Tuesday, May 24, 2011

legitimation crisis in higher education, part 2

So, what happened to the legitimation of higher education? How did we reach the point of incredulity?

The series of events I believe is as follows. (1) The Holocaust. (2) The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (3) The GI bill. (4) The civil rights movement.

Incongruous list, eh? Lyotard gives me the first two. The Holocaust and the rise of the nuclear age shattered forever the dream of human control of nature or our fate, and bankrupted any notion of moral authority or moral purpose (if you don’t dig that last bit, read yer Adorno). Poof go those grand narratives, never to be recovered. No, not even with bioengineering.

The reason the GI bill and the civil rights movement are crucial events is that they produced a democratizing legitimation for education that ultimately led to class warfare, and political attacks on the authority of experts. For the GI bill and the civil rights movement both made a demand on education, and on higher education, to be a mechanism for social justice in the form of upward social and economic mobility. As one of the speakers at the CFHE presser noted, last Tuesday was the 54th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and he quoted from that decision: “There is no justice without educational justice.” Ironically, legitimation by social justice sped the crisis along, in part because of the way it was conceived.

In California, the social justice legitimation of higher education has been linked to the 1960 Master Plan, a bill that clarified the purposes and borderlines of the three systems of public higher education in the state. The University of California was to accept the top 1/8 of high school graduates, and continue to advance scientific and technical research - i.e., serve as a public R1. The California State Colleges (later the CSU) was to accept the top 1/3 of high school graduates, and train them to be teachers and other lower-level professionals - second tier. The California Community Colleges were to accept everyone interested in attending - third tier.

That division of labor led to the identification of the CSU as “the people’s university,” a concept that clearly intends to link the purpose of the CSU to social justice concerns for class and origin. CSU faculty activists often use this rhetoric to argue for increased state funding to the CSU, and to criticize funding cuts as politically retrograde. That’s true, of course, but it shouldn’t be surprising, and it shouldn’t be surprising when the arguments are ignored. (I refer interested readers to Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University for analysis of the class and cultural warfare attacks on public education. Although limited in scope, his work can at least be applied to the more general situation.)

What I think is important about the rhetoric supporting state funding of education under legislation like the Master Plan is a shift in the legitimating narrative, from education as serving public, national, or universal human interests, to education as serving class, and ultimately, individual interests. That is to say, under this regime, higher education’s success can be measured strictly performatively, by assessing whether graduates make more money. What education ultimately is for, according even to this concept of social justice, is generating a measurable quantity of money.

And that’s what we often argue: every dollar the state invests in the CSU returns more than five dollars in revenue. If this is true, it is true in a way that is strictly functionalist, instrumentalist, and bureaucratic.

On the other hand, once we accept that frame of reference for legitimating higher education, there is no way out of efficiency standards. The best education would be that which maximizes the benefit, in terms of dollars earned by graduates, and minimizes cost. Disciplines and degrees, faculty-to-student ratios, number of tenure-track faculty, library budgets, and everything else, in the best possible case, would be subject to efficiency rationalization.

Some things are, as administrators tell us almost every day, and as the public readily accepts, just too expensive: majoring in individual instrumental performance or philosophy, post-baccalaureate programs, classes with fewer than 15 students. When the state's revenues dry up, education becomes one among all the other expenses, comparable to roadwork, prisons, medicare, parks, and police. The only defense of education that has any weight in such a discussion is the performative one: universities generate more economic growth than parks, e.g.

What's defended, and what's attacked, when education is at stake, is a certain input/output system defined by its constituencies and typical bureaucratic structures. Any "purpose" is now unintelligible.

Next: Habermas vs. Lyotard, or, optimistic and pessimistic interpretations of the crisis of higher education. Plus: why these are false dichotomies. (I know, I know: once a Hegelian, always a Hegelian.)

Friday, May 20, 2011

legitimation crisis in higher education, part 1

Tuesday morning, we attended the “watch party” for the press conference to launch the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education. CFHE’s goal is to bring the voice of the faculty into public debate, to provide an alternative vision to the narrow, exclusive, and ultimately exploitative plans of public policy elites. I’m certainly supportive of their goals, and will be a loyal footsoldier for them.

The very existence of CFHE makes me more convinced that higher education is in the throes of a crisis of legitimation – and has been since probably the 1970s. Throughout the morning I was reminded of Jean-François Lyotard’s analysis in The Postmodern Condition. I sketched out, à la Lyotard, a periodization of legitimating narratives for higher education, which I think is probably going to be the backbone of whatever my essay turns out to be.

Early modern universities had distinctly moral legitimations. Not only were they primarily religious institutions in their origins, but their purposes were understood in moral terms. The scions of old and new wealth attended in order to become proper, educated, humanized men. They read the classics en route to entry into moral realms of social life: the clergy, the law, medicine, or some lordship or other.

In the 19th century, in the United States as elsewhere, a new legitimating narrative rose to prominence: higher education was to serve the social and economic interests of the nation. To this end, the US created land-grant agricultural and technical universities. There still were the traditional liberal arts colleges, pursuing their moral mission, but the land-grants were a new sort of college pursuing useful arts and sciences. This distinction corresponds roughly with Lyotard’s conception of the moral or liberating and nationalistic legitimations of knowledge.

By the late 19th century, the US had sprouted normal schools for the training of school teachers. Again, in my view at least, this was legitimated primarily morally. One particular case in point: the California state normal school, originally opened in San Francisco, was moved to San Jose (which was more wholesome, less wild), and eventually became the first California State College.

By around the time California State Normal School became California State College, we began in the US to divide colleges and universities into the now-familiar tier system. The moral narrative had basically broken down, and a narrative of scientific and technological advancement became predominant – knowledge, and hence higher education, was to serve humanity’s control and domination of nature and our own fate. Under this narrative, the leading tier of higher education would, of course, be that which produced new knowledge and technology, what we now call Research-1 universities. Second-tier higher education functioned within that same narrative, by producing the professionals and para-professionals who acted upon that knowledge and technology. The third tier, mainly technical and community colleges, also could be legitimated by this narrative, recognizing the demands that an advanced technological society would place on all members to adopt and adapt.

As I said, this narrative of knowledge in service to humanity had been the dominant legitimating discourse of higher education, from right around the turn of the 20th century until just after mid-century. From that point, a series of events have thoroughly undermined the legitimating narratives of higher education. By the 1970s, as Lyotard explains, we had entered the postmodern condition of incredulity toward metanarratives, which I interpret to mean a loss of faith in a grand purpose.

Next: What the hell happened?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

this stupid program

It's the last day of classes for Spring semester, and for the academic year. That means it's time to start fighting with Excel to make it calculate grades for my classes.

I'm not computer illiterate, and I'm not math illiterate. But something about the Excel interface is so counter-intuitive to me that I feel like I am. This morning, considering the prospect of my semi-annual battle, part of my brain decided to call Excel "This Stupid Program."

"This Stupid Program" was the name of a program my friend Bob and I recorded, over and over again, using a series of cassette tape recorders from ages 9 or 10 until 19 or 20. As a kid, I was either instinctually or preternaturally drawn to parody, I don't know which. As a result, Bob and I made up and recorded multiple hours of utter silliness that made fun of TV and radio programs and, especially, ads. We called our efforts "WDUM," as though it were a radio station.

I used to draw up program schedules before we would record ourselves. As I recall the events, I had just put "This Stupid Program" on a schedule without any idea what it would be. I don't remember how it was that Bob became the host of the program, but I do know the entirety of the transcript of the show:

Time again for "This Stupid Program." "This Stupid Program" is designed to last approximately thirty-seven and one-half seconds, so it is almost time to go. There, it is time to go. See you next time on "This Stupid Program."

Now, that's fairly stupid. Having a program like that on a radio or TV broadcast would be rather stupid. Who would advertise on "This Stupid Program"? Who would listen to it? That was the conceit that drove WDUM - that these idiots were actually on the air. (And of course they had one chief sponsor, called Krazy Kooks Inkorporated, which was a conglomerate selling absolutely everything.)

Bob uttered the text in a weird muppety voice, which made it sillier. We used to repeat the show multiple times running, and by the third or so, it was immensely silly.

So, while I'm struggling to make Excel behave, I'll be hearing Bob in my head, and then the ad following, for KKI's Tree Tree, or some other similarly useless invention. Sadly, I've lost all of the tapes we made. I don't remember the circumstances of that, but it may have been in the flood in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1998 - the same one that took a dozen or more notebooks and plays, and hundreds of poems that I wrote from ages 13 on.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

basic contradiction

On my walk home, contemplating Manuel Castells' brilliant analysis of al-Qaeda in The Power of Identity, I started thinking about basic contradictions in cultures, and the way they instigate crises. Al-Qaeda's main ideological origin is the contradictions in Middle East political and cultural life - the accumulation of wealth and power by those who own the means to access petroleum reserves, versus the essential piety and humility of Islam.

We have a very similar contradiction in the US, and it's odd that hardly anyone seems to notice. The majority of Americans regard themselves as Christian, and yet do not see that our society's official reverence for market capitalism is totally at odds with the values of the teachings of Jesus. It's pretty plain, though, it seems to me: "love your neighbor" is really contrary to "screw your neighbor," the official competitive motto of capitalist economies. Jesus taught that the poor are blessed and shall inherit the earth; the capitalist faith claims the poor deserve to be poor because they're lazy or talentless.

And yes, I know there are evangelical contortionists who twist the beatitudes into knots in order to rationalize the view that the poor have earned their poverty as punishment for their sins. I just don't see how that could be truly compelling in the face of the Gospels. (Then again, I'm neither a student of the Bible nor a Christian, so this is all external critique, natch.)

I mean, you could at least prettify the situation by saying that capitalism is a kind of unfortunate state of nature - original sin as economic reality. That would at least save some of the fundamental tenets of Medieval Christianity. Then Christian faith could take the role of how one cleanses oneself from the wages of sin (pun intended).

Another interpretation would be that either the faith in capital or the faith in Christ are hypocritical or cynical. In that case, the faithful would use their expressions of faith to assuage their consciences (assuming), their god (assuming), or their bankers (well, those, at least, do exist). I'm less inclined to this view, mainly because it's less kinky, and I do like kink in my theology.

Anyway, one might wonder whether, or when, this basic contradiction in American social and cultural life might express itself in violence. If so, one would obviously have missed the past 20 years or so of domestic terrorism, the rise of the militia/patriot/tea party movement, and, not to put to fine a point on it, the Bushes.

You know that old saying, "There are no atheists in foxholes"? I always want to know if there are any Christians in potholes.