Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The future of higher education

A gloomy post to end the year, possibly because I spend too much time reading about the academic job market. I'll try to make the next post cheerier.

I once meant to say something about Coetzee's thoughts on the future of higher education, but I don't remember doing so. (Actually I do remember doing so, but I assume it's a false memory since I can't find it by searching the blog.) And then I just read this TED talk on TED talks by Benjamin Bratton, which left me with similar pessimistic thoughts. Coetzee writes that:
All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy.
Bratton says:
If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.
Both seem right. And of course the economy does not want transformation. Nor do most people. So universities won't provide it.

I used to think that I went to college because I wanted to learn, but of course what my peers were doing and what my parents expected had a lot to do with it. Money and social class were probably the underlying concerns. And today people don't seem to care about social class very much, except to the extent that it has become something that money can buy. All you really need is money. So I don't see much hope for the humanities except in the form of the courses Coetzee describes: "Reading and Writing" and "Great Ideas," for instance. (Except that they won't have these names because they are too honest to be taken seriously by the people in charge of naming.) Perhaps a few boutique humanities programs will survive, but I can't really see why they would. It just doesn't make much sense to get a PhD in a humanities subject any more, and who will teach in these programs if no one has a relevant PhD? Nor can I imagine the politician who will fight to increase public funding for the humanities. So, doom.

But it's not all doom. I don't think the end will come overnight. I don't think it is certain. And I don't believe that philosophy, art, etc, will just disappear if they aren't much taught in universities any more. Perhaps they will even make a comeback after the 'exciting' integration of disciplines (philosophy only being taught by business ethicists, literature only taught by historians who want to add a bit of colour to their courses, etc.) turns out to be a dead end.


  1. It's probably the case that not everyone who goes to college should or that, for those who do, the kind of broad humanities exposure you seem to be recommending is best. There's nothing wrong with a technical or trades career, or the education to go with it, and, while most of us can benefit from broader exposure, expecting a concentration in the humanities to be the focus for the bulk of the population seems a bit of an overreach. Indeed, we have probably gone too far in that direction already and are now witnessing a needed correction! On the other hand there are some for whom an education in the arts or philosophy is the very thing needed and there, even if the resultant student population is smaller than it's been, the best results are likely to be had. I wouldn't bemoan the changes occurring too much!

    1. It's probably the case that not everyone who goes to college should

      I agree

      There's nothing wrong with a technical or trades career, or the education to go with it,

      I strongly agree.

      expecting a concentration in the humanities to be the focus for the bulk of the population seems a bit of an overreach.

      I don't think this should be the focus for most people. My concern is that it won't be the focus for anyone. Support for the humanities seems incredibly fragile. And that might not matter if it just meant that more people majored in technical or trades disciplines instead, but if people are instead studying business (a subject that I'm not convinced can usefully be taught at the undergraduate level) then that's bad.

      I wouldn't bemoan the changes occurring too much!

      Well, it remains to be seen what these changes are going to be, but the trend doesn't seem good. Neither the changes being made nor the reasons given for them seem good to me. The kind of changes I have in mind are the ones described here.

  2. I'm a bit of a broken record here but I don't think that by and large the academic humanities never really made the moves/changes necessary from teaching information-about to know-how in the ars of living and have been fueled by an odd sort of logic of learning/cultivation by exposure/osmosis, so I won't mourn the passing of that form tho it will hit many people I care about hard as they lose their jobs. Also for what it's worth I like Cavell's idea of philosophy (writ large) as education for adults, adolescents are just too caught up in other things for much to sink in. So that's my bit for what it's worth, and on that cheery note, into the new year we go...

    1. Yes, some students do seem too young for philosophy. On the other hand, there are few who seem incapable of getting anything out of it. No doubt changes could be made for the better in philosophy and other subjects, but I don't see much evidence that those are the kind of changes being made. Still, it's really hard to predict what will happen so it could all end up better than before.

    2. my hope is that something like what John Dewey was pushing for will happen that we will teaching people to be reflective-practitioners (as Donald Schon taught) that can learn to work with others on solving the problems they face and rising to the challenges of their imaginations, but as to how this might get organized/funded I don't know tho there is some interesting activity in various hacker communities, folks not unlike Wittgenstein in some ways. -dmf

    3. Yes, there's room for hope. Thankfully.

  3. Like so many here I admire (and presume to concern myself with) the life of the mind and, in particular, the insights offered by Wittgenstein in his work. But we have to be careful to separate this commitment from the more self-serving one of advocating for the preservation of the current university system.

    Of course, a broader and deeper education is better for people than the reverse and, of course, attention to Wittgenstein's thoughts and insights is valuable for anyone stepping into the philosophical sphere. But perhaps it's a bit of special pleading to denounce some of these fairly broad changes taking place in universities today?

    I read the site Duncan linked us to and agree that it's probably self-serving on the part of high-paid administrators to cut liberal arts departments in order to reduce personnel costs by unloading tenured professors instead of reducing administrative staffs and lowering salaries there, but it's probably against human nature to expect anything else. At least one of the problems, I'd say, is the incredible inflation in tuition costs that has occurred in recent decades, causing prospective students to reassess the value of taking huge loans to secure an education with apparently limited payback. How many, after all, can expect to make a living as philosophers or writers, especially when they're going to have a need to generate large incomes to pay off the hefty loans taken to fund their college years? Naturally, they'll be looking for something a bit more lucrative. A field like philosophy is rather ingrown, anyway. One studies it at the higher levels with the intention of teaching it to others or writing about it for a relatively narrow audience or both. In either case the opportunities (unless you're a George Soros or a Carl Icahn who went into other fields after an education in philosophy) are quite limited. Most philosophy students know they aren't likely to make the same lucrative switch and will spend their lives writing scholarly or popular pieces for other philosophers and their students!

    I do agree that business courses hardly seem in keeping with the original aims of a liberal arts education or suitable for retention when English and Philosophy and some fine arts departments are being cut. But the demands of the market are real. It's probably the case that way too many people think they should, or have to, get a college degree today and that, to meet that perceived need (and keep the money flowing), universities have lowered their standards and diminished the quality of their offerings. But I doubt that any grousing about it is going to change this.

    What might is a re-focusing by colleges and universities on quality and on economies of scale and on generating real value for the monies students pay. None of that is easy nor is it likely to be the result of an explicit program aimed to achieve it (though I guess I'm letting my free market bias show here). My guess is the market will drive this, no matter what anyone tries to do to affect these outcomes. Some degree of downsizing and re-focusing is likely to be inevitable leading to the dislocations one gets in the world periodically when markets get out of whack.

    The adjustment is generally painful and, worse, doesn't always work. Sometimes disasters happen. Hopefully not so this time, though.

    1. unless like myself you see neo-liberalism as the antithesis to the values/aspirations of the humanities...

    2. It's that opposition of values that makes me think the humanities might have to find a new home outside the education system.

      The market might work, but part of the problem comes from government, not the market. There are politicians who oppose the humanities. I believe teaching critical thinking is illegal in Texas, for instance. And administrative bloat comes not only from human nature but also from demands for assessment. Jon Cogburn (at NewAPPS) is good on this.

      But the market is also part of the problem. Colleges are spending money on climbing walls to attract business. And business majors keep getting hired, despite the relative lack of rigor in undergraduate business programs relative to, say, many philosophy programs (I have no data to support this claim, but I think it could be found). These things might sort themselves out over time, but they might not.

      I'm sure we could do with some changes to the status quo, but the people leading the changes are not generally wise or even good. They are driven by the kind of human nature you describe. We'll probably end up with the kind of higher education system an anti-intellectual culture deserves. But no doubt the changes and their results will be mixed, and perhaps the best will survive. My fear is that something really good was created and is now being destroyed. And that destruction is quicker, easier, and more certain than creation. (It is not as if the world is ending though.)

    3. Hadn't heard that "teaching critical thinking is illegal in Texas." I assume you're being arch with that one! Besides, if it's illegal there I'm sure there are a lot of other states with THAT problem.

      Yeah, administrative bloat is always a problem. That's human nature, too, to build little bureaucratic empires and fatten budgets. Been there and seen it done too many times.

      The federal government plays into it with its policies. Where colleges are wasting money on rock walls instead of education, one can only assume it must work for them or they wouldn't be doing it. But what it does for them is a different question. If their aim is just to pull in more tuition payers, rather than to educate their charges, then I agree they have the wrong aims. But if rock walls and the like meet their goals, then who can judge?

      It's probably because the supply and demand equation in the marketplace for education has been warped from too much government meddling, leading college administrations to have bad goals. I do share your pessimism about the culture, I'm afraid, and agree we'll get what we deserve -- which is too bad. To a large extent we've already started getting it!

      On the other hand, the country is surprisingly resilient. Despite a bevy of bad economic policies in this decade we seem to be pulling out of our general economic funk (albeit more slowly than we'd have liked -- and the role of the Federal Reserve in printing money may yet come back to bite us as it has before). I don't think the U.S. has seen its sunset quite yet though.

      Granted as a nation we're not young anymore and have plenty of problems but we're still fairly dynamic when you come down to it, well-set for resources and geographically positioned to operate globally in a way most countries can't. Sitting astride the middle of North America, fronting the two major oceans is a serendipitous place to be, even going into the 21st century and the late afternoon of our national life!

      Education certainly could stand some shaping up in my estimation but what's probably needed, more than philosophy (which I have a great passion for), are more technical skills in the hard sciences, engineering, computer and communications systems, etc.

      That's where the future lies, leaving the philosopher to comment from the outside -- which has always been pretty much the way it is, at least since the sciences arose to find their own place, no?

      But you're right, the world isn't ending. It's changing. But it always is. It's just hard when one finds oneself watching from the sidelines instead of riding the crest of the wave.

    4. I wasn't kidding when I said that critical thinking is illegal in Texas, but it seems I was wrong. Someone from Texas told me that it was illegal there, or that's how I remember it, but this article makes it sound as though it's just that the dominant party in Texas wants to make it illegal to teach critical thinking (understood a certain way) there. It's clear enough, though, that lots of people don't want young people being taught to think for themselves rather than following authority. I don't think that's healthy. It might even be bad for the economy.

      We probably need more people learning technical skills, but at the moment they are being pushed that way, often crudely (e.g. by having other options simply shut down), instead of letting the market 'steer' people. We also need people who don't just have practical skills that might quickly become outdated but the ability to think critically and creatively. I'm not sure how much either of these kinds of thinking can be taught, but I'm sure they can be stifled.