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Utility and Efficiency Reign while Utopia and Idealism Wane

September 13, 2015

In Kwame Anthony Appiah’s op ed column in today’s NYTimes, “What is the Point of College?“, he offers two competing visions of higher education: utility and utopia:

One vision focuses on how college can be useful — to its graduates, to employers and to a globally competitive America. When presidential candidates talk about making college more affordable, they often mention those benefits, and they measure them largely in dollars and cents. How is it helping postgraduate earnings, or increasing G.D.P.? As college grows more expensive, plenty of people want to know whether they’re getting a good return on their investment. They believe in Utility U.

Another vision of college centers on what John Stuart Mill called ‘‘experiments in living,’’ aimed at getting students ready for life as free men and women. (This was not an entirely new thought: the ‘‘liberal’’ in ‘‘liberal education’’ comes from the Latin liberalis, which means ‘‘befitting a free person.’’) Here, college is about building your soul as much as your skills. Students want to think critically about the values that guide them, and they will inevitably want to test out their ideas and ideals in the campus community. (Though more and more students are taking degrees online, most undergraduates will be on campus a lot of the time.) College, in this view, is where you hone the tools for the foundational American project, the pursuit of happiness. Welcome to Utopia U.

Later in the article, Appiah describes how the drive for efficiency in college is increasing the number of adjuncts as compared to tenured staff and, consequently, choosing “Utility U” over “Utopia U”:

Tenure allows professors to pursue intellectual projects without regard for what the trustees or the governor or the community care about. It gives them the kind of intellectual freedom that has helped make our universities the research powerhouses of the world. Adjunct faculty, on the other hand, are a lot less expensive — they’re paid less and typically lack health and other benefits — and you can easily expand or contract their ranks as demand fluctuates. In the Utility vision, students are consumers; they have needs and desires to be met, at a price they’ll pay. If pleasing the customer is the goal, a tenured faculty member who wants to teach what he or she considers worth teaching can be an inconvenience. Plus, at Utility U., one obvious way to better your ‘‘value proposition’’ is to cut costs. These days, three-quarters of the teaching faculty at America’s nonprofit colleges and universities are hired as adjuncts with no tenure and no research support. A few decades ago, only a quarter were.

There is no question the direction public education is taking… and it mirrors the distressing direction Appiah describes in his essay. As I wrote in this blog three years ago, in the 1930s John Dewey and Lewis Terman had a philosophical debate about the direction education should take… and Terman won. Dewey argued for a holistic approach to schooling, one that would provide EVERY student with the tools and background needed to appreciate the work done by others and give them the tools to achieve their highest level possible. Terman, the inventor of the IQ test, saw testing as a means for sorting students into categories and was not at all reluctant to declare that some students were incapable of learning. One only need to look a Race To The Top and No Child Left Behind and now President Obama’s “scorecard” that uses earnings-after-graduation to see that Terman won the hearts and minds of America. Utility and Efficiency reign while Utopia and Idealism wane. Hail to the adjuncts! Hail to TFA! Hail to profits and earnings!

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