Our University-Culture Chapter 2: How We Didn’t Get here

PREVIOUS: Introduction; Chapter 1 (Part 1); Chapter 1 (Part 2)

I. When Myths are Not Superior to History

There are two favorite myths about what is causing the problems we see in higher education. One is that tuition costs have been going up because government funding is going down. I won’t address here what is in fact causing tuition to increase, as that is a tale for another chapter, but I do want to address the myth of government funding cuts. The second myth — and there are many people on both the right and left who like to assert this — is that colleges have been dumbing down because of capitalism, because capitalism drives everything down to the lowest common denominator.

It is common knowledge that university costs have increased because of cuts in government funding. Just ask any university administrator, and they will lie right to your face that their funding has been cut. Yes, I said they will lie to your face, because they know as well as anyone that their funding has increased — perhaps not as much as they would like from time to time, but a failure to get all the increase you wanted is hardly the same thing as failing to get an increase. Paul F. Campos in the New York Times observes that the increase is in fact quite substantial:

public investment in higher education in America is vastly larger today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was during the supposed golden age of public funding in the 1960s. Such spending has increased at a much faster rate than government spending in general. For example, the military’s budget is about 1.8 times higher today than it was in 1960, while legislative appropriations to higher education are more than 10 times higher.[1]

He also points out that state appropriations to higher education have also increased dramatically from the 1960s and that

State appropriations reached a record inflation-adjusted high of $86.6 billion in 2009. They declined as a consequence of the Great Recession, but have since risen to $81 billion. And these totals do not include the enormous expansion of the federal Pell Grant program, which has grown, in today’s dollars, to $34.3 billion per year from $10.3 billion in 2000.

One has to wonder why university administrators making 6-figure (or higher) salaries would complain about government cuts in university spending that never happened. Worse, state and federal appropriations actually went up considerably. It seems unlikely that the people receiving the money from the government — and raising the tuition — don’t know the facts. It should not surprise us if the facts happen not to be in their own self-interest, which is why they tell us the opposite is true. In fact, increases in government funding for universities have strongly correlated with increases in tuition. But certainly nobody wants to talk about that, either.

But what about the effects of capitalism? This, too, is a common complaint about our universities, that they have become corrupted by capitalism. Of course, some of this comes in conjunction with the above claim (which we have seen to be a lie) about government dropping the funding ball, so evil corporatists have come in and taken over. The result is, supposedly, a reduction in value concurrent with a rise in costs. To understand this, we first need to understand the nature of corporatism, and its relationship to free markets and to progressivism. So let us first talk about corporatism before moving on to the issue of value.

II. The Corporatization of Our Universities

The complaints about the corporatization of the universities are both typically correct and at the same time a demonstration of the failure of too many to understand the true nature of corporations. As to the latter, corporations are government-created entities whose ownership involves trustees — investors, in the case of market-focused corporations. They are not at all a product of the market, as are individually owned businesses. Their structures encourage the focusing of the business on the production of short-term profits at all costs. Individually owned businesses, on the other hand, can focus on a wider variety of values than can corporations. Nevertheless, the corporate model was and is considered ideal by progressives and socialists. They wanted society to be structured on the corporate model, since corporations were supposedly the most efficient model of production and control. It is thus ironic that so many progressives complain about corporations while at the same time they support corporatism itself. We can thus understand Noam Chomsky’s complaints about the way universities are run and how that affects hiring practices:

When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line. The effective owners are the trustees (or the legislature, in the case of state universities), and they want to keep costs down and make sure that labor is docile and obedient. The way to do that is, essentially, temps. Just as the hiring of temps has gone way up in the neoliberal period, you’re getting the same phenomenon in the universities.[2]

The only problem with his description is that corporatism is in no way liberalism, neo or otherwise (neoliberalism is a nondescript term that mostly seems to be a catch-all term for leftists of all stripes to simply mean “ideas and notions I don’t like”). He correctly notes that the “trustees” of the state universities are the legislatures of each of the states in question, but then fails to follow up on the logic that this is therefore a government-created problem. Further, corporatism is supported not by free market liberals, but by progressives and other corporate socialists. Corporate socialists are infamously anti-union (or, at least, anti-strike). As our political economy has become ever-more progressive/corporate socialist, we have seen an increase in the hiring of temps in the economy at large and in universities in particular. Chomsky observes that

using cheap labor — and vulnerable labor — is a business practice that goes as far back as you can trace private enterprise, and unions emerged in response. In the universities, cheap, vulnerable labor means adjuncts and graduate students. Graduate students are even more vulnerable, for obvious reasons. The idea is to transfer instruction to precarious workers, which improves discipline and control but also enables the transfer of funds to other purposes apart from education. The costs, of course, are borne by the students and by the people who are being drawn into these vulnerable occupations.

Since unions emerge in opposition to the corporations and corporatism, we should not be surprised that in the corporatist economy the unions’ power is greatly reduced, if not eliminated. Again, this is a consequence of the economic systems of corporatism and crony capitalism and not of free markets. In a free market, unions could arise simply because the government wouldn’t prevent them from doing so nor prevent them from striking.

We see the corporatization of our universities in their increasing bureaucratization. University presidents increasingly view themselves — and refer to themselves — as CEOs. Where once universities were governed by faculty, with dean and provost positions and student advisement being done by faculty, with the faculty in the first two cases finding themselves back in their old professorial positions before long, we now find our universities governed by professional bureaucrats who will never see the inside of a classroom again — if they have ever done so. The number of bureaucratic positions has grown exponentially with their increasing professionalization and the decreasing duties of faculty. At the same time, the number of faculty has remained mostly stagnant. Since many of their duties have been handed over to bureaucrats, new full time faculty or replacement full time faculty are not needed, meaning opportunities for the universities to hire more part time faculty.

The handing over of the control of universities to bureaucrats from the professors has resulted in a sea change in the relationship between students and faculty. Whereas students and faculty were once natural allies, students now find their allies among the bureaucrats, whose natural aversion to risk makes them pushovers for whatever notions manage to enter the heads of students. We have investigated some of these notions already, and we will investigate many more throughout this book. It is important to understand, though, why and how it is that truly marginal ideas have managed to blow up in our universities, taking them over and threatening not just liberal education, but education itself. The fault lies in the fact that our universities are no longer a different kind of institution from corporations, but have thoroughly become bureaucratic corporations on the progressive/corporate socialist model.

III. On the Nature of Value

Too many people do not understand the nature of value in the free market. The idea that markets drive down value is why otherwise intelligent philosophers like Alain Badiou say things like “Markets are nihilism.” If anything, markets are quite literally the opposite of nihilism. But it takes an understanding of the true nature of value to understand this.

The first point I would make in response to those who argue that the market drives things down to the lowest common denominator is to argue that things become less valuable in the market (things may become cheaper, but cost is different from value). This is equivalent to saying that two people will engage in a trade even though each will only be worse off as a result. Since nobody would ever engage in such a trade, we know this to be nonsense. We know, in fact, that value increases through trade because each person must perceive him- or herself as being better off because of the transaction than they were before it took place. So on this point the statement makes no sense.

This of course raises the issue of how it is we should define “value.” Too many think there is such a thing as “intrinsic value.” This concept is the source of all sorts of problems. One thing it inevitably leads to is nihilism, for when you discover there is no such thing as intrinsic value, and you have believed there was, it is not uncommon to then declare that nothing has value. In fact, value is subjective. I find education to be highly valuable. Others do not. Those who do not think education to be of high value end up doing things that I also value just as highly as education, like construction, plumbing, road work, etc. I need someone to mine coal to provide electricity so I can write this book on my computer. Thus, I find coal mining extremely valuable. But that doesn’t mean I want to do it.

Something has no or little value if you don’t want it, and nobody will trade you anything for it, or take it off your hands. Such things end up in the landfills. Or are lost to history. If someone wants to have it, it has value to them. That does not mean it has inherent value. It means it has value to that particular person — even if it is a low value.

So if there are not schools which provide the kinds of education I value (and contemporary universities do not), and if there is a large enough number of people in the world who also want that kind of education, that is not a failure of the market; quite the contrary, it is a failure of there being a proper market in education. Different people have different educational values. Who am I to say that everyone must be forced to accept my values, and that their values aren’t worth having? Should they be persuaded? Of course. To a certain degree. But I don’t think the world is a terrible place if there are a significant number of people out there who don’t appreciate the Iliad. The world is made a worse place, though, if the intellectuals say that the arts and humanities in general are of no value. But neither are they of infinite value. If they are of infinite value, then there is no ends to which we should go to support the arts and humanities. We should fight wars for them, kill and destroy for them, take money away from everybody not an artist or an intellectual, and hand it over to the artists and intellectuals, because it is they who are the only ones making anything of “true value.” Art and philosophy, and education, are not “beyond price” or “priceless.” Of course they have a price. And they have a value. But it is a bounded value. I think that value is relatively high. Others do not. I find almost no value in watching football — but I wouldn’t deprive anyone of the value they derive from it. I place high value on reading intellectual materials and writing academic papers — something I know would be torture to most others. Both values can coexist.

The problems with education, then, have nothing to do with value-creating market economics being part of it. Actually, the market is barely involved at all in the provision of education. If we want to fight against the dumbing down of higher education, we need to fight against the majority of postmodern professors — including those in the arts and humanities! — who think the arts and humanities are not valuable and cannot be justified. Saying they need no justification and that they are the only things of “true value” and are “priceless” only creates the same problem in the opposite direction. It cuts off all discussion, making claims that cannot be defended, only asserted. More, a cursory understanding of the wide variety of things people value and do not value shows it to be wrong. This isn’t to argue that we shouldn’t try to persuade more people to value the things we value — but it’s equally absurd to assume that what I value in a liberal arts education are the only things of value — that they have “true” value. In the end, I think one can make just as strong an argument for football having “true value” as one can for philosophy or the arts. Would everybody be better off if they understood philosophy? Well, wouldn’t everybody be better off if we could all agree to love football? Both seem doubtful propositions.

There is another form of value we might consider, though. If we were to ask if Madonna or Bach has more value, what would most people say? Well, it depends on whether you are talking about immediate value or lasting value. Bach certainly has more lasting value. His works have more information that can be tapped into by more people over a longer period of time. In the long run, the music of Bach is more generative than the music of Madonna. However, there are people who would happily smash every Bach recording in the world for a pair of Madonna tickets. While it is certainly unlikely that Madonna will continue to retain her value after her recording career ends, that does not negate her value for a large number of people now. More, Madonna shows that she has more current economic value than does Bach — though Bach has lasting value. Thus, value is not found exclusively in the realm of economics. In the economy, value is measured by money — thus, we often confuse price and value — but that is not the only way to measure value.

It is important to understand these distinctions so we are not misusing the term “value,” as people too often do. The value of an education is measured differently than the value of Madonna tickets. But one pays for both. One pays for Bach as well, but that’s not the entire measure of his value. If one is measuring “lasting value” as we find in the arts and philosophy, at one time, and economic value at another, we are in one sense measuring two different things. Whatever value an object has above its immediate cost is a gift — things with lasting value are a gift to generations on end. In capitalism, one may have a hard time measuring and adjusting for this kind of value, precisely because it’s not measurable by cost (there has even been research done to show that economic value is not entirely measurable by cost, as a great innovator only earns less than 5% of the value of his innovation — the rest is distributed throughout the economy, to the benefit of everyone), but that is not the fault of capitalism per se. It is more a fault of the measure of value itself, which is difficult at best, in no small part because of its being subjective. If something has lasting value, it is only because a certain number of people over time have continued to value it. There is a changing group dynamic that results in the retention of value over long periods of time, precisely because those objects, ideas, etc. retain high informational content for people over time.

IV. On the Nature of Market Competition

The second point I need to make against those who think that markets drive value down is that only if only the “market winners” are what survive, while all other competitors die off, could it be possible for the lowest common denominator to dominate. But this is simply not what happens. What I just described would be more accurately termed as a “democratic economy.” In a market economy, one has a wide variety of choices — some better than others. We can choose among Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Toyota, Mercedes Benz, etc., and someone valuing Ford over the others does not in any way affect the car company I most value. Not only that, but not just the most popular survives. There are markets in rare tastes — sometimes you have to pay a lot for them, and sometimes you do not. Think of music, where a C.D. or MP3 for a popular band costs the same as a band almost nobody listens to. With MP3’s, those marginal bands are even more likely to get their music out there. As the market has expanded — using new innovations in technology — more and more marginal bands are able to get their music out there to fans, no matter how few those fans may be. Thus, it actually becomes more likely that excellence will have a chance to survive, even if it only survives as a marginal taste. In a democratic economy, only the most popular would survive. More, in a truly democratic economy, you would have to please 50%+1, meaning you would get a drive down in quality, as such products would have to please a majority somehow to “win.” So in a market economy, there is certainly room for excellence — at the very least as a minority taste. Someone will always be willing to cater to whatever tastes are out there, including the taste for excellence. More likely, though, competition will create the conditions for the discovery of the best ways of doing things, and excellence will become the norm rather than a minority taste. Most people want excellence, even if they may disagree with what is meant by “excellence.”

Let us then return to the question of what people believe about the relationship between markets and colleges. Is it the market that has driven out excellence in the push to get more and more students through the doors? Not necessarily. One should in fact expect there to be a mixture of colleges, with a mixture of goals and reputations — if there is truly a free market in education. For those who value excellence, and are thus willing to pay for it, one would expect there to exist colleges advertising that they will deliver excellence in education. Others, while certainly not advertising that they aren’t excellent, will advertise rather that they provide different kinds of educational services. They can use terms like “student focused” or “learning what you want to learn” as code words to let the consumer know that not much will be expected from them academically. They will provide job training — which is fine, and what many people both need and want. More, places will hire based on their needs — meaning, if they need someone who received an excellent education, they will hire from those colleges proven to excel in excellence. If they need someone with a certain kind of job training, they will hire from colleges which provide those educations.

The fact that this seems not to be happening — the fact that there is rather a drive to the bottom in higher education across the board — suggests, then, that something else is going on. I have already indicated what this could be in my comparison of the outcome of a democratic economy vs. a market economy. The colleges are all becoming democratized. The problem with this is that it results in the same education for everyone, regardless of need or ability. There are many things which have contributed to this, including affirmative action (which has outlived both its usefulness and its mandate), the dominance of egalitarian ideologies at all levels in our universities, and a fetishization of higher education by those same egalitarians, who in fact look down on those without college degrees and see physical labor as shameful. These same people then blame capitalism for the dumbing down of education, though it is their policies which are responsible for the situation in which we find ourselves.

It was the left that pushed for more universal higher education, which created the conditions for students to demand universities train them for jobs rather than to receive a liberal education. This then created the conditions for conservatives to argue that universities are and ought to be places of vocational training rather than places where people received a liberal education. At the same time, increasing vocational training attracted corporate money, since corporations saw that universities were turning out potential employees. It makes sense for corporations to do this — since universities are training their future employees, those corporations wanted to have some influence on what those future employees would know. In the same way, since universities are training future government bureaucrats, governments have a vested interested in what education takes place. Universities respond to incentives, and we have seen an expansion in things like business administration and social work and other majors that could contribute to the creation of good workers. But it was the expansion of the student base that started the ball rolling. You cannot simultaneously provide broad-based education and an elite liberal arts education. Not everyone wants a liberal arts education; some would even argue that not everyone really even needs one. Or, given the belief in the fragmentation of knowledge, that it’s not even possible to provide one. The fact that the majority of people do not want a liberal arts education and do not find much if any value in one is one of the reasons we have seen the slow degradation of liberal arts education in our universities. The fact that many in our postmodern era think the unity of knowledge is impossible is another reason. But what if they are wrong? What if there is, in fact, a unity of knowledge? The problem is we cannot find out because those who want to try to get such an education cannot get one. Thus, we are losing an entire generation of people who are not getting a sufficient liberal arts education. And we cannot find out if a unity of knowledge is possible because nobody is given the opportunity to try. And this is all based, apparently, on the thesis that if everybody doesn’t want it, nobody can have it. That may be a very democratic, anti-elitist attitude, but all it really does is show that not all things ought to be decided democratically.

As a result of the democratization of our universities, we have a situation where universities are being run like department stores instead of as universities, selling degrees instead of education. And since it is a protected cartel, our college and universities do not really compete with each other, but rather get to act as a veritable monopoly. Only with monopoly or cartel power — which always arises from government protection — do you get the combination of rising prices and dropping quality. This latter is in no small part driven by the fact that, we now find students thinking that, because they are paying their tuition, they deserve to not just pass the class, but to get an A. They are customers, so they should get what they, as a customer, want. What they want is not an education but a degree, a signal to employers that they ought to be hired. They are thinking of themselves as consumers of signals to get jobs and not as consumers of education. The latter will help you get a job, of course, but it can do so while also helping you accumulate low grades as a demonstration of your ability to learn or pay attention or think. Since masking one’s lack in these areas is desirable, students create pressure on administrators, who cave in simply to avoid aggravation. The problem is that that is short-term thinking on the part of the administrators, who are only inviting more aggravation from more students because they wouldn’t put their feet down in defense of the professors doing their jobs as teachers when they provided information to the students about their performance in the form of grades. In other words, the feedback mechanism within our colleges and universities is collapsing — has collapsed — with grade inflation. It is these internal dynamics plus colleges being a protected cartel that are the real source of universities’ problems. Neither of these is evidence of the market taking over higher education; rather, they are evidence of anti-market, protectionist forces at work.

The fact that the market is not providing people with a variety of educational options — but rather seems to be evolving more and more toward providing nothing but trade schools — suggests that there is something else at work preventing the market from providing what is wanted. If nobody wants a liberal education, whose fault is that? Not the market’s. Again, I point to the humanities departments and their self-defeating rhetoric. Their anti-market attitude mad made them push in the opposite direction, devaluing not just the market, but value itself and themselves as well, and making what should be accessible to all into an elitist pursuit. They hate that the market economy makes what was once the sole property of the elite accessible to everyone else. Think cell phones in the 1980’s vs. now.

But let’s look at an academic example. Plato and Aristotle are both easy and complex — and give more and more the more time you spend with them. They are easy to read and understand at first, but give you more and more with good guides and hard work. Derrida and Zizek are merely difficult — and give less and less the more time you spend with them. They create barriers to entry immediately upon reading them. The latter trend is a way to keep the humanities elite, to counteract market forces. But the people studying these more contemporary thinkers also know that there is no there there, that there is little value to these thinkers’ works, and so have come to believe there is little or no value to the humanities themselves, as a whole.

In the end, the computer science, physics, biology, math, economics, etc. departments all advertise their value and worth. Those in the humanities either argue their works have no value, or argue that they are invaluable and priceless, and that advertising their value is below them. They get treated as one would expect them to be treated. The humanities are trying to play football with baseball rules, and then whining that it’s unfair that they never win. Every other discipline has to justify its existence — what makes the humanities think they’re any better than any other discipline? This “invaluable” nonsense just prevents people from having to deal in the real world with real people and real problems. And taking the nihilistic view of the humanities having no value is not just counterproductive, but wrong. But all of this comes from this nonsense about objective values and inherent values and infinite value.

So the bottom line is this: the dumbing down of education cannot be blamed on the free market system, precisely because the free market would never create such a situation across the board, which is what we see happening. Free markets create heterogeneity, not homogeneity. Rather, it is the dominance of egalitarian ideologies in our educational system at all levels that is driving education down to the lowest common denominator. (Re)Read Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” for one of the best examples of this phenomenon in literature.

V. The Gift Economy and Education

So what is the problem? The real issue here is education is a gift. If you give a gift to someone, and they insist on paying for it, you are naturally insulted. And those who work in the gift economy do so out of love of the work and love of those for whom they are creating their gifts (the insult is doubled by the fact that you have to be paid to give your gift, because we all have to pay the bills, after all). This belief that education is a gift is, I think, held by many if not most educators, and it is why so many educators are anti-market. The person who does something out of love — who creates gifts — feels morally superior to those who do something out of a profit motive. We consider the gift-giver to have higher status than the profit-maker; the gift-giver, too, is in fact doing what they are doing for status. This is inherent in the fact that the gift economy is precisely about gaining status; this is its currency — and its danger. The danger lies in the development of the potlatch, where the participants try to outdo each other, even at their own detriment. This occurs when the gift-giving is separated from love. Yet, that original motivation is often assumed, so the gift-giver gains status despite the lack of love.

We see this attitude at work in all areas of the gift economy. We respect poets who publish for free in literary journals, but not those who work for Hallmark. We respect (and trust) university scientists over corporate scientists. The philanthropic organization (or even the government in its role in the gift economy) is considered purer in purpose than corporate givers. Those who (at least appear to) create and give out of love are believed superior to those who create and give out of a desire for profit. Many consider charity-givers to be better than job-givers, though it is only the latter who creation wealth. We feel that mixing the market with the gift economy somehow sullies the purity of the gifts we want to give. And we often feel sullied by having to take a paycheck for work we would do for free, but cannot because, as I already noted, we do have to pay the bills. Many in the gift economy resent the fact that they have to pay the bills, that they have debts they owe, and therefore have to do paid work rather than the work they feel to be higher work, in the gift economy. That resentment drives anti-market attitudes.

However, Frederick Turner observes in Shakespeare’s 21st Century Economics that in any economic trade, there is necessarily a gift aspect to the trade. The person who is buying something from you is likely not paying entirely what they think it is worth. Thus, the rest is your gift to them. It would do us a lot of good to think of education as being on the borderlands of the gift economy and the market economy. There is a gift aspect, but there is also a market aspect. Some people want more of the market aspect — they are looking for a good trade school. The liberal arts, however, are almost entirely gift. I like the gift economy, which is why I have a Ph.D. in the humanities. However, that does not make me denigrate the value of the market economy, including its value in education. Also, to return to the denigration of value by the humanities, would you want a gift that someone told you before you even opened it that it wasn’t worth anything and they couldn’t think of any reason you would need or want it? It would seem to me that you would want to avoid such a person and their gift. The gift giver has to believe in the value of the gift before the recipient will even want it.

Equally, we can begin to understand why teachers everywhere get burned out on teaching. Imagine offering a gift of great value to someone and they turned up their nose at it, sneered at it, threw it back in your face? How would you feel? Who would not be insulted, offended, hurt if their gifts were turned down and even disdained? That, indeed, is how I have felt when it was clear there were students who didn’t want to learn, didn’t want to work, disrupted class and talked and refused to listen when I spoke. So I tended to take it personally when students wouldn’t do everything they could to accept the gift of education I offered. To refuse a gift is a hateful thing indeed. And I imagine I am hardly the one who has felt this way.

Many of our problems in education come about because of this failure to understand that education has this gift economy aspect to it. In some cases it is purely gift, but in most cases it is partially gift, partially market, with varying degrees, depending on what you are learning. Without understanding that education is in the gift economy, we will continue to make mistakes in reforming education. Without understanding that there is not and never has been and never will be a clear-cut separation between the gift economy and the market economy, we will continue to have some of our greatest, most brilliant, most creative people opposing the only economic order to create the wealth necessary for most of them to have the time and money to do the things the love and to give the world their gifts. We must never forget that the gift economy is always built on the existence of some sort of wealth, and that the wealth must exist first for there to be the leisure to make gifts to give.

So the market is not the problem when it comes to the problems we find in higher education. Markets do not drive products toward some sort of homogeneous lowest common denominator. Quite the contrary, the market drives products toward heterogeneity, creating a place for the creation of various kinds of excellences. And just because many colleges and universities are starting to be run like businesses is not the fault of the market. It is the fault of those who cannot tell the difference between a business and a school. Businesses and schools are completely different kinds of organizations, and they ought to be structured and run like different kinds of organizations. Running a school like a business is just as idiotic as running a business like a school. Like with churches, when schools are run like businesses, you introduce elements of corruption — not because businesses are inherently corrupt, but because churches and schools have completely different purposes than do businesses. The market is not how we got here. Not knowing what kind of organization universities are and what social orders they participate in is.

VI. Consumerism and Education

As we can see, then, there is a degree to which consumerism is indeed part of the problems we find in higher education. The consumerist attitude has come to permeate American society since just after World War II — but why has it come to permeate our society? Capitalism prior to WWII was not consumerist, so why did it take on this trait?

The answer is that political economy became dominated by the ideas of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes argued that a healthy economy is one driven by consumption — by the demand side of supply and demand. So long as people are consuming, the economy will be healthy. For Keynes, saving your money is a bad idea because, although it may be good for you personally, by refusing to spend that money, you are weakening the economy, which can lead to a recession, which can then eat into your savings anyway. The more we spend — even going into debt in order to spend — the stronger, healthier the economy will be. And if private citizens aren’t spending enough, the government should come in and spend more to keep the good times rolling.

Governments have come to accept this economic theory — in no small part because it justifies government spending, which just so happens to be good for getting votes as well — and have actively pushed this world view. This has resulted in the creation of consumerist attitudes and our consumer culture. From this also comes our debt-driven economy, including government debt and private debt ranging from credit cards to student loans. Debt has been driving the American economy for over half a century now, and the day of reckoning is bound to come sooner or later. Living like there’s no future cannot last forever.

Students have taken this consumerist attitude into the universities. They have gone into debt to go to college, and having spent their future earnings, they expect to be given good grades so they can get the degree they need to pay off those debts. When they go to the mall with their credit cards and buy things, they expect to get exactly what they paid for — and what they paid for is what they think they paid for. More and more our students think they are paying to get a degree to get a job, and bad grades get in the way of that. Education is nowhere near primary in their calculation. Classes that seem mostly in the way of their direct goal need to go, and that means getting rid of a lot of required humanities courses. Administrators are cowards and don’t have any loyalty to learning or their professors, but only to themselves and keeping the peace in their offices, so they give into the increasingly ridiculous demands of their customers. And after all, the customer’s always right.

So what we see is a combination of consumerism by students seeking credentials rather than true learning and bureaucratic cowardice giving rise to the degradation of our educational system. Where true market competition would give rise to a wide variety of universities providing a wide range of outcomes for students — from a deep liberal education to a broad interdisciplinary education to trade schools for narrow learning and credentials — the system of bureaucracies responding to consumerism results in a broad-based dumbing down of all our universities, across all our schools of learning within them. This is in no small part because consumerism greatly discounts the future — or, as Keynes himself quipped, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” If you want to identify the problems with our universities, it is this combination of Prussian bureaucratization and Keynesian consumerism. The long run has finally arrived — and it turns out that we’re not all dead. Not even close.

[1] Campos, Paul F. “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much.” NYT. April 4, 2015.

[2] Chomsky, Noam. “How America’s Great University System Is Being Destroyed” Alternet. Feb. 28, 2014. http://www.alternet.org/corporate-accountability-and-workplace/chomsky-how-americas-great-university-system-getting?

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