Phi Beta Cons

Occupy Academia

The protestors in Zuccotti Park, Freedom Plaza, and anarchist tent cities across the country are mad as hell about student loans — going so far as to demand loan forgiveness for low-earning college grads and circulating a “Pledge of Refusal,” vowing to stop making payments on their debt.

The agitators’ demand that their creditors take a bath shows how blind they are to the reasons their higher-education credentials are worth so little. Professors and wannabe academics have flocked to the protest sites, welcomed with open arms by the poor, downtrodden BAs-turned-baristas and out of work MFAs at the movement’s core. Yet no one bears more responsibility for the dashed hopes and dreams of these overeducated, underemployed youths than America’s professorial class.

Higher education has become mostly disconnected from labor markets — and the realities of household budgets — in recent decades. Tuition (in constant dollars) has more than doubled since the 1980s, as universities have transformed themselves into all-inclusive resort communities; learning is a distant priority after sports, parties, and the rest of campus life. When students do finally hit the books (for a mere dozen hours a week, according to Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s book Academically Adrift), they study such disciplines as the performing arts, creative writing, and a myriad of “studies” majors exploring narrow questions of ethnic, racial, and sexual identity.

A beleaguered professor might protest that she is merely doing her job, that students themselves generate the demand for the unchallenging degree programs offered at most institutions nowadays. This ignores the responsibility of university faculties and administrators for two related and troubling trends.

#more#First, the higher-education establishment has embraced the goal of “college for all” with alacrity. After all, it’s in the self-interest of everyone except the students who are being shoved into college unprepared and the parents footing a portion of the growing bill: For professors it means bigger department budgets, new buildings, more jobs. Uncle Sam finances this binge spending with subsidized loans, and no one asks how students will get a job at the end to pay them back. Never mind that majorities of students in many other developed nations are obtaining technical skills in rigorous vocational-education programs at this stage of their lives, at a fraction of the cost. Faculty members are too busy forming their students in the liberal arts to care.

Which brings us to the second disturbing trend in higher ed: the cheapening of “liberal arts” to mean “any subject of study divorced from considerations of practicality or good taste.” The liberal arts were once about studying how to live, informed by literary, philosophical, and historical accounts of how others conducted their lives. Students took a coherent set of core courses and immersed themselves in the Western canon. The academics of today instead offer programs catering to teenage sloth and narcissism, giving kids and their helicopter parents whatever they want for a buck, regardless of quality or rigor, reluctant to miss out on the student-loan-driven bubble now inflating. Anything for the freedom to conduct trivial research, play activist on the side, and enjoy the waning prestige of tenure-track life.

The Occupy Wall Street protestors are right to be angry about the failed promise of higher education. Colleges and universities have fallen down on the job of developing the human capital we need to improve our economy and civic life.

The villain is not the lenders who played an incidental role in providing capital to creative writing majors, however. It’s the tenured bozos who gave them Derrida and finger painting in their formative undergraduate years instead of Plato and Aristotle (or a good course in computer-aided drafting). The Zuccotti Park crew should drop their beef with the banks and demand change from academia instead.

— Chris Tessone is the director of finance at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a leading education policy think tank. He blogs at Flypaper.

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