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Talking About Higher Education (2020-06-29)

The Women's College, Baltimore 1905. Public domain photogtaph via wikimedia commons, original at Groucher college digital library. The Women's College, Baltimore 1905. Public domain photogtaph via wikimedia commons, original at Groucher college digital library.
The Women's College, Batimore 1905. Public domain photogtaph via wikimedia commons, original at Groucher college digital library.

It can be quite instructive to take a look at what is finding its way to the new book shelves over time, and this needn't be done via an online bookseller or even a new or used bookstore in firmspace. In fact, one of the best places to track new books by is the public library in your town or city, especially its largest branch if there is more than one. The idiosyncratic blend of books generated via the reading populations' requests and recommendations can be eclectic and thought provoking. The shelves I have been reading titles and blurbs from over the past several years is one in a university town and near to a university, so it is perhaps overdetermined that the new book shelf will regularly feature new books on post-secondary education, especially its state and development. This is actually not the case, nor do these sorts of books turn up too much in the parallel branch of the public library. Nevertheless, the mainstream media has a steady trickle of articles on "the crisis" of post-secondary education, and these articles often point to new books on the very same topic. One such reference caught my attention awhile ago, and with the topic refreshed in my mind, I was fascinated to look into the somewhat more obscure section of my nearest new book seller where books on post-secondary education land, and find that at least two others have been published this year and there they were, tempting the unwary browser. Not too fascinated, mind you. I don't seriously imagine such books are best sellers as a rule, and I don't browse this specific section in any bookstore often.

Then it so happened that my office mates and I, in a state of either bravery or foolhardiness decided to clean up our office space, thereby winning back shelf space from the ghosts of completed PhD dissertations past. We are not quite done this task, since the pile of defunct textbooks is quite a sight to behold. Besides those, the remarkable range of books, pamphlets, and lost class notes was impressive in its own way. We're not at all sure what to do with a lovely set of post cards evidently collected on someone's european tour and accidentally left behind a decade ago, since we'd rather not spoil them or break up the collection. All that aside, among the older items were two books on, you guessed it, "the crisis" of post-secondary education, one from the late 1960s, the other from the early 1990s. This strongly suggests that somehow or other, post-secondary education has been in non-stop or almost non-stop crisis for well over fifty years. Yet, closure of public post-secondary educational institutions is basically unheard of. Expansions, mergings, changes of status from college to university sure, but not closures, which an ongoing crisis might be expected to cause. Maybe that will happen yet, but this got me to thinking.

From the look of it, "post-secondary crisis" books are in fact a genre. On further perusal of book catalogues and the like, it turns there are always a few new ones published every few years, and worries and arguments over "the crisis" are fairly constant in journals and magazines. People in and outside of post-secondary education argue about whether it should be purely vocational in nature, therefore publicly funding only professional and trade schools. They argue about the role of research, whether it should be publicly funded at all, whether it should be done in all universities or only some of them, or if it should be restricted to research-only institutions in the first place. They argue over whether anybody should bother teaching "the humanities" anymore, conveniently forgetting that "the humanities" used to include several of what are now called sciences, and that nobody can function in this world anymore without that basic humanity, rhetoric (that is, the study and practice of how to make, interpret, and share logical arguments). They argue about the newfangled acronym "STEM" and whether young people should be directed only into the areas of study enumerated in it. Uncomfortable rumblings about business degrees, which actually seem like they ought to be earned in professional schools unconnected to universities via private funding, for logical consistency if nothing else. But that of course is another argument. Then there is the argument over whether there is any point to a "liberal education" anymore, which used to simply mean one that included both the arts and sciences with a view to enabling them to be an active and effective citizen.

Meanwhile, scholars like John Quiggin have begun pointing out all over again Why the Profit Motive Fails in Education. He doesn't put it quite this way, but the sad truth is that trying to make an education run like a business makes for a proliferation of perverse incentives. As Quiggin notes, "Students, by definition, don't know enough to be informed consumers," and neither are their parents, it is worth adding. Neither student nor parent can know how good or bad the course was until it is over, nor how effective or not the overall program they pursued will be for helping the students successfully keep themselves in work and able to keep body and soul together until long after the tuition is paid. Hence private schools and public schools under pressure to "be more business-like" are pushed to do things like:

  • shift ever more costs onto students via additional fees (i.e. athletics fees that actually don't allow students full use of the athletics facilities) and higher tuition;
  • minimize investment in operations and instruction staff, driving the growth of short-term sessional contracts and reduction in long term, tenure track positions;
  • minimize investment in plant that can't be funded by individual or corporate donors;
  • "give students what they want" by minimizing course readings or favouring "what they're reading anyway";
  • throwing massive resources behind the latest career fad or worker shortage, while carefully deflecting students and parents from thinking through the implications of the lag time between starting a program and getting into the currently hot sector of the moment.

Regardless of all the arguing, research and analysis, all of the evidence of over fifty years and more besides, there are apparently no answers to the somehow constant crisis of post-secondary education, let alone to wider questions about education in general. There seems to be a rough consensus that the big question about any education is whether it should be purely to get students into the workforce, or to equip them to be citizens in whatever political system they live in. Yet even these supposedly basic questions seem to have no answers, not even provisional ones. This suggests to me that this is another instance of asking the wrong question. These "common sense" questions are distractions. The real question is, what sort of society do we want and expect the education system, from elementary to post-secondary schooling, to support and create? If we want education that encourages massive and persistent social inequality, then we already know what that consists of: privately funded schooling with absolutely no provision for public education whatsoever, except what might be provided by such organizations as churches or charities. If we want education that supports minimal social inequality, we already know what that consists of too: publicly funded, universal schooling with enough teachers and physical plant to keep class sizes reasonably small.

The only "crisis" in education in general or post-secondary education in particular, is the constant struggle between those who want it to support the creation and maintenance of authoritarian social structures as opposed to those seeking to create and maintain egalitarian social structures.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2020
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23