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.)

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