Universal decline

Universities are odd institutions. They come in many different shapes and sizes, from local community colleges to huge multinational corporations. They can be state-run or private, highly specialized or more general in scope. They can even exist wholly online. They began in the middle ages, but today bear almost no relation to their earliest incarnations. And if signs are any indication, their evolution will continue to take them in strange new directions.

The last several years have seen a great deal of soul-searching within the halls of academe. One of the sparks was the claim made by a hedge fund manager and venture capitalist that universities were an economic “bubble,” selling a product at an unreasonable and unsustainable price through the assistance of government loans. Such a charge led to a flood of books attempting to explain what had gone wrong. In Canada the sociologists James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar (authors of Ivory Tower Blues and Lowering Higher Education) are two of the more popular commentators.

Various villains have been identified. Some, like Camille Paglia, continue to blame trends like post-structuralism and cultural relativism for having hollowed out the core mission of higher education. Others blame the “massification” of higher ed, the explosive post-World War 2 growth of universities to the point where they now admit far too many unqualified and uninterested students. Some accuse the government of cutting funding. Still others point the finger at the swelling ranks and salaries of a non-teaching administrative class within the universities. And then there are those who blame the adoption of a neo-liberal, market-oriented philosophy by institutions that (they feel) must stand outside such a framework.

I’ve followed much of the debate, and it saddens me. The humanities are, frankly, losing, and they aren’t even putting up a good fight. I tried to address some of the points being made in my joint review of Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature and John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts? The depressing takeaway from Carey’s book is that the arts aren’t good for much at all. The usual platitudes are trotted out: how the humanities encourage independent, critical thinking and make us more empathic and active citizens, but this just isn’t true. I can’t help thinking that if humanities professors, trained in disciplines like history, philosophy and rhetoric, can’t put forward better arguments for what we might call higher education’s traditional mission, then perhaps it’s time to give up. In a recent piece appearing in the Guardian, one pro-humanities spokesperson, Sarah Churchwell, had this to say:

“What has changed radically in the last 10 years is that they’re trying to turn everything into a for-profit business,” said Churchwell. “And that’s bullshit. Universities are not for profit. We are charitable institutions. What they’re now doing is saying to academics: ‘You have to be the fundraisers, the managers, the producers, you have to generate the incomes that will keep your institutions afloat.’ Is that really what society wants – for everything to become a marketplace, for everything to become a commodity? Maybe I’m just out of step with the world, but what some of us are fighting for is the principle that not everything that is valuable can or should be monetised. That universities are one of the custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration. That education is not a commodity, it’s a qualitative transformation. You can’t sell it. You can’t simply transfer it.”

Churchwell went on to talk about what would be lost if we didn’t stand in the way of this systematic destruction of the traditional liberal education. “Virtually every cabinet minister has a humanities degree,” she said. “And I think there’s something quite sinister about it: they get their leadership positions after studying the humanities and then they tell us that what we need is a nation of technocrats. If you look at the vast majority of world leaders, you’ll find that they’ve got humanities degrees. Angela Merkel is the only one who’s a scientist. The ruling elite have humanities degrees because they can do critical thinking, they can test premises, they can think outside the box, they can problem-solve, they can communicate, they don’t have linear, one-solution models with which to approach the world. You won’t solve the problems of religious fundamentalism with a science experiment.”

This is entirely unconvincing. Critical thinking certainly isn’t the preserve of the humanities. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if today’s arts departments even encourage it. And while I’m as dejected as Churchwell at the thought of people wanting “everything to become a marketplace, for everything to become a commodity,” I don’t think it’s realistic to see such giant corporations (which is what universities are) as standing outside the larger economy. As recent strikes at York University and the University of Toronto have highlighted, universities can be seen as a microcosm of that dysfunctional larger economy, with its widening split between a privileged elite at the top (enjoying high pay, job security, benefits and pension) and a growing underclass whose sub-minimum wage labour supports the whole enterprise.

It’s very common now to decry the “corporatization” of universities and emphasize their “charity” status (at least for state-funded schools), but how honest are such claims? This past week saw the release of Ontario’s “Sunshine List” of public sector workers making over $100,000 a year. Perhaps the most common defense of such high salaries — after the remarkable claim, made by many, that because of inflation a $100,000 annual salary, which doesn’t include benefits, “isn’t very much” — is that they have to be “competitive” with the private sector. I suppose this makes sense in some fields (though surely not for professors in the humanities), but one has to ask to what extent a public sector in competition with the private sector is still truly public. At the very least it smacks of having one’s cake and eating it too.

Meanwhile, the real crisis facing higher education, as I see it, is the constriction of the middle class: their falling (real) wages and stagnant standards of living. A university education used to be a step on the ladder of upward mobility, but while that’s still true in some cases, more and more it’s a step on a ladder to nowhere, and it comes at a staggering cost. When I was at university nearly thirty years ago it was not hard to find an easy summer job that would pay tuition, school supplies, rent, and groceries. That’s no longer the case for young people today, who are graduating with incredible amounts of debt. And the old certainty that even if you didn’t walk into your dream job you at least were sure of finding some kind of meaningful work when you graduated has gone as well, most dramatically in the case of humanities graduates because the cultural economy has been gutted by the Internet.

But the problem isn’t one faced by humanities graduates alone. The advice to study the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) is no guarantee of finding a good career. Even “learning a trade” is little help. I know a lot of un- and underemployed contractors. The problem is one affecting young people generally, and faced with such a challenge there’s little wonder they’re becoming wary of higher education. Enrollments are indeed kept inflated thanks to the willingness of this generational cohort to take on high levels of debt, and because there is nowhere else for young people to go and nothing for them to do. That’s a terrible defense of higher education, but it’s the bottom line.

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