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?