Education Should be Radical, Magical, Unruly and Beautiful

Why We Should Fear University, Inc. Against the corporate taming of the American college is the provocative title of a New York Times magazine article by recently minted Purdue Ph.D. Fredrik deBoer.

DeBoer offers a messy but powerful indictment of the "corporatization" of higher education, bemoaning administrative bloat, glamorous facilities, glossy promotion, political correctness and much more. He claims, with ample documentation, that higher education has become just one more consumer product, with its producers seeking to please the market and minimize dissent or disruption. He employs the metaphor of the impending loss of his favorite place, a community garden, "... on the western fringe of campus (which) is perhaps the only place left at the university that is not meticulously landscaped and stage-managed for tour groups and the website."

His thesis is inarguably true, but he neglects both the root of the problem and the complicity of most education leaders, from pre-k through graduate school.

I was a university brat and grew up listening to my philosophy professor father rage at the business mentality taking over higher education in the 70's and ever since. Vice Presidents of Administration gained wide-ranging power to make decisions that affected academic programs. Cost-effectiveness of departments became a life or death analysis. Corporate leaders or wily retired politicians became university presidents. Boards were increasingly packed with (mostly) men from the financial industry. "Run it like a business" became a moral mandate, tacitly surrendering to the idea that business folks simply know how to better manage anything and everything.

The latest manifestation is "branding" -- a terrible term. The term is terrible because it represents a capitulation to commercialization and materialism. A "brand" is a manufactured image that may or may not represent anything of value. Searching for the "brand" often neglects the heart. As decisions have been increasingly dependent on alignment with brand identity, the scales have been irreversibly tipped away from the true purposes of education.

This development in education echoes through all levels of schooling. Nearly every analysis of policy revolves around the economic utility of educational practice or program. America's alleged decline in scores on international exams is cited as problematic only in that it reduces our economic competitiveness. The decline, of course, is mythical, but the entire nation seems to stipulate to the sad idea that the purpose of education is to prepare workers for the "global economy of the 21st century." Higher education is justified primarily by providing statistical evidence that college graduates earn more -- a self-fulfilling circle that is completed by employers who only hire college graduates whether or not a degree is actually needed. If you pay people more for having a degree then you will find that people who have a degree are paid more. What a revelation!

The corporatization is exacerbated, perhaps driven by, the expectations fostered in students and their families from a very young age. The arguments for universal pre-Kindergarten are couched in the same pragmatic terms. It's never too early to get children started on the treadmill of preparation to beat the Chinese! Even in highly selective secondary schools and colleges, education is seen as high-class vocational training. Every argument supporting higher education cites the increased wages that might be earned. Every argument for education reform cites the need to be competitive in the global marketplace. College majors are skewed toward those fields that promise lucrative post-college employment that will allow them to repay their debt. In a particularly absurd turn, the Obama administration proposes rating colleges on this sorry "metric," implying that federal political and financial support will only be offered in the service of economic gain.

In short, the academy is becoming a large corporate training ground, paid for by everyone but the corporations.

What a shame. Education, from the earliest years, should be magical and radical. Schools should arouse skepticism, reveal the ineffable and be wildly impractical. Kids should learn to question everything, not be trained to conform and comply. To a great extent this is a monumental false choice, as magic, radical ideas, skepticism, beauty and questioning authority are also the aspects of learning that will have us succeed in the global economy. But that should be a collateral result, not the intention.

School years are the time of life when one can be most deeply alive. Young folks can fall in and out of love, try most anything, fritter away time or immerse themselves so deeply in something of interest that they don't remember to eat.

Today's students will have many years to settle into the often monotonous, frequently stressful corporatized reality of American culture. Why hurry?