Monday, January 19, 2009

Fish on the Fate of University, Inc.

As per usual, Stanley Fish's latest column on higher education is provocative, and not a little disheartening. Riffing on Frank Donoghue's book, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Fish documents the decline and irreversible trajectory of higher education which has hitched its wagon to pragmatist "training" and job certification for the corporate world of production and consumption. In short, the "university" is well on its way to being a very expensive and very snooty vo-tech school. Fish always tries to be unsentimental and "realist" about these matters, but it's hard not to detect just a twinge of disappointment and a whisp of lament. Asking about the possibility of "restoring" the classical vision of education's "inutility" (and I would add, the correlate classical vision of education as formation), Fish turns to Donoghue:
In a new book, “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the University,” Frank Donoghue (as it happens, a former student of mine) asks that question and answers “No.”

Donoghue begins by challenging the oft-repeated declaration that liberal arts education in general and the humanities in particular face a crisis, a word that suggests an interruption of a normal state of affairs and the possibility of restoring the natural order of things.

“Such a vision of restored stability,” says Donoghue, “is a delusion” because the conditions to which many seek a return – healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting – have largely vanished. Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums), the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past. In “ two or three generations,” Donoghue predicts, “humanists . . . will become an insignificant percentage of the country’s university instructional workforce.”

He goes on to suggest that this trend is over a century old, and can be seen most recently in the astronomical rise of adjunct professors on large university campuses. And according to Donoghue, the prospects are particularly dark for my field. Citing the founder of the abominable University of Phoenix, Fish notes:
Sperling understands the difficulty of achieving accreditation for his institution as a proxy “for cultural battles between defenders of 800 years of educational (and largely religious) traditions, and innovation that was based on the ideas of the marketplace – transparency, efficiency, productivity and accountability.”

Those ideas have now triumphed (Carnegie and Crane are victorious), and this means, Donoghue concludes, “that all fields deemed impractical, such as philosophy, art history, and literature, will henceforth face a constant danger of being deemed unnecessary.” And as a corollary “professors will come to be seen by everyone (not just those outside the academy) as unaffordable anomalies.”
Embedded in there is a bitter irony: Sperling's corporate critique of classical educational traditions rightly links this model to a correlate and intertwined vision of religious education as primarily the formation of a certain kind of person. Indeed, one might argue that the last gasps of this "classical" model unhooked from religious commitments and practices was always and only a model living on borrowed capital and borrowed time. (One could quite easily generate a story along these lines with the help of Charles Taylor's own story in A Secular Age.)

But here's the irony: today, religious colleges have bought into this corporate, instrumentalized picture of higher education as aggressively as anyone. This partly stems from the decentralized, "marketplace" configuration of higher education in the United States which forces Christian colleges to "sell" themselves as a viable and promising option for the student "consumer." (I grant that this decentralization also makes it possible to have "thickly" religious institutions.) It also stems from the fact that Mommy & Daddy, who are so often paying the bills, have imbibed and absorbed this instrumentalist expectation that education be "useful" (read: will pay the bills and secure "success" as measured by the metric which is late modern consumer capitalist "happiness"). And so they want to hear that utilitarian message from Christian colleges--which is at least one of the reasons that we see pre-professional programs gobbling up the energy and space of Christian colleges that, nostalgically, describe themselves as "liberal arts" institutions (yes, I'm speaking about my own home institution, Calvin College , among others). Or why the cash cows of "degree completion programs" have become the lifeline of smaller Christian colleges and universities. In such an environment, even the humanities have to "pay up": they have to prove their worth as measured by fiscal utility.

This is why the most intense and concentrated articulations of this instrumentalized vision of Christian education are found, not in the upper echelons of the academic division, but in the Admissions department (and its cognate, Public Relations and Student Life, which are the "face" of the college to the prospective educational consumer). Analyze the admissions literature of just about any Catholic or Christian college or university, especially those that bill themselves as "liberal arts" institutions and watch for the buzzwords. (It would be particularly interesting to compare this literature to the same sorts of information that was provided 50 or 75 years ago, by the same institution.) This also explains why PR departments will only promote faculty research and activity that seems "interesting," useful, and "safe."

[It should be noted, by the way, that this is not a critique of the general task of sharing information about our institutions to prospective students. I have no brief with getting the word out; the issue is how we do this and how we portray the mission and task of our institutions. (For a very helpful discussion of the difference between "marketing" in the mode of consumption and "marketing" in the mode of disseminating information, see Todd Steen and Steve VanderVeen's nice little piece, "Will There Be Marketing in Heaven?" in Perspectives.)

Now, the really haunting question is: what do we do now? What do we do in the face of this? Well, probably for the most part, I'll live off my hypocrisy, continue to inhabit the instrumentalized college & university as a tenured professor, and snipe at the margins, thereby comforting myself by thinking I'm playing a "prophetic" role [LOL!]. For several years, I would say I've "deluded" myself (Donoghue's term) by thinking that a small cadre of committed folks might be able to stem the tide and redirect our institutional behemoths to remember who they are, and Whose they are. I'm a little less sanguine about that these days--well, actually, I'm a LOT less sanguine about that.

And so I find myself with strange, haunting, ridiculous thoughts, upon which I'll never act: that maybe the space for "education" now lies outside the institutions that bear its name; that a tiny band committed to this vision would be better "educated" outside the mechanisms of accreditation and certification; that even Christian higher education finds itself in a "monastic" moment, calling for strategic and intentional abstinence and reorientation because of our collusion with University, Inc.; that perhaps we--professors and students alike--are called outside the safety of our institutions into experiments we have not yet imagined; that perhaps the fate of University, Inc. need not be confused with the "end" of education.