by Brian Eugenio Herrera
Mark Taylor’s call to “End the University as We Know It” proved most disappointing for its shockingly naïve (or cruelly disingenuous) echo of a previous higher education manifesto published several years prior: the notorious “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education,” authored by The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Commonly referred to as the “Spellings Report” in deference to then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, the 2006 study was an unlikely yet cogent harbinger of Taylor’s remarks last month.
The report expressed a belief that “change is overdue” in the realm of post-secondary education where “students increasingly care little about the distinctions that sometimes preoccupy the academic establishment” and where “this consumer-driven” landscape “demands innovation and flexibility from the institutions that serve the nation’s learners.”
A year ago in The Nation, Patricia C. Williams critiqued “the hyper-econometric model” that provided the foundation of the Spellings commission’s vision of higher education reform. Williams excoriated the report for its singular focus upon student knowledge as a commodity measurable by standards of efficiency and accountability “on a ‘value-added’ basis.” She concluded, “Framing education as a ‘profit-maximizing’ ‘industry’ does more than just push women and bards back in the box. It takes aim at the joy, play and very love of lifelong learning as irrelevant externalities to be eliminated for their irrational, trade-penalizing transaction costs.”
I introduce the tenets of the 2006 Spellings Report, and reference Williams’s 2008 comments upon it, to underscore what I see to be a recurring problem faced by members of the professoriate when opining about (higher) educational reform. As I see it, when pressed to comment upon what’s wrong or right with contemporary higher education, most of those inside the U.S. academy tend to emphasize the “educational values” of rigorously adventurous academic inquiry, while most everyone outside the academy fixates on the material benefits (not) conferred by higher education (or what I am calling “educational value”).
Discussions of “educational values” elaborate the moral, social, political, and cultural benefits of higher learning, while discussions of “educational value” remain more assiduously focused on the fiscal or other material advantages conferred by the educational product. And commentators like Mark Taylor exploit the righteous rhetoric of “educational values” to gussy up reductive mandates demanding greater “educational value.”
“Tenure” is the recurring red herring in this debate. To be sure, the ongoing casualization of academic labor, with its concomitant diminishment of tenure within the benefits package afforded by the ever-elusive promise of full-time academic employment, remains a pressing issue. Nevertheless, I would submit that resisting the increased rationalization of educational outcomes – a trend advocated, albeit in different idiom, by both the 2006 Spellings Report and Taylor’s 2009 editorial – has emerged as perhaps most urgent struggle for teaching scholars to engage.
Higher education, both public and private, is already being aggressively re-imagined as a commodity that must be remade to meet the demands of a shifting marketplace. Moreover, public claims of higher educational malfeasance – whether levied by Larry Kramer against “queer studies” at Yale or by State Representative Charlice Byrd against “queer theory” at Georgia State – tend to dismiss innovative models of post-disciplinary scholarly engagement as proof positive of the professoriate’s failure to sustain the core “educational value” conferred by traditional disciplinary knowledge.
Simply put, this is already shaping up to be a brutally partisan ideological battle between factions, those defending “educational values” long and dearly cultivated within the Western university on the one hand, and those demanding greater “educational value” assessed through cost-benefit, “hyper-econometric” rubrics on the other. And I suspect we already know who is certain to have “the numbers” on their side.