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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Our Wal-Mart “Education President”

Posted by Marc Bousquet on 07/22/09 at 01:26 PM

crossposted from howtheuniversityworks.com

Last week President Obama (He Who Must Not Be Criticized From the Left) proposed throwing some chump change at higher education--12 billion or so to community colleges, much of it intended for such great ideas as more spending on facilities, online education, assessment tools, and a standardized national curriculum--excepting where potential employers want to dictate course content.

Woo-hoo. Over a decade from now, more than 1,000 institutions, educating half of all the students in the country--tens of millions of people!--will eventually divvy up a third as much cash as The One slings to a bank or automaker in a single day. As long as they spend it the way ROTC cheerleader and Margaret Spellings clone Arne Duncan tells them.

Not to go all Paul Krugman on the prez, but it’s hard to know which is more irritating--the galling cheapskatery, the wretched ideas for spending the money--more standardization! more managerial control! a teacher-proof curriculum!--or his cynical, self-congratulatory contempt for the education of citizens outside the professional managerial class ("the workers,” for whom “job training” is all that’s required.)

Candidate Obama promised to make community colleges “completely free to most Americans.” That was a far cry from what an actual intellectual and activist like Adolph Reed has been proposing for a decade--free higher ed, period--but it would have helped.

What he now promises--a slim billion annually, to promote Arne Duncan-style “reform"--will do more harm than good.

It’s not that community colleges don’t need reform. Commonly displaying single-digit graduation rates--attainment of two-year degrees averages about 25% after four years--your typical community college basically sucks.

Don’t get me wrong. I probably wouldn’t be in this profession if I hadn’t been inspired and transformed by my experience of teaching in community colleges and similar institutions in the CUNY system.

What’s more, plenty of four-year schools suck in the same way--the University of Louisville, where I first got tenure, purported to be a Carnegie Research-1 institution, largely on the basis of work in the medical school, but had a six-year graduation rate hovering around 30%. (And the only members of the faculty I ever met who cared about that statistic were among the group in the ed school chased out by a thuggish dean later indicted for embezzling his federal grants.)

Bankers are from Tiffany’s, Educators are from Wal-mart

Louisville fails for the same reason many community colleges fail: they put cheap, permanently temporary teachers (students, retirees, moonlighters, folks willing to work for status) in the front lines of first-year courses, and then--desperate to armor-plate the curriculum against the uneven preparation of the faculty--convert the tenure stream into supervisors of the temps.  The bribe for the tenured overclass includes being freed to teach only the fraction of students who get through the obstacle course of the first year or two.

But this suckiness is what Obama and Duncan like about community colleges and enterprise universities like the U of L.  Not the low graduation rates--they’ll pull at their chins thoughtfully and agree with you there.

What they like--no, love--is the organization of community colleges, the top-down control of curriculum, the tenured management and the disposable teachers. That’s perfect! Community colleges regularly fire union officials and anyone else who gets in their way.

With management firmly in control of curriculum and governance, there’s no pathetic and irritating faculty to raise their hands and whine while local employers are trying to place their education orders with the college administration: “Gimme about fifty x-ray technicians! naw, make it seventy-five--we got about ten jobs and wanna make sure we can replace any with union sentiments. And hurry it up, will ya? I gotta fly to Hilton Head this afternoon for dinner and a round of golf in the morning. Oh, you only make a hundred grand? Heck, I can offer you five times that if you can get my people to work for the crap wages you pay your faculty!”

The fact that the best research shows that a perma-temp faculty and several decades of total managerial dominance are causing low graduation rates won’t stop the prez and his basketball buddy, because control is their goal. However unjust and racist the consequences, they are fundamentally anti-democratic in their aspiration to fulfill the Clinton-Gore dream of quality-managing the public sphere.

(Follow the link to see what I mean by “unjust and racist,” but essentially: when you drive the wages for teaching down to the point where it’s a luxury good providing status--"I teach at the U” is a variation on the theme of “I live on Wisteria Lane” or “I drive the 600-class"--only the already well-off can afford the luxury of spending time on teaching.  You pretty much inevitably perpetuate the beliefs, interests, racial composition and gendered division of labor of the class providing the teachers. Including that class’s disproportionate whiteness and their belief that the folks they’re teaching--"workers"-- are a pretty unworthy bunch.)

Despite increasingly threadbare efforts to wrap himself in the legacy of FDR, in any reasonable world-historical perspective Obama is our Herbert Hoover: a pro-business “moderate” eager to keep good relations with organized labor while minimizing labor’s impact on public policy.

To put it another way, he’s essentially a fixer for the status quo ante Bush II.

In his wildest dreams, the prez just wants to get back to the crappy “good economy” of the Clinton years. Those were the years that inspired my favorite first-year student writing assignment, on the question of “for whom is a ‘good economy’ good?” (Hint: the cast of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise has done okay, but their servants--not so much.)

The Right Pressure Point, Wrong Strategy

The fact is that neither Obama nor his ballplaying buddy think community colleges are really sources of higher education at all--to their minds, they’re job training centers.

But even from this perspective, the community colleges offer a major opportunity to stimulate the economy.  Higher education is a pressure point where we can apply real, FDR-style solutions, as I’ve pointed out before: full employment for educators and taking students out of the workforce would create millions of jobs. Essentially overnight. And community colleges offer the largest opportunities in that respect, with the most part-time faculty and the students working the longest hours.

In the unlikely event our two ballplaying cronies do legislate pro-rata faculty pay and provide not just free tuition but living support for students at community colleges--even if their aim is the cynical one, of economic stimulation--all the evidence suggests they’ll have another, unintended effect: education.


"Last week President Obama (He Who Must Not Be Criticized From the Left)…”

What’s ironic about this opener is that the sarcasm of this post, which starts in this first sentence and never lets up, completely blocks the ideas themselves from criticism or discussion aside from “Amen"-ing.  In that light, it’s a bit much to complain about how Obama is immune from criticism.  Seeing a Comments box attached to this is actually kind of incongruous; commenting on this post would be like commenting on a political fundraising letter.

By tomemos on 07/22/09 at 03:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m with tomemos here. Marc, you really never leave anything to talk about in any of your posts. You appear to have everything solved, with some magic policy package that you’re holding in mind. Said solution doesn’t seem to have any trade-offs, difficult branching choices, unknowns, issues where the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good, etc. I also can’t ever see how you imagine your comprehensive solution coming into existence within actually-existing institutional and public politics: I feel like the only rhetorical provision you make for talking with administrators, for example, is to walk in and tell them that they’re a bunch of fucking bastards and a superfluous drain on university resources. Or for talking with legislators: just say, “full employment for professors, just do it, and everything will be good”?

Is there anything that you look at in the contemporary university and say, “Wow, that’s a tough problem, I’m not sure how we do that” or “A hard choice has got to be made between two arguably legitimate directions”.

By Timothy Burke on 07/23/09 at 11:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I would imagine, Marc, that you have an analysis of why almost no one comments on your posts; I might even imagine such an analysis would be unflattering to the readership here.

I suspect I agree with your analysis of the contemporary university.  But the objectors above have a certain point.  I’m not interested in pushing you toward a more moderate rhetoric merely for moderation’s sake; but you are basically just publishing rants here.  Assuming you’re right, what should American academics do?  Why not devote a post to that?

By on 07/25/09 at 07:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s totally unfair to imply (as Burke does in the above post) that Bousquet hasn’t put forward specific policy goals in his writing. 

Contingent/adjunct faculty should unionize.  Heavy-handed managerialism on the part of overcompensated higher-ed administrators should end.  Universities should not be run on for-profit business models.

Certainly, there are difficult choices to be made here, and we do need some nuance on these issues, but not at the price of actually attaining such goals.

By on 07/26/09 at 01:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Handwringing about “civility” is often the last refuge of the powerful and the comfortable.

It is also difficult to believe the good faith of those complaining about “what to do” if they have been following Bousquet’s work on this site. Again and again, Bousquet has documented:

i) The fact that many tenured faculty (in complicity with administrators) continue to exploit adjunct labor. These tenured faculty have refused to take up the cause of these adjunct labor in their professional associations (MLA, etc) even though the ultimate loss will be to all of us.

ii) A dominant section of the professoriate have a deep-seated conception of disciplines, in particular, and education, in general, as “status” positions and their role as bestowing or limiting status (to the professional managerial class) and letting adjuncts deal with the “workers” who need job training. This not only leads to the fetishizing of disciplinary boundaries, but also to a blinkered refusal of solidarity with those lower on the totem pole. As evidence, read for instance the following report by Tenured Radical:


And on and on.

There is a kind of person in the contemporary U.S. who is always far more outraged by expressions of outrage at injustice. I for one appreciate Bousquet’s outrage at injustice.

By on 07/30/09 at 02:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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