The Higher Ed Death Rattle

As of today, students pay a larger percentage of their tuition at state schools than the state does.

The humanities died in higher education a long time ago. Now, higher education itself is under threat. Until academics realize we lost certain battles, and we move strategically to different grounds, we will continue to lose the war. The fault is ours. We are weak tacticians who suffer from occupational psychoses that prevent us from wisdom on the battlefield.

Many ages ago, during my first semester in graduate school, a professor used the metaphor of the Catholic church to explain what was expected of graduate students. His mysterious answer comprised the full extent of my formal professionalization in that graduate program. His explanation was simply that bishops should do what bishops do, and parish priests should do what parish priests do. As long as the hierarchy between the senior-most tenured faculty and entering college freshmen remains true to the university’s monastic origins, and higher education structurally resembles the medieval papacy, we are deserving of right-wing criticism. The conservatives’ tactics, to tie funding to trickle-up, “No Child Left Behind” accountability, is simply a ploy in a larger game to privatize higher education. Our ivory tower elitism hands them victory in that war. And so, public higher education is becoming a thing of the past.

The humanities is best strengthened by stronger integration into technical education at community colleges and trade schools, whose students earn two and three times more than the average university graduate (not to mention the average humanities professor). These are the students who will rebuild our waning middle class with their desperately needed skills. More importantly, these are the very students who should be vested with a humanistic education.  Unfortunately, the snobbery embedded in our academic culture dismisses trade and technical education, and thereby rewards us with citizens who care little for the humanities.

All too often, universities confer PhDs for the convenience of using graduate students and adjuncts as contingent labor. These adjuncts – many of whom were promised golden futures – teach the very same classes at flagship and regional campuses, community and technical colleges, and online for-profit schools all during the same academic year. Yet, faculty faith in the academic hierarchy remains stalwart, and stereotypes about the academic pecking order remain unchallenged. Research I and trade school. Research and teaching. Theory and applied. Tenure track and adjunct. Faculty and Alt-Ac. Professor and auto mechanic. Research sabbatical and living wage.

Until this culture of class hierarchy is challenged, and academics recognize that the problem is not disrespect for humanities, but privileged disregard for labor (because there but for the grace of God go I), we will lose the war on higher education. Raymond Williams, an important figure in British cultural studies and adult education, wrote that education’s hierarchical metaphors assume we must all prove our right to education. We academics perpetuate an academic culture that creates the citizenry we deserve. No wonder the “working-class lads” who support the right don’t like us or the classes we teach. There are ways to build welcoming alliances if we desire. Ironically, even some of the most leftist or progressive academics seem to miss that point.

Terry Eagleton: The Death of Universities

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