Peter Augustine Lawler has recently written for National Affairs an article about what’s wrong with higher education that depicts just as perfectly what’s wrong with elementary and secondary education. He begins by discussing how technology is eroding jobs, turning people both into technicians and taking away lower-wage opportunities that put one on the path to higher wages after several years. This is why everyone is now going to college, and colleges and high schools are shifting into job training machines that pass on technical skills. Except college graduates seem of even lower quality now than high school graduates were forty years ago.

Employers who complain about unprepared college graduates, however, often don’t mean that students lack specific technical skills; the problem is that new workers don’t have the general literacy, capacity for thought, and personal discipline necessary for life in the workplace. What employers often mean, in other words, is that graduates don’t have the manners, morals, and confident literacy of ladies and gentleman. They don’t have what a college or even high-school diploma used to fairly reliably signify.

Lawler says right-wingers blame this erosion in diploma quality on government subsidies. College costs have risen so drastically because government loans and subsidies are inflating the market, allowing colleges to do less with more. In effect, government subsidies for college have enabled nonproductive leftist ideology to pass for a college education. Since market discipline would drive classes in queer theory and Racism 101 out, since they increase no one’s marketable skills, it must be that government is enabling their existence.

While this is true, Lawler says, it’s not the whole truth. 

But these related lines of criticism — being pushed at the moment by, among others, presidential candidate Governor Scott Walker — underestimate the ways in which American higher education is already submitting to the discipline of the marketplace and to the imperatives of technology and progress in the division of labor. Many institutions are following the lead of the corporate world by concentrating ‘mental labor’ in the administration and reducing, as far as possible, instruction to working off a script devised by experts.

In short, Lawler says college has gone corporate, and that’s a problem. They are larding up on administrators, enacting technocratic “strategic plans” about everything under the sun, and increasingly reducing teaching faculty to low-paid part-timers who are easy to control and follow scripts and class schedules devised by outside “experts.” In short, education is mechanizing, just like the economy. Why not just have all college students sit rooms and view videocasts of the one perfect class going on somewhere? That’s where this is heading.

The administrators now in charge are typically techno-enthusiasts, embracing without much reflection the various ways to make classrooms ‘smarter,’ create courses that are ‘blended’ and ‘flipped,’ and profit from the rampant and loosely monitored proliferation of lucrative online learning. The general thought is that the use of machines and screens aids in scripting instruction according to ‘best practices,’ or empirically validated methods of most efficiently delivering skills and competencies, is the future of higher education. The spontaneity of faculty behavior occasionally leads to brilliant teachable moments, but those can’t be relied upon and are a time-consuming indulgence. And administrators have found it easier to discipline insecure or temporary faculty working at subsistence (or even less); such instructors are far more open to the imposition of instructional rubrics…And once instruction has been mechanized or scripted, the instructor can be replaced by a machine.

And it’s also happening in K-12. Since 1950, K-12 public-school enrollment has doubled, while non-teaching staff have increased 702 percent, or by a factor of seven. In Indiana, non-teaching administrators have increased five times as much as student enrollment. While education has greatly centralized and become increasingly regulated in both the private and public sectors since then, not all this huge administrative increase is the fault of state or federal regulations, just as in higher ed. It’s also partly a mindset change.

The most important cause of administrative proliferation appears to be the new division of labor. Administration has in many ways become more ‘cognitive’ as ‘enrollment management’ and ‘advancement’ have become both more challenging and more expert-driven, as have their enhanced roles in determining curricular priorities and modes of instructional ‘delivery.’ It is generally conceded, for example, that as higher education moves online and becomes more widely and cheaply available, the on-campus product needs to be more carefully regulated: Faculty can no longer be allowed the freedom to determine either the content or mode of delivery of their courses.

This behavior quite obviously flattens the distinctness of education institutions, turning the more into indistinct student processing centers than living, breathing institutions full of people in vibrant and organically diverse relationships with each other. So, to distinguish themselves now that their curriculum and character no longer can, colleges are engaging in amenities arms races. They’re therapeutic lifestyle clubs rather than serious institutions of learning. This is exactly what the market wants, as it turns out: Students themselves say they choose schools for the amenities, while what happens in class is kind of irrelevant.

This can also be the case in K-12, by the way. Some surveys of parents and students show they pick elementary and secondary schools more for extracurriculars like band, after-school programs, and football than for academics, character, mission, or anything that smacks of substance. (Other surveys I’ve seen tend to indicate that academic quality, safety, and religious fidelity are parents’ major reasons for picking schools.)

What To Do?

So schools’ focus on entertainment and padding technocrats’ wallets at the expense of the personal mentoring young people need to become functioning adults. How does one walk back on this, especially given the great nervousness moms and dads feel about preparing their kids for an uncertain world?

E.D. Hirsch has provided the strongest argument for the humanities — or the attentive reading of ‘real books’ that are more than technical manuals or sources of information. There’s a strong correlation between high-level success in life and the size of one’s active vocabulary. This may seem implausible at first, but the more words a person really knows, the more he knows about the real world around him. To know what a word means is to really grasp the (always imperfect, of course) correspondence between the word and a part of reality. It is also to understand the limitations of words, when they are vaguely or wrongly used. With that kind of knowledge comes a good deal of self-discipline and control. For example, there’s a clear distinction between those who use today’s expert techno-babble (about ‘disruptive innovation’ and the like) seriously and those who are able to deploy such jargon ironically. The latter have both a better grasp of what’s really going on and the ability to use what they know to their own advantage. Leaders, we notice, typically express themselves both precisely and ironically, and they are very adept at both description and deception. And there are obvious connections, of course, between being deeply literate and being innovative and creative in most areas of life.

Lawler concludes (and, while this post is long, it is still just a summary, so those with interest will want to read the whole thing):

That is why conservative educational reform should be about libertarian means for non-libertarian ends. That means working to reduce the footprint of accreditors, bureaucrats, technocratic administrators, and other interlopers — often including state government. It means disagreeing with Scott Walker and other Republican governors who argue that the main driver of educational cost these days is tenured faculty not teaching enough, and that the remedy is to empower administrators to whip the faculty into line with their agendas. It means that, if we want a genuinely flexible and literate workforce that can adapt to our rapidly changing economy, we need to stop thinking of college only in terms of technology-driven workforce development.

For their part, our diverse array of private schools and colleges should work to do what they can to reduce their dependence on government funding. That means cutting back as much as possible on expensive and irrelevant amenities and taking the noble risk of putting the focus almost entirely on excellence in educating particular persons.

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