Higher Ed, "Sweet Tooth", and the Battle of Ideas

Sweet Tooth is my favorite novel of 2012.  Ian McEwan's story of literature meets spies is at once completely original and totally engrossing. 

December 12, 2012

Sweet Tooth: A Novel by Ian McEwan

Published in November of 2012.

Sweet Tooth is my favorite novel of 2012.  Ian McEwan's story of literature meets spies is at once completely original and totally engrossing.   

Sweet Tooth is many things. A mystery. A love story.  A coming of age story.  A workplace drama.  A book about writing.  A book about secrets.  But most of all, Sweet Tooth is a book about ideas.   How ideas are valuable, powerful, and important.  And how institutions have an interest in countering or spreading ideas.   

We don't really know how much money our CIA or Britain's MI5 invested in influencing intellectuals, writers, and artists during the Cold War.   Sweet Tooth is a good reminder of those bad old days of the early 1970s, when the combination of an oil embargo and other factors lead to stagflation (inflation plus recession) and high unemployment.  We forget how much material progress has been made in the past 40 years, and how for many decades those in the West overestimated the living standards and economic output of the Soviet Union and its satellites.

Sweet Tooth is McEwan's construction of a secret MI5 program to fund up-and-coming authors that they believed would be critical of communism, and be pre-disposed to write about the values of a liberal democracy and a capitalist system.  Sweet Tooth (the secret program), was meant to be a long-run, low-investment bet on influencing the minds' of citizens to support Western values during the Cold War.

How does McEwan's Sweet Tooth relate to higher ed?  The Cold War may be over, but we are certainly in a battle of ideas about the future of higher ed.  

How we think about post-secondary education will have enormous consequences for how individuals and society chooses to allocate resources.  Higher ed is a big business, occupies a strategic sector, and is at the core of future prosperity and productivity. 

What are the big contested ideas in higher ed?  The ideas that institutions, companies, and ideologically aligned organizations have an interest in promoting, disseminating, countering, or undermining?

Some candidates:

  • The Role and Limits of the Market
  • The Value of a Degree
  • The Model of Faculty Governance
  • The Necessity of Public Investment
  • The Role of Regulation and Oversight
  • Variation in Educational Quality
  • The Unbundling of Education and Credentialing
  • The Validity of Competency Based Credentials
  • The Growth of For-Profit / Not-for-Profit Partnerships
  • The Necessity to Make Evidence Based Decisions
  • The Growing Divide In Post-Secondary Services by Social Class
  • The Importance of Faculty Autonomy
  • The Structure and Composition of the Higher Ed Labor Force
  • The Importance of Branding
  • The Disaggregation of Postsecondary Services
  • Changing Conceptions of Scarcity and Abundance

This bullet point list of ideas only barely scratches the surface.  How would you add to the list?  

I expect that going forward the various players and interest groups in the higher ed ecosystem will increase the amount of resources and attention they pay to the higher education idea space.   

We will see greater levels of sophistication, along with increased investments, in shaping debates within higher education.   Legacy PR methods, such as press releases, will give way to more subtle, organic, and powerful strategies designed to frame the debates around higher ed.  

We will witness increased efforts to shape discussions at every level of the post-secondary sector, including the traditional not-for-profit institutions (at every brand level), advocacy groups and foundations, companies working in areas of for-profit/non-profit partnerships (B2B), and those providing services directly to the education consumer (B2C).  The fact that so much that is done in post-secondary education relies directly or indirectly on public financing will only increase the value of having a seat at the table in the discussion of ideas.

As Louis Menand has taught us, there is a "marketplace for ideas" in higher ed.   

This marketplace of ideas in higher ed may not be as charged or consequential as in McEwan's Cold War novel, but everyone involved in the business of idea generation and exchange would do well to read and learn some lessons from Sweet Tooth.

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