Community, Our Schools|

Peter Chiaramonte, PhD

In their book, Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education (2011), University of Western Ontario sociologists James Coté and Anton Allahar warned that unless some broad-based social paradigm shift were to occur, university degrees would soon become little more than expensive “fishing licenses” for fished-out lakes, rivers, and streams. A decade later we’re still on that razor’s edge, but we haven’t quite-yet slipped over. Still, given the quality/cost ratios of the current situation, there are a growing number of anxious faces throughout the ranks of the old guard.

Even once S.T.E.M. dominated sectors like finance and technology are now on a hiring spree of arts grads who bring different, varied perspectives to the workplace—not only to tech-focused discussions—but to broader issues they have expertise in. After an adult lifetime of hearing a chorus of friends and enemies chant, “Philosophy! What kind of job can you get with that?”—advanced qualifications in the humanities are making a resurgence.

Employers want liberal arts graduates for their ability to communicate, solve problems, and to think critically and creatively—not always something they’ve been getting from their current farm system. What’s needed are more individuals adept at working collaboratively within groups and teams, and across various internal and external boundary-spanning agencies.

Turns out even ordinary, intelligent philosophers, artists and writers can figure out the difference between a debit and a credit. And then some.

This crisis in higher education didn’t just happen overnight. Nor will it be solved in the next financial quarter, or perhaps even decades from now. The slow pace and unwieldy inertia of academic cultures, in my view, precludes any requisite turning-away from the hegemonic corporate interests presently ruling the roost. Just look at the swarms of harried carpetbaggers still actively hawking college loans to dreamy-eyed high school grads and their parents—while increasingly remote, contingent faculty put everyone’s feet to sleep with spare understanding of the original authors’ contributions to knowledge.

Hello Life, Goodbye Columbus

You can lead a millennial to knowledge; but you can’t make them think.
—overheard in a Faculty Lounge at Dalhousie

School doesn’t always help. We all know people or have friends and family who—regardless of how “intelligent” or “smart” they appear—in truth do some really dumb shite from time- to-time, just like the rest of us. And, as far as we can fairly judge from these episodes, the same people sometimes do some clever things too. Depending on various, complex, circumstances and vicissitudes we all must face so long as we’re breathing. So, there’s little distinction in that.

Isn’t intelligence less a trait or characteristic, and have more to do with any number of specific performances? All accomplished within a particular combination of opportune/limiting circumstances? As I understand it, intelligence is not something you are, have, or own. It’s nonsensical to imagine you can measure such a thing in terms of generally assumed, personal qualities and possessions. Being intelligent, it seems to me, is all about the actual choices one makes under challenging/auspicious circumstances. Not some sets of gods-given traits one is born with.

Disciplines and the Future

Faculty in second-tier American universities have already come to resemble high school teachers more than faculty in elite research institutions. —Sociologist Andrew Abbott

In a previously published Review of Andrew Abbott’s “The Disciplines and the Future,” I applauded University of Chicago professor of sociology Andrew Abbott, for challenging the widely accepted belief that academic structures in the U.S. (and by extension, Canadian universities as well), are in a constant state of upheaval. Twenty years ago, he contended that there was little likelihood of drastic change in this regard for at least the next forty-to-fifty years. Even the changing demographics and resource dependencies of so many university systems cannot overcome the fundamental inertia of the status quo, he claimed.

Abbott put forward the thesis that academic disciplines such as philosophy, linguistics, sociology, psychology, education, comparative literature, and so forth—are all resilient social structures. Because they’re based on the organizational form of the department. The department being an essential social unit for the organization of two vital institutional domains: curriculum and careers. Departments also provide significant support for the social identity of its faculty.

Some Disturbing Social Forces Affecting the Chaos of Academic Disciplines and Departments

Professor Abbott’s chapter on the developmental unfolding of academic disciplines adds to our understanding of how universities adapt to multiple social and cultural pressures. His realistic assessment of the trends and foundations a decade or more ago is still startling in its terse sobriety. For example, his succinct observation that, “interdisciplinarity presupposes disciplines” to begin with.

Although it appeared obvious once I’d thought about it, I’m spurred to reconsider whether and how, the interdisciplinary world can or cannot survive without the continuous flow of new theories and methods. And that, or so it appears to me, invariably stems from first-class disciplinary training. Without it we’re doomed. So, just how socially and institutionally stable or vulnerable is that today?

There’s another characteristic of interdisciplinarity, however, that makes it unlikely to drive structural change in the universities, writes Professor Abbott. Interdisciplinarity, he says, has generally been problem-driven, and problems famously come and go like so many short- term political issues. Thus, it doesn’t provide a very strong foundation for career building.

If faculty and students do not learn a set of common references in their disciplines, they won’t have the basic building blocks for career advancement. Abbott’s chapter on “The Disciplines and the Future” (published three years after his book, Department and Discipline, 1999), delved into the crucial forces at work to keep academic disciplines from amalgamating, and therefore growing so big as to overwhelm each department’s capacity to command the material of their field.

Yet, if the pressure to keep academic disciplines in narrow constraints and specializations succeeds, he warns, it will hinder many career options for both young faculty and recent graduates.

Despite the university’s image or reputation for being on-the-cutting-edge, it is possible, Abbott believed, that all major innovations in teaching will eventually come from the private sector.

Business tends to view higher education as a region for easy profit through downsizing and explicit product differentiation. Recognizing that the last half-century has redefined the university as a “market driven service organization,” Abbott expects the current trend to commodify academic knowledge (already familiar in the physical sciences), and will expand to include all disciplines.

Not only will the business sector continue to pressure and exploit the educational system at all levels through its enormous political and economic power. That’s a no brainer, he says. The steady drift toward pre-med and para-legal programs has already paved the way to vocationalist curricula in those markets—in place of more robust professional scholarship and training. Even in the most elite institutions.

Four Factors for Predicting the Stability of the Academic Disciplinary System

Dr. Abbott’s comparatively shallow treatment of late nineteenth century German, British, and Canadian theoretical antecedents is pardonable, but does little to support the case he makes about the future of career-building and institutional leadership dynamics since that time.

Echoing Abbott, Coté and Allahar, Pocklington and Tupper, Fallis, Woodhouse, and Slaughter and Rhoades, et al, here are four historically verifiable factors contributing to the stability of disciplinary higher ed. systems.

  • The educational/vocational training system will need new ideas and developments to survive, and there’s no better model for generating new ideas than the current academic system with its disciplinary foundations. (However, outside the elite level, the social foundations of disciplines might be steadily eroding, both in terms of career opportunities as well as the kinds of and progressive curricula that inspire intrinsically rewarding experiences of lasting value.)
  • Steady pressure from the private sector for colleges and universities to provide a more vocational emphasis based on disciplinary fundamentals.
  • There will be increasing pressure to let the private sector take over the most profitable parts of education, just as it has done in medicine and social services.
  • Despite these inevitable forces for change, there’s enormous inertia in place, with tenured faculty and long-in-the-tooth administrators who still have decades of service ahead of them.

Lastly, I’d like to leave you with these facts and questions: In his later work, German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) sought to offer a more forward-looking strategy for resolving impending educational crises—by forestalling the technological dissolution of the historical essence of higher education up to this point.

The technocratic movement we see at work today to substantially reduce teachers and scholars to “online content providers,” extends the tide of this dehumanizing worldview. Whereby research and teaching faculties have become seen as mere “human resources.” No longer esteemed persons to be held in high regard for their knowledge and wisdom.

At the heart of our current misunderstanding of higher education (that Heidegger and notable others had sought to recover from the darkening shadows of postmodern history), is the gruesome, unfettered quantification of human relations. And as long as disciplined faculty are viewed as just another commodity for the rich to subordinate for the efficient manufacture of employees—this, I submit—will inhibit and, perhaps, finally destroy the discovery of our inherent human being, distinctive qualities, and unique capacities for continuous growth.

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