By Dan Kervick
President Obama’s new “vision” for higher education is so crass, so ignoble, so barbarous, and so chilling that it is hard to believe that it could have been written by anyone other than the most vulgar and mercenary corporate suit in his employ. It is a plan aimed at speeding up the corporate takeover of our higher education system, and transforming it once and for all into nothing but an assembly line for the production of useful human capital. I will leave it to the reader to scan the philistine details. For those whose minds, upon hearing the term “higher education”, immediately run to associations with business-world terms such as “bargain”, “investment”, “competition”, “options”, “performance”, “ratings system” … well then, it might be to your taste.
Totally missing in this plan is any lively embrace of the idea that educating its young people is a responsibility of the whole society; or that the possession of an educated and cultivated mind is a good of the highest order in itself for the person who possesses it, and not just a means to more prosaic economic ends; or that education serves social and cultural ends more lofty than the efficient allocation of labor talents to industry; or that the future of our democracy depends on the existence of a cultivated citizenry and not just an army of mentally skilled worker-monkeys; or that the advance of human culture depends on our ability to generate compassionate moral visions out of the deep but confused recesses of our spiritually groping humanity.
Obama seems to regard higher education primarily as a consumer choice, undertaken by an individual for the purpose of long-term individual gain of the most banal kind, and as thus primarily the responsibility of that individual. So he sees the social task here as just making sure the market for higher education is working well, enough to guarantee a wide assortment of individual options for personal advancement through post-secondary training, with sufficient competition so as to assure affordability, and with quantitative measurement tools conducive to informed shopping.
The Obama plan for the American future is the ongoing stratification of Americans into a variety of castes, with post-secondary education continuing to evolve into a divisive system of young adult trade schools delivering the desired human product into the countless nooks and crannies of the production system.
I am tempted to say: This is so Republican! But that is an insult to the Republicans I know who appreciate the value of higher education, and who are able to lift their eyes above this dreary level of meanness and commercial depravity.
I wonder about the inner life of the kind of person who could produce this kind of document. Increasingly, our President seems like a narcissistic social climber and shallow “achiever” with a cold, cold heart and a barren soul.
Cross-posted from Rugged Egalitarianism
Re: Increasingly, our President seems like a narcissistic social climber and shallow “achiever” with a cold, cold heart and a barren soul.
You are very slow to grasp things. Obama’s character has been clear for a long time, and some even saw it from the very outset. In any case, it is amazing how many intellectuals need to remain clueless so as to keep writing. It is perfectly obvious that the President is just the front man for the powers-that-be, and that the “government” is now altogether in the hands of a criminalized corporate big finance buttressed by a national security state apparatus. But the endless garrulousness of our media just goes on and on without drawing consequences; it is a kind of mediocre senility and cowardice built-in to “our democracy.”
The eruption is so fierce I can’t find the reasoning behind your position
Do you see anything in the plan that indicates I am wrong about what I say in paragraphs 2 and 3?
Deaf, dumb and blind man,
If you possessed any sense of the corporate agenda for education for our future citizenry you would realize that all of the catch words are present. “bargain”, “investment”, “competition”, “options”, “performance”, “ratings system” … These are the usual terms associated with educational “non-reform”. The privatization and corporatization of education in order to produce compliant consumers and destroy any remaining semblance of democratic governance. Do you see anywhere words such as critical thinking, a more informed populace, creativity, or understanding mentioned. The mass man is the corporate agenda. Research the term it applies to you perfectly.
Yes, it is quite a rant, but a very well-written and spot-on one. Sometimes, polemics is what is called for, and all that the subject really deserves.
I had heard a brief item about this on my local 10 o’clock TV news. It sounded like one of those boring bureaucratic models, a formula or algorithm where you would plug in values for different variables on a given college and it would spit out some evaluation score, on the basis of which the institution would be rewarded or penalized or something blah blah blah zzzzzzzzzzz … Just what we have come to expect from the “cool,” passionless technocrat, No Drama Obama.
Never like the Clinton’s much, but at least Hillary had her “it takes a village” idea. For Obama, it sounds more like “it takes a bureaucrat with a spreadsheet, yardstick and a USG-approved college measuring manual.”
Absolutely shocking and disappointing to hear this. I had had the sense for some time now, that much of higher education in the west was being pushed by a hidden hand in this direction, but to see the leader of a nation elected on a promise of, “hope and change”, call this his “vision”, is deeply disturbing!
Hey Dan, Having almost lost my lunch and 1st cocktail after hearing “More bang for your buck” find its strange way into this address, your comments hit the mark, expressing my ideas and feelings quite well. Giving the benefit of our doubt and assuming this speech as a politically acceptable attempt to tackle several issues including the costs of higher education, the enormous student debt crisis and quality employment absent in the overall economy among others is stretching things a bit considering that this second term executive has revealed his true colors long ago. If this is the map quest route to a vibrant “middle class” tuning in, turning on, and taking the scenic route sounds better all the time.
Re: “…but to see the leader of a nation elected on a promise of, “hope and change”, call this his “vision”, is deeply disturbing!
This is what I had in mind. Clueless. Intellectuals still go on with “the leader of our nation.” “Deeply disturbing.” As if the nature of “democratic” politics and politicians were not obvious.
The corporate funding of public education is a decades-old phenomenon, although increasing, it is true. There are libraries full of expositions of this phenomenon.
Americans simply cannot accept what has happened to them. A real failure of nerve.
Hank, I’m Canadian, and this problem is not just occurring in the US. It is shocking nonetheless to hear a national leader publicly claim this to be “his” vision when, from all appearances this is nothing more than one more item on a corporate wish list.
I also understand that the UK has either reduced or eliminated funding for liberal arts studies.
True, corporatization–“privatization”– is a global phenomenon. But I would repeat that it should not be either surprising or shocking. A “national leader” by definition serves those corporate interests, which have now altogether taken control of government. To put it bluntly, the US is now a fascist state. Isn’t it obvious by now?
I would go so far as to say that a long string of stupid and/or self serving politicians have completely crippled democracy in favor of rule by the instruments for plutocracy. I think that’s fair to say. We knew it would lead to were we are today and yet what could we have done at any point along the way?
Democracy by representation was too weak to exist, the founders everywhere knew that. Children even question it until they complete their programming. Democracy minus some form of direct public participation in decision making processes can’t be democracy at all.
What is shocking and surprising is the apparent complete abandonment of the illusion itself.
I’m struck by a few aspects of Obama’s plan.
First, the criteria he would use to rate the schools are ones that were used 50 years ago by students and parents of students who had choices about what school they wanted to attend. I suppose they have been in continuous use since then, and likely long before then as well.
Second, for many of the people entering college, it was not a matter of which school they wanted, but which school would accept them. The highly rated schools were very “selective”, meaning that they could admit only a small fraction of applicants. Only the most desirable students, those likely to maintain and enhance the school’s ratings (“reputation”, in the old days) were admitted.
I expect that if this system were implemented, one would find that Harvard and Yale were highly rated, and East Podunk Community College was not. This would not be news to anyone, and would not help anyone in choosing or being admitted to either place.
And finally, that if any similar rating system were to be proposed for primary and secondary government-operated schools, Obama and his Party would fight it to the death.
Great rant, Dan. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise. All of Obama’s “reforms” seem designed to be rent-seeking opportunities for the Plutocrats. Obama’s style is to refer to the highest ideal, and the propose solutions that are completely at variance with those. It’s hard to believe that he still gets friendly receptions from young people. They must be clueless.
Sorry to say, Dan, but you’re really tilting the windmill on this one. I’m no fan of Obama – I think he is indeed subservient to Wall St and other corporate interests. But I clicked your link for details of the “sinister plan,” and quite frankly there wasn’t much dirt in there to dig up. It’s mostly about reducing the financial burden of student loans, though I don’t think it goes nearly far enough. The ideal way to reduce this burden would be for the government to subsidize tuition as they used to, before the much ballyhooed “free market” was made into a religion.
Just like with “Obamacare,” this big “education reform” is mostly a weak plan – in this case, very weak, and won’t have much effect. I’m not sure why you’re getting your panties in a twist over this. There are much bigger fish to fry (ie bankster bailouts, NSA spying, the ever-growing police-prison state, rotten “free-trade” agreements that just boost corporate profits while cutting jobs, etc). I just think you’re barking up the wrong tree here.
I’m a former academic, and I think we probably have very different ideas about what the goal of higher education is. Obama thinks the purpose of college and university education is to train people to perform various functions in industry. His plan is to establish quantitative metrics for achievement along those lines, and then deregulate higher education and let the schools compete at achieving the metrics in whatever way they like. It’s a classic right wing plan grounded in a debased and exploitative understanding of the purpose of higher education, along with a mania for deregulation and market solutions.
The man’s a barbarian. There was once a dream of making the educational fruits of our cultural available to all, and the idea of a university education meant something. Obama’s vision is of little more than a world of post-secondary trade schools, whose wares are to be purchased by the individual worker seeking skills improvement. He just wants to make those purchases more affordable.
“The man’s a barbarian”
You overuse inflammatory characterizations at your peril. Tends to nullify your argument.
I don’t know what Obama thinks, but your view of college as learning for its own sake just doesn’t match the world today. If you want knowledge for its own sake, not for your job, then go to work after high school and spend your evenings at the library. You can learn all about Socrates and Marx, Beethoven and Da Vinci, and it doesn’t cost $100,000. People go to college today to learn computer science, engineering, law and medicine, because those are the skills that will support them.
«People go to college today to learn computer science, engineering, law and medicine, because those are the skills that will support them.»
That is not true: the upper classes send their offspring to do subjects that expand their ability to be leaders and strategists, because it is their property that will support them. Things like politics or classics or literature or history.
The purely vocational subjects you mention are those chosen by the middle classes who aspire to be the loyal trusties of the upper classes, the professionals and manager and supervisors that the upper classes use as their tools in their rule.
What Obama is saying is that his grand vision for university education is that for the masses it will be even more of a hard lottery, one in which the ultimate prize can only be to be some property owner’s trustie, and the utility of it will be measured solely on how well the future trustie will be educated to be a competent and conformist tool for property owners.
This is a common policy in elitist, property-owner driven political strategy, mostly in the anglo-american cultures: that the sole value of mass schooling at any level is the value to property owners.
The value is not to encourage students to be flexible, curious thinkers, capable to being productive in a number of subjects because they have acquired the tools to learn; this was the idea of University education when it was so rare that it was almost only attended by the offspring of property owners. In the era of mass university attendance, it must be a factory of conformity and easily discarded corporate servants.
Except of course for places like Yale and Harvard and Oxford and Cambridge that at the undergraduate level are still mostly finishing schools for the next generation of property owners.
Curious. You say “That is not true:” and then go on to explain how it is true for the vast majority.
So what would you have him do, restrict colleges to teach only what the .1% use them for? And what will allow the middle class to support themselves, without the means that the .1% have?
I’m reminded of a joke I heard, don’t recall the whole thing but it ends with
“What does the Liberal Arts major say?”
“Do you want fries with that?”
“deregulate higher education and let the schools compete”
Since when is higher education regulated?
And since when do the schools not compete already?
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«Since when is higher education regulated?»
Every time an higher education institution takes federal or state money it gets highly regulated. Federal money is a very large or even a majority of research fundings and large part of undergraduate funding. Federal grants have even come with regulations on how universities should design their disciplinary procedures.
«And since when do the schools not compete already?»
There are few signs that they really compete, in an economic sense.
If Harvard or Stanford are such competitive organizations, and they have found the formula for academic excellence, how come there aren’t dozens of Harvard or Stanford branches across the country, like there are Wal*Mart ones?
If Universities compete, how comes the stronger ones don’t take over the weaker ones, as the weaker ones go bust, improving the general level of education?
If Universities compete, how comes they don’t compete on price, and prices (list prices at least) have been going up for a long time?
So if they don’t compete geographically, or by takeovers, or by price, in what way to they compete?
Just about the only way is prestige, that is the value of the credentials they sell to their customers, and even in prestige they don’t compete very much: most of the top prestige universities were founded over 100 years ago, some over 200 years ago. It is a cosy club.
Conditions attached to the acceptance of money are not regulation. Regulation is not optional. Some schools refuse the money because they don’t like the conditions.
True regulation would shut down the “diploma mills”, and stop the exploitation of athletes.
Perhaps Harvard and Stanford are too old-fashioned to open branches, or maybe their business model is to maintain an air of eliteness by limiting supply (a la Rolls Royce, for instance). Other schools do open branches and operate in multiple locations. Washington State University has campuses all over the state. University of Phoenix is the Wal-Mart of colleges, offering services virtually everywhere, and physically in several states.
Some colleges do go out of business, and I’m sure others must expand to collect their former customers, but I don’t know of any “takeovers” as such. Not that I follow it that closely. With everyone except the customer paying the freight, it would be hard not to survive in the industry.
They do compete on price. Tuition varies over an order of magnitude from the most economical to the most elite. You don’t see price differences like that between Albertson’s and Safeway.
The prestigious universities have more potential clients than they can service, and part of their prestige is their limited supply. They don’t have to compete with each other because there are plenty of customers to go around. They’re kind of like OPEC that way, perhaps in a different market than University of Phoenix.
I am at a loss to explain tuition increases since the last baby boomers graduated. Perhaps the expansion of student loans and an influx of foreign students has maintained and increased their customer base in spite of US demographics. Or just the decreases in good jobs for high school grads has made college more or less mandatory for all but the worst students. The proliferation of remedial classes in colleges shows that they are even accepting people that aren’t qualified, as long as they are willing and able to arrange payment.
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