Friday, August 16, 2013

One Hack's Attack on Higher Education in California

Dan Walters, of the Sacramento Bee, set out in a recent column to show how “college administrators and instructors...tend to be very conservative, even reactionary, in resisting operational changes.  They revere traditional classes in traditional classrooms, calendars organized by semesters and quarters of instruction, lengthy recesses between these periods, curricula controlled by faculty senates—and, of course, tenure”.

This supposedly reactionary mentality—more on this below—supposedly explains why UC and CSU have been slow to streamline their relationship with the Community Colleges to facilitate easier transferring (I’m not sure how much input faculty have into this process...Walters lazily conflates faculty and administrators). 

It also ostensibly explains why faculty at the universities are reluctant to allow politicians to exert control over course offerings, and why those at the colleges are wary of a scheme to allow the state to duck out of its responsibilities to its citizens by transferring the burden of costs to students for any courses offered outside the normal academic sessions.

It is true that institutions and their inhabitants are often resistant to change (an epic example would be when doctors in Britain treated the creation of the National Health Service as an apocalyptic event, and today defend one of Britain’s most popular institutions against its assailants).  But sometimes there is a good reason for that resistance.  For instance, faculty are opposed to changing the current structure of teaching not least because the alternatives of which “reformers” are so enamoured manifestly do not work (there is a growing amount of data to this effect).  In other words, classes in classrooms tend to work.  But we should be clear up one of Walters’ major omissions: impetus for changing universities is not coming from committed educationalists, but rather from people who see an opportunity to assert control over the creeping privatisation of California’s universities and, in so doing, make lots and lots of money.

Faculty are concerned to protect the system of tenure because that offers job security, allows them to pursue their research, and is part of what stands in the way of efforts to casualise academic work (my generation of graduate students are already looking at entering an academic world in which university administrators are committed to keeping us in insecure adjunct positions as long as possible).  Job security, and the intellectual security which comes with it, is a good way of preserving the integrity of academic research and teaching, and preventing these exercises from being suborned by the political or economic interests and demands of the moment.  And for many faculty at research universities, the “lengthy recesses” are their only real opportunities to undertake the research which comprises part of their role.

Walters concludes with an authoritarian rhetorical flourish, demonstrating just how wrong he is about the role of education in our society: “California’s higher education system should adapt to new economic, sociological, economic and fiscal realities, rather than dwell in an obsolescent past.  But since they are not changing willingly, the Capitol must force the issue”.

Let’s step back and think about those “realities”, a word which is usually code for “the world as I think it should be”.

The economic “reality” to which Walters refers is one in which markets and the large-scale capital behind them (and we all know how much they have society’s best interests at heart!) tell universities which courses they should offer, how many graduates they should process, and how much they should charge their students. 

Walters’ sociological “reality” dictates that this market pressure should exacerbate the already-unconscionable gap between the wealthy and the poor, and makes universities—once levelling institutions within our society—complicit in the business of growing inequality.

And the fiscal “realities” are highly political in nature, and are built into our state’s dysfunctional political structure by measures which allowed a generation of voters in 1978 to make decisions about the economic, social, and moral lives of people born in the 1990s and 2000s by writing details of tax policy into the state constitution. 

This is not about the future versus the past, as Walters’ sloppy and dangerous analysis would have us believe.  It is about a lazy journalist, wittingly or otherwise, working to help establish the ransacking of our educational sphere, the monkey-wrenching of our democracy, and the sabotaging of our society by a group of economic fundamentalists and their backers as a fait accompli, rather than a politically-engineered state against which we have the capacity to push back.

Those things that Walters calls “obsolescent” were once the stuff of the California dream (often more apparent than real), and one would hope, might have a role in the resuscitation of that dream: opportunity, access, equality, fairness, free intellectual inquiry, the promotion of research, the fostering of citizenship, and the creation of a space where Californians of diverse backgrounds—economic, social, racial, political—could learn, debate, think, and live together for a few precious years. 

The idea was that when they left the University, those young citizens would depart not only equipped with the skills of a particular discipline, but with a well-rounded education which left them prepared to think about their society more clearly and ask questions about their world.  And, we might have hoped, students would have gone back into a world in which their idealism, intellect, and hope would not be out of place.

Today, Walters and his ilk are insisting that universities be transformed into technologically updated versions of nineteenth century factories, churning out “products” at the behest of industry with no regard for the conditions in which their inhabitants labour.  They insist that what should be a liberating institution must conform to a restrictive social and economic orthodoxy, the diktats of which are antithetical to a free and fair society. 

The institutions that would be created by Walters’ urgent “realities” would bear little resemblance to universities as we know them.  Similarly, Walters’ hit job on California’s universities bears little resemblance to journalism as most of us would understand it. 

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