The Corner


Don’t McDonaldize the University

I don’t like the way “McDonalds” has become sort of an epithet, such as in snide references to “McJobs” and “McMansions,” which imply hostility to hard work and earned success. But there is something to be said for using it as a epithet when describing what has been going on with higher education.

In today’s Martin Center article, Luke Sheahan, who teaches political science at Duke, reviews a book of essays edited by British professor Dennis Hayes entitled Beyond McDonaldization: Visions of Higher Education. The big problem, agree the contributors, is that the university has lost its former focus on knowledge and now is mainly interested just in processing through students to their degrees (if possible; sometimes not), much as a McDonalds processes burgers and fries. Sheahan explains, “The point of a degree prior to McDonaldization was to signal that one had acquired a certain amount of knowledge, but after it, degrees lost their connection to education in a meaningful sense. The point of the McDonaldized degree is just to have the credential needed as an increasingly dubious means to a good job.”

Many of the contributors are from the U.K., where higher education has succumbed to the same pressures as here, to graduate as many bodies as possible since higher “educational attainment” is supposedly good for the economy and definitely enhances the school’s revenues. For example, Gavin Poynter of the University of East London observes (in Sheahan’s words), “it is ironic that we now treat higher education as instrumental to economic betterment. Students and governments pay enormous sums for little in the way of either marketable skills for individuals or broad economic growth.”

Good point, Professor Poynter! He sees through the blather that college education is a huge economic boost to the reality that the gains are far outweighed by the heavy costs in resources misallocated and opportunities lost.

Several other writers bemoan the drift away from the pursuit of knowledge into current fads. Sheahan puts their argument this way:

The university today is in the process of jettisoning academic freedom, the core freedom attaching to the ideal of a community of scholars. The massive increase in students in the UK and the US has dealt a blow to the quality of education and transformed the university from the model the rest of society should follow to a reflection of society at large. Rather than being a leader, higher education is a follower. The university no longer pursues truth for its own sake. Now it caters to its audience, simply providing a plethora of degrees of decreasing value to an ever-increasing number of students.

And then there is the ridiculous trend into what Hayes calls “the therapeutic university.” As Sheahan explains his argument, “The goal of the therapeutic university is not to educate students, but to make them comfortable, which means stepping into the role of therapist. But if universities’ primary goal is to serve as sources of therapy and comfort for students, then they must reject the traditional notion of the university as the place where knowledge is accumulated and disseminated.”

The book also contains a provocative essay by Adam Kissel, formerly with FIRE and now working for Betsy DeVos in the Department of Education, making the case for the privatization of research. That would make a huge difference, since universities would have much less use for professors who devote most of their time to tendentious baloney such as “intersectionality theory” if there were no government subsidies for them.

All in all, this is an extremely valuable book for anyone who is interested in what has gone wrong with higher education.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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