• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Higher Education, Its Golden Age and Future

Bookends on a debate.

February 5, 2014

Part I:  Notions of the “Golden Age”

The bookends are before us! Clay Shirky has declared the end of the golden age of higher education http://www.shirky.com/weblog/ while Cathy Davidson is teaching us about the Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.

I don’t know about “golden age” per se, but I agree we are in a new stage.  A historian of higher education, I suspect that probably every age thought of itself as “golden.”   Twelfth century Europe, for example, was a high-water mark for Catholic medieval scholarship.  Ox-bridge education ruled the world when the sun never set on the British Empire.  What Shirky refers to is the growth of that sector after the Second World War and up until about the 1970’s.  From that perspective, U.S. higher education reflected U.S. global hegemony and its economic underpinnings.   His evidence is largely financial support from the federal government for grants in research institutions and state support of the state universities and colleges.

Yup.  About the same time that I was lining up at the gas station in the oil crisis with my first car of the 1970’s, our national economy began to move from upward mobility and affluence to “stagflation” and then any number of economist’s terms that ultimately leveled off to our current day circumstances:  effectively no growth in wages, a steady unemployment rate of at least 15-20% (using not Labor Statics that measure numbers of people on unemployment, but real unemployment), chronic deficient and constraints of federal and state funds (albeit cyclical). 

What Shirky may not appreciate fully is how unusual of a time the 1950-1975 was in American history.  The upward mobility that my generation took for granted and is now in question for our children was an aberration, not a norm.  Like many an empire before us, the immediate spoils of victory went to the U.S., its corporations and its people.  These spoils generated illusions of endless economic progress, cultural supremacy, even ahistorical notions of “exceptionalism.”   That presidents, congressmen and supreme court justices indulge these illusions is, sadly, par for the historical course.  That corporations do not, and just as quickly move off shore when the tax burden or lower wages abroad affect the bottom line, tells you something about the difference between civil and corporate society.

Contraction is a predictable backswing of the pendulum usually found in combination with over-extension of empire, lavish governmental and consumer spending, ultimately a diminution of the middle class and a sharpening of class lines into the extremes of resources at the top rung by a small percentage of the population and a clumping of the vast majority of people at the bottom.  Of course, this kind of change can take place over many decades, if not centuries; still, it is a pattern as old as the ancient civilizations and as obvious as modern ones.

To repeat, then: if higher education is only a reflection of U.S. economics and cultural hegemony, then Shirky has it quite right.  The “golden age” has passed.  I don’t see higher education that way, however.   For me, higher education is in, but not of, U.S. society.  From the Western European point of view, higher education long preceded even the “discovery” of America.  And I predict that higher education will last beyond the fall of this particular form of civil society.  That is what makes us a unique sector in U.S. society.  Shirky apparently recognizes no global dimensions.  That blind spot is a tip off to the constraints of his vision.  And unfortunate indeed, because that is precisely where the power and potential of higher education lies.  Whether Davidson develops that notion or not is something I look forward to learning as I continue to enjoy her MOOC on the subject.

This blog entry is Part I of a topic to be continued … and fear not, technology in economic, political and cultural context will play a role!


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