The Standardization of Higher Education

by Peter Augustine Lawler
Beyond competency and diversity?

First a brief word on the presidential nomination process: Cruz and a bunch of billionaires have worked hard and effectively to get anti-Trump delegates selected, including those who will be bound to Trump on the first ballot. This effort will contribute to Trump’s not getting the nomination on the first ballot. It also will contribute, I’m pretty sure (and most experts now agree), to Cruz’s victory on the second ballot.  

But Cruz still has some worries: If it goes to a third ballot, it’s conceivable that neither Trump nor Cruz gets the nomination. Very unlikely? Sure, but not impossible. And Cruz’s delegate-selection cleverness would be for naught if he loses big in Pennsylvania, New York, and California. If that happens, the people say, Trump will be only about 50 votes shy of a majority. I really think that Trump would be impossible to deny if things play out in exactly that way. So my thinking that Cruz gets the nomination still depends on his winning or at least not losing big in California. The odds favor Cruz’s prevailing in that state, but right now Trump is still leading in the polls and that key, even epic, primary is no time soon.  

And so: The lack of a Cruz surge in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland in the most recent polls — a surge, I confess, I expected — has caused me to drop the chance of Cruz’s being nominated from 75 percent  to 70 percent. 

UPDATE: In fact, if you look at the Fox poll out tonight, Trump is clearly gaining, Kasich is catching up to Cruz, and Cruz continues not to pick up steam. 45% of the country is now for Donald or Bernie.  Both of their prospects seem to remain on the upswing.  Conservative public intellectuals have to stop reveling in Cruz’s cleverness behind the scenes. It ’s robably more important for him to become popular. Maybe his relaxed appearance on Jimmy Fallon helped a little.

Now here’s another snippet from my keynote talk Saturday morning at the ACTC (Association for Core Texts and Courses) conference at the Marriott on the Perimeter, just outside Atlanta. (Hope to see you there):

The  key middle-class distinction is not between work and leisure, in which the point of work is to support a vision of human excellence or greatness that has nothing to do with money. It’s between work and recreation, and those in the service industry are about giving those with money the amenities they want, in return for some of the latter’s money.

It’s worth noting here, if just for a moment, how amenity-laden even our so-called institutions of higher learning have become. Education has become pretty much the same everywhere — all about competency and diversity —and  so the discerning educational consumer chooses for a health-club gym, hotel-style dorms, gourmet food in the cafeteria, luxurious study-abroad opportunities, student-affairs concierges who save students from the dread disease of boredom, and D-3 athletic programs that feature lots of participation that doesn’t depend on exceptional athletic prowess. College has become really expensive — although thinking, books, and philosophy professors remain really cheap — as a burgeoning part of the service industry. 

So it’s an instructive exaggeration to say that college is becoming about the same everywhere — being nudged along by the standardizing pressures of the market, government bureaucracies, Silicon Valley–funded foundations driven by the principle that education can be delivered in roughly the same way as electricity, and the administrative class of higher education itself, a class that dominates the increasingly intrusive accrediting associations. And basically middle-class or techno-vocational standardizing pressures have a big negative effective on genuine diversity — moral, religious, and intellectual diversity — on our campuses. The pressure here, I want to emphasize, doesn’t really come from old-fashioned tenured radicals. For one thing, the percentage of tenured faculty is dropping like a rock. Nor does it come all that much from the most recent wave of campus protestors.

It comes from the corporate and administrative agenda that’s about purging all that is not middle-class or that is incompatible with the dynamism of the 21st-century global competitive marketplace. We see, better than ever, the threat that the universality of middle-class thinking has on freedom of, and so diversity in, thought.

Although I am a scandal to the fashionable conformism of higher education because I typically vote Republican and am not in the closet about it, I admit that the imposition of middle-class or techno-vocational, techno-enthusiastic tyranny on higher education has been more a theme of Republican politicians, such Scott Walker and Marco Rubio (for whom I actually voted). Rubio’s theme that we need more welders and fewer philosophers is an assault on free thought, insofar as it might be good for welders to know some philosophy just to live well. One American ideal should be the philosopher-welder, given that we have no work at all for philosopher-kings.

I will even add that Republican and especially libertarian proponents of the so-called creative disruption of the whole of American higher education are over-hyping the destructive impact of the rather moronic demands of the campus protestors of our time. Those Republican innovators even seem to hope that the displacement of liberal education by diversity requirements will make it clearer to all that there’s no need to bemoan the disappearance of the humanities and all that. They committed suicide!  

I should also emphasize, however, that the replacement of liberal education with diversity requirements grounded in programs ending in “studies” really does undermine higher education in America. It’s not that sensitivity to diversity or being animated by social justice aren’t admirable. It’s just those outcomes have always been served best by the liberal education that is the proper antidote to our country’s understandable and beneficial — but only to a point — techno-enthusiasm.

I actually have more sympathy for Bernie Sanders’s call for free higher education for everyone. Bernie is thinking about the old City College of New York in the 1950s, staffed by mostly leftist emigrés who taught the great books as if they really mattered to New Yorkers of all races and classes and religions. In Bernie’s imagination, we should be perfectly free to be either a philosopher or a welder or some combination thereof, just as we have a mind.

It’s true that Sanders’s solution wouldn’t work today, mainly because all public higher education is marked by so much less freedom than it was in the Fifties. And the effectual truth of his solution would be to starve what moral and intellectual diversity we have left in mostly private colleges. 

Still, I hope that the appeal of Bernie to the young is all about his calling out the corporate technocratic elitism that dominates both our parties — and that he’s defending intellectual freedom against the middle-class tendency to sacrifice controversy to public relations, and even against the libertarian economist’s tendency to sacrifice controversy to the imperatives of productivity. Don’t worry, I’ll never vote for Bernie, although I might vote for (as professors and college presidents) the old socialists Irving Howe and Michael Harrington over most of the professors and especially administrators we have in the humanities and social sciences today.

Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.