Archive for January 8th, 2015

Higher ed: “we’ve reduced what it means to be human to market terms, to getting and spending.”

Thursday, January 8th, 2015
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sheepI wrote some weeks ago about the demise of The New Republic, our culture of “juvenescence,” and the difficulty of faking cultural heft. At least William Deresiewicz is on the same wave-length. Kind of. In case you missed it, the aptly named Michael Schulson has recently published a Salon Q&A with Deresiewicz – he indirectly called Chris Hughes, the youngster whose mismanagement trashed the century-old institution, an “entitled little shit,” so naturally that phrase made it into the headline. Deresiewicz was a contributing editor to the ill-fated magazine, and says that Hughes missed the point: that The New Republic has never made money. “The Nation loses money now, Harper’s loses money now, and they’ve been reliant on benevolent plutocrats who recognize that there are more important things than the market and are willing to run them not as profit-making institutions but as institutions that have value for other reasons.”

But the real subject of the interview is his new book called Excellent Sheep, which discusses how our best universities have succumbed to the marketplace, and what it’s done to kids. (He wrote a controversial article about the topic, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” in the July issue of The New Republic here.) A couple excerpts from the interview:

It’s been a rough year for higher education, with athletic and sexual assault scandals at UNC, Florida State, and, of course, the University of Virginia. Does your takedown of elite colleges apply, more broadly, to the culture of higher education in the United States?

Yes and no. I certainly think a lot of what I’m saying applies beyond selective colleges. This is a more general trend in the way we understand education around the world, which is that we understand it in purely practical market-oriented terms. My feeling is that this reflects a wider understanding of what life and society are for. We’ve basically reduced what it means to be human to market terms, to getting and spending. So education, which is about preparing you to be human, has also been reduced to those terms.

The specific things you’re talking about, I don’t know that they’re really directly connected to what I’m talking about. They are connected in this sense: because colleges for several decades have been forced by specific changes in government policy to treat their students as customers, schools have focused on everything except instruction in core liberal arts fields. That also includes a lot of spending on athletics, and on the kind of culture that athletics and fraternity life create. …

Chris_Hughes

Can’t buy heft.

I’m thinking of Joshua Rothman’s response to your book, over at The New Yorker. He argues that the problem isn’t with higher education, but with a contemporary world that pushes us to live accelerated, anxious, market-oriented lives. In Rothman’s view, there’s a nostalgia for the premodern in “Excellent Sheep.”

If you can point to a single passage in the book that expresses that kind of nostalgia I’d be very interested to see it. I don’t feel it and I don’t say it.

The notion of higher education as involving not only vocational preparation and intellectual development, but something that used to be called character or moral development, has been foundational to American higher education from the beginning. I’m not looking back nostalgically at some golden age; what I’m pointing out is that there has always been this higher idea in higher education, and it’s only in the last 40 years that we’ve lost it.

Modernity created a new idea about what it means to be young. To be young [in modernity] is to step outside of your own life. It’s a phase between childhood and adult life where you get to look at the world and think about it and question it and decide what you want the world to look like. This was, in many ways, the engine of revolutionary energy during modernity for about 200 years. When college became the norm, at in least certain circles, that notion of youth as the time where you step outside of the world and you become a little rebellious and critical and you think about what you want the world to look like, that was also central to college. Rothman wants to talk about modernity, but he really didn’t talk about the modern idea of youth, which is not about acceleration. It’s about dissent.

I’m talking about the switch from modernity to postmodernity. Postmodernity, as I’m understanding it, is the time of neoliberalism or Reaganomics or market fundamentalism, where the only thing that matters about you is your function in the marketplace, your ability to make money and spend it. It’s postmodernity that is destroying the modern concept of youth, and creating a new concept of youth where you go to college not to step outside the world and question it but simply to prepare yourself for the kinds of acceleration that Rothman talks about as belonging to adult life. …

diploma

You don’t feel like MOOCs can feed thinkers and intellectual culture?

I think they have a role to play, but at a very much lower intellectual level. Listen, real learning happens dialectically, right? Where did you go to college?

Yale.

You went to Yale, and you probably took lots of seminars where you had really great discussions and lots of interactions with fellow students and teachers. That’s where education happens; it doesn’t happen by learning how to program computer code online. It’s great that people can do that, but that’s not the same thing. That’s a technical education.

Read the whole thing here.