Higher education’s business plan, as I argue in “The Rise and Coming Demise of the Corporate University,” has collapsed, challenged by fiscal constraints of declining government aid, bloated administrative costs, and charges that the quality of its product has eroded, producing fewer students who are either job ready or academically proficient. But a new school year finds American colleges and universities under a different assault by misguided liberals, conservatives, and accreditation bodies who are pushing agendas that collectively are undoing the intellectual conditions that made American universities the best in the world.
First come conservatives continuing their corporate transformation or restructuring of higher education. One option comes through the rise of for-profit private colleges, offering a game plan of expensive tuition and pricey administrators, delivered mostly with low cost adjunct professors in often cookie-cutter, interchangeable curriculum delivered on-line. This is Fordism comes to higher education, especially with efforts to monetize MOOCS. The other option is traditional schools adopting this model; employing business leaders to run schools and developing cost containment policies aimed mostly at standardizing curriculum. It is a top-down decision making premised upon treating faculty no differently than an assembly line worker. If all of the curriculum is the same then it is possible to substitute one “content instructor” for another. The result, a market-driven product devoid of innovation, creativity, and intellectual challenge.
Liberals come second, often joined by religious conservatives, bent on enforcing political correctness on campus and in producing a curriculum that offends no one. As well captured in the Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their “The Coddling of the American Mind,” there is a push to insulate students from ideas and words that they do not like.
Across the country schools are adopting policies demanding trigger warnings or alerting faculty to forms of microaggression that students find objectionable. The result is not only an erosion of academic freedom but a curriculum that offends none, is uninteresting, and devoid of learning.
Finally comes the accrediting agencies who have taken the assessment lessons from K-12 and are imposing them on higher education (see Steven C. Ward’s Academe article “No Child Left Behind Goes to College” on this topic). They demand schools measure and test students and curriculum by developing a complex process of goals, objectives, rubrics. The idea, while well meaning, is to make it possible to evaluate student learning across classes–and potentially across institutions–by essentially standardizing each course, such as an introductory politics class, regardless of who teaches it. Colleges and universities are devoting countless hours adding verbiage to syllabi and setting up assessment processes and committees to comply. The assessment movement adds an air of legitimacy to both the conservative corporate restructuring and liberal homogenization of classes by declaring such approaches do or will improve educational quality. But as Erik Gilbert’s recent “Does Assessment of Colleges Make Them Better?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, the evidence for this assessment is largely lacking. The result then is a push for untested and unproven standardization of college education in a one-size-fits-all curriculum that offers little proof that it will improve student or institutional learning.
Good learning as John Stuart Mill penned in On Liberty is the search for truth; it is about confronting new ideas, exposing dogmas, forcing people to challenge themselves and confront their own biases. The Delphic γν θι σεαυτόν “Know Thyself” command is only possible with self-examination, one that includes confronting and being challenged by ideas and words that test one’s views. Real learning is transformative–changing the way one thinks about the world. It is about fostering diversity, a multiplicity of perspectives being offered in a setting where professors and students are free to do what Immanuel Kant once said–“Dare to know.” None of the above reforms further these objectives.
But what we see then as we enter a new school year is the life of learning being sucked out of higher education. Real learning, educational diversity, academic freedom–the core of what it used to contribute to the goal of the pursuit of truth–is being undone by reformers who while wanting to fix what is wrong with colleges, are actually destroying what made American higher education great.