanting to run the college like a corporation, etc. Here, instead, I'm being accused of being an ideological fellow-traveler with the tenured liberals who usually accuse me of being an ideological fellow-traveler with their enemies.

Perhaps I've been unclear.

I've addressed most of the critiques you've outlined: Crawford's book, Academically Adrift, etc. (I've also addressed Kamenetz' DIY U, which, for all its flaws, at least addresses actual alternatives.) I've conceded the truths I've found, and even amplified a few of them. (My review of Academically Adrift was hardly dismissive!) And as you note, I've repeatedly -- even to the exasperation of my core audience -- outlined the flaws in tenure, the credit hour, and the funding models of public higher ed.

(Btw, your point about Chapel Hill and Penn State doesn't persuade me, since both are research universities. Their primary focus is research, and their primary fiscal drivers are research grants and high-profile athletics. They have an entirely different business model than the increasingly tuition-driven cc's I inhabit.)

It should be obvious by now that I'm fumbling towards a more sustainable model. Having worked in both for-profit and public higher ed, I've seen the strengths and flaws of each. I'm trying to figure out a way to take the best of each and construct something that's both durable and worthy of support. And yes, my preference would be to have the existing public institutions remake themselves, rather than having someone else come along from the outside. I remain convinced that, skeptics aside, education adds real value; if I didn’t, I’d go into another line of work. But if it’s going to continue to add value, especially for the folks who don’t start out with a lot of advantages, it’s going to have to change. I'd like the system to bend so it won't have to break.

In that position, I'm vulnerable to the classic critiques of those who try to reform from within. Those who reject the existing structure wonder why I keep trying to save it; those who comfortably inhabit it wonder what I'm always bitching about. Meanwhile, folks with capital and business plans calmly go about establishing successor institutions, quietly but ravenously eating our collective lunch while we argue about intentions and rhetorical tone.

I don't have millions of dollars with which to put out a shingle and start my own alternative. (Any VC's or philanthropies who'd like to take a flyer are invited to contact me directly. I'm not kidding.) And contrary to your characterization, I'm increasingly convinced that even electing the 'right' people won't solve matters, since at their base, the issues are structural. The new crop of Republican governors is clearly making things much worse, but even electing a bunch of thoughtful liberals would only buy time. Eventually, we have to change. My hope is that we can develop worthwhile and sustainable models to change towards, and in the meantime, elect people who will give us the time and resources to do that. It's a narrow strike zone, vulnerable to criticism as idealistic, but as someone who believes in the mission of public higher ed -- even with all the critiques of its structure -- it's where I am.

That's why I'm so impatient with the Tea Party; it seems obvious to me that they simply don't believe in the mission of public higher ed, or public anything else, for that matter. As Grover Norquist memorably put it, they'd like to drown it in the bathtub; that’s exactly what they’re trying to do with NPR. And that's why I sometimes get impatient with folks in public higher ed, who strike me as being in very deep denial. If we're going to survive, we're going to have to admit that the usual playbook -- moral indignation at administrators, mostly -- comes nowhere close to the real issues. If that worked, it would have worked by now. If the Marc Bousquet/Cary Nelson strategy worked, we wouldn't see what we're seeing in Nevada, or Arizona, or California, or New Jersey, or New York, or Texas, or Pennsylvania, or...

My contribution, at this point, is a blog with an audience of smart readers. I use it to crowdsource solutions, at least in concept, to some of these dilemmas. That has obvious limits, and I don't pretend otherwise. There comes a point at which you need to establish some facts on the ground; I hope to get a chance to do that at some point. In the meantime, I hope that my contribution is a space in which smart people of goodwill -- who accept the validity of the premise that an educated citizenry is a public good -- can try to figure out what an ethical, effective, sustainable alternative would look like.

You can call that a flight from reason if you want, or a flight of fancy if you'd rather. I think of it as a gesture of hope.

Wise and worldly readers, I turn to you. Am I on a fool’s errand, or is there hope here?

Have a question? I’m at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.