How the market is destroying higher education
By William Deresiewicz
In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes a phenomenon she refers to as “disaster capitalism.” After catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina or the Indian Ocean tsunami “wipe the slate clean” in places like New Orleans or coastal areas of Sri Lanka, corporations get a free hand to remake the regional economy on their own terms. Neoconservative principles rule: regulations are discarded; land and services are privatized; profits balloon at the expense of human needs. The disaster doesn’t have to be a natural one, and the consequences are not necessarily only regional. One of Klein’s examples is the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which devastated the economies of five countries.
A species of disaster capitalism is exactly what we are now seeing in American higher education. The disaster is the budget crisis that virtually every state university system has been enduring in the wake of the financial meltdown. The consequence, the “capitalism,” has been an invasion of higher education by the values and logic (and language) of the marketplace. College is now judged in terms of “return on investment,” the delivery of immediately negotiable skills. “Efficiency” in the transmission of knowledge, not the unscalable craft of teaching students how to think, has become the cardinal value. “Online learning” is justified, on bogus pedagogical grounds, for the sake of reducing labor costs. Professors (the decreasing share that’s left) are expected to be miniature entrepreneurs, endlessly selling their courses to students, their research to funding organizations, and their raison d’être to administrators. Academic “units” (i.e., departments) are seen as “revenue centers”; the ones that can’t pull their weight—most of the liberal arts—are slated for downsizing or outright elimination.
But colleges aren’t corporations, one might object, so who is collecting the profits? First of all, a lot of colleges are corporations now, and they are sucking up an ever-growing portion of the pie. For-profit universities—another massive educational failure—account for a 10th of college enrollments but a quarter of federal student aid. Second, even at public (and private non-profit) schools, some people are getting rich: the college presidents and other managers (including coaches) whose salaries range well into the six figures and higher. But the ultimate beneficiaries are the affluent, because balancing the books at public universities by increasing tuitions and eviscerating programs and faculties, which is exactly what is happening, means you don’t have to do it by raising taxes.
The truth is, this particular disaster, along with its accompanying rush to the market, did not begin in 2008, and it is not merely another consequence of the general fiscal collapse. Funding for public higher education, as a share of state budgets, had already fallen by a third since 1980. In the early 2000s alone, per-student expenditures fell by 15 percent. Basically, people stopped wanting to pay their taxes. The explosion of student debt has been a direct consequence. Now that debt—which is actually much smaller, on a per-student basis, than anyone seems to want to acknowledge—is being used to destroy higher education as a vehicle for social mobility. We need to ask ourselves who benefits from that, and we should keep in mind that social mobility is necessarily a two-way street; for every person who climbs up the income distribution, somebody else falls down. Some disasters, Klein observes, are intentional.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: Thinking for Yourself, Inventing Your Life, and Other Things the Ivy League Won't Teach You, which will be published next year, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.
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