Education Reform: Agendas, Influence, and Capital

In 21st century America, inequality is the foundational social reality. Institutions that reinforce inequality thrive; those that counteract it are targeted as socialistic or Luddite. Even more insidiously, the same movements that try to fight extreme inequality are, as often as not, co-opted by its beneficiaries.

Co-optation is a particular danger in the education sector. Aaron Bady is one of the best writers & thinkers on the topic. To understand co-optation in higher ed, one could do worse than dive in to his latest salvo against Silicon Valley-style “disruption” in the classroom:

[Clay] Shirky thinks in terms of “disruption” and what can come of it, in theory. I think in terms of what the “disruption” of the University of California system looks like in practice, as a complex of politicians, financiers, and career administrators move in lock-step to transform it into a self-sufficient corporate entity, and to enrich private industry in the bargain. I see a group of decision-makers . . . for whom “online” is code word for privatization. If I am against MOOC’s [Massive Open Online Courses], I am against the way “MOOC” is being experienced in California, in practice: as an excuse to cheapen education and free the state . . . from its responsibility to educate its citizenry.

Bady’s concern about Silicon Valley style ed reform is rooted in a larger theory of education as a public good. As he and Mike Konczal remind us, the opposition to public funding of education is not simply a neutral application of economic principles. It’s part of a program to shrink the state, and, failing that, to render it a mere conduit for funding of private entities.

Organizing (and Deflecting) Resentments

This program of shrinking the state depends, in turn, on emotional depictions of various groups in the economy. We hear, for instance, of beleaguered “job creators” who, however well-subsidized they are, find it appalling that a teacher or professor might benefit from taxpayer money. (Even though the government will make a profit of $34 billion on loans this year, it’s the principle that rankles.) Compared to the mythic captain of industry, the “professional-managerial class” shrinks in stature.

Meanwhile, Shirky derides educators as “Teamsters in Tweed,” harking back to his ideological forebear, Ronald Reagan.* As David Noble noted over a decade ago, there is an “intensifying propaganda campaign to portray faculty as incompetent, hide–bound, recalcitrant, inefficient, ineffective, and expensive.” The educator becomes a screen on which to project resentments, and has the added advantage of being vulnerable, since we all know our age’s welfare kings par excellence are untouchable.

Education as Cultural Infrastructure

Thus it’s no surprise to see Rick Scott, Rick Perry and Scott Walker at the front of the college reform parade, with one “holy grail: the so-called 10K degree — a university education completed for just 10 grand.” As Gerry Canavan observes, the predicate for the “faster, cheaper” reform movement is an assumption of Prop 13 without end: ever lower public support for research, ever lower taxes for the wealthiest, everyone on their own:

[T]he most basic economic justification for MOOCs assumes that the funding conditions of the current financial downtown (2008-) will never reset. Colleges, we are repeatedly told, are to face ever-declining budgets from this moment forward forever. There will never be any period of expansion and growth again; consequently “we must all learn to do more with less.” From my perspective this supposedly urgent need to upend the basic assumptions that have governed university life over its centuries-long history — of which the MOOC is but the most salient example — is both a hyper-reaction to temporary vibrations in the economic cycle and an unnecessary surrender to a shock-doctrine rhetoric of permanent crisis. Draconian cutbacks to education are a choice we are making, not an historical inevitability or some unyielding law of nature, and a choice we can yet unmake.

There are public goods, and they are “good” in a more than monetary sense. In a world where privately funded studies in areas ranging from pharmaceuticals to finance to climate science have come into question, autonomous forms of knowledge have value. Higher education—time spent thinking, arguing, writing, and solving problems of one’s own choosing—has value. The university creates forms of autonomy and knowledge that are intrinsically worthwhile, and generates value that is uniquely long-term and hard to quantify.

The current trends toward mass-MOOCification, radical deregulation, and defunding can be tempting to those frustrated by the university’s tradition and pace. But they also promise to decimate one of the last forms of social organization with some autonomy from capital. There is no reason to think that a market monoculture in higher education, driven by the short term values (and concentrated interests) of capital, will do any better than the current system—and plenty of reason to believe it will be far worse.

*Reagan both vowed to “clean up that mess in Berkeley” and broke the back of the air traffic controllers union.

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