I chuckled through William Deresiewicz’s rant over how capitalism is destroying higher education in the American Scholar. Absolutely nothing new here, with some minor tweaks it could, for the most part, have been written ten to fifteen years ago. Deresiewicz laments over the fact that universities and individual programs are having to carry their weight to justify their economic existence. Wake up Bill, the higher education of today and the future are not going to look like or be the higher education that we knew in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. In the eighties, the economic realities of an endless stream of money without much oversight as to the value of the investment made came into play. Blame capitalism or not for our woes, the economics of higher education has changed. Declining or stagnate budgets became a reality for many if not most university systems long before the most recent financial meltdown.
What really caught my attention were his statements about online learning and for-profit universities. Deresiewicz states that ‘ “Online learning” is justified, on bogus pedagogical grounds, for the sake of reducing labor costs.” ‘ Bill, read the literature, you’re so far off the mark it’s sad. Those of us who have been engaged in online teaching and learning know there is plenty of research that shows online learning to be as effective, if not more so, than traditional face-to-face. Using the labor reducing cost as the only argument is simply silly. Deresiewicz provides no basis for his statement that for-profit universities are “another massive educational failure”. There are reasons other than, admittedly questionable marketing practices as to why they have upwards of ten percent of higher education enrollments. Perhaps they are offering a service that traditional universities have not been able to.
Deresiewicz also states that “Professors (the decreasing share that’s left) are expected to be miniature entrepreneurs, endlessly selling their courses to students, their research to funding organizations, and their raison d’être to administrators.” Do you really think this is something new? I don’t know about Yale from which you spent some time, but where I’ve attended and taught in higher education, we have always had to “market” our courses and programs to justify the investment in them. Professors have for many years, especially through securing patents, been entrepreneurs. And in both cases, you and your unit better be productive because it simply doesn’t make economic sense to throw money at underperforming units simply for the sake of providing a liberal arts background to all. Should we be raising taxes as you suggest to return higher education to its past “glory”? Gee, that’d be nice but it’s not going to happen. Sorry Bill it’s the new reality, get over it.