Saturday, August 20, 2011

some extremely dark thoughts for the start of the school year

Yesterday I spent the day at the CFA Fall Kick-Off, where we learned of plans to protect faculty rights through contract bargaining and political activities. It's a fairly dire situation, because the CSU administration's hired union-busting consultants are taking advantage of the bad economic times to attempt to gut basically every protection of faculty. Most frighteningly, their attacks have a coherence that previously the CSU didn't seem to have, or to be so all-in for.

Overall, what we're facing is an attack on education. Absolutely consistently with what I've been calling the legitimation crisis in education, the CSU's proposals contemplate faculty labor as though we were course-delivery mechanisms. No: badly-designed, noisy course-delivery mechanisms. The reason for this, in turn, is that the CSU administration, and apparently also the board of trustees, believes that knowledge is not only a commodity, but one that is available in equivalent modular packages. Now, if there are two competing packages, one of which costs the university in terms of tenure, enforceable rights, benefits, and so forth, and the other never complains because it's a software package sold by a publishing company, then the better option is clearly, from this standpoint, the software package.

What this says about the value of faculty labor is insulting, demeaning, dehumanizing, and ignorant. But most of what the public at large understands about faculty labor coincides just about exactly with the CSU's position, because in general the public, I would venture to say, believes the same thing about knowledge. This is the source of CSU's tremendous advantage over CFA, when bargaining our contract turns to the more arcane issues of faculty rights over curriculum, workload, class size, tenure protections, evaluations, and other non-fiscal issues.

Never mind that the theory of knowledge operating in this approach is absolutely absurd. One does not come to know something by purchasing information about it. That this is a prevailing view, dismissing completely the significance of critical thinking, being able to communicate, or being able to understand in broad and integrative terms - the kind of terms that would help a person understand complex systems like economies or ecological environments. If Pearson textbook publishers can sell the university a package that it can turn around and sell to students, called "Economics" or "Ecology," for less than the cost of hiring an expert to teach those courses, then, from that crudely economic perspective that understands all goals in terms of bottom-line "throughput," that's the best "delivery mechanism."

Delivery, I always want to ask, of what?

Face facts: As a delivery mechanism, a person with a PhD in philosophy is about totally useless. I can't deliver much of anything, excepts a set of not-very-compelling facts about the biographies and histories of a few philosophers. Nothing in philosophy beyond that is, really, a fact. Theoretical thinking is not reducible to monologue, and there is no consensus in philosophy about anything - not even how to interpret the basic works and theories of great philosophers.

But Pearson's philosophy-in-a-box would solve all those problems by simply eliminating any ambiguity, or reducing it to a statement that "it's complicated," and presenting students philosophy as a set of facts about philosophy. The relevant analogy here is whether presenting a person a series of facts about you would be equivalent to knowing you, and I think it's not.

Philosophy is not so unlike other disciplines. If it were, then sciences would never change.

Ergo, whatever is being sold to students in prepackaged courses, it is not knowledge, as understood within the learned disciplines themselves.

So, faculty clearly win the argument. Experts are experts precisely in so far as non-experts do not know or understand what the experts know and understand. You need experts to explain their expertise for exactly that reason. QED.

None of which matters at all, because the typical college administrator knows the typical college student sees only per-unit cost, time-to-graduation, and the cash value of the diploma, as relevant measures of "college." The typical college student is not in college to learn, and many do not understand what learning is or how to do it, and administrators understand this. So it is easy for administrators to sell Pearson's cheaper prepackaged non-education, to a great degree, because it's exactly what most people want from college.

I was going to conclude with a statement of hope, but I don't wanna.

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