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I have spent the last several years participating in the collective hand-wringing that has occupied humanists and liberal arts educators everywhere. There is no point in rehashing the indignities that academe has suffered at the hands of legislators, administrators, corporations, and student-consumers. You know the lament all too well.
There seems to be some sense among us that what we are experiencing is an unprecedented problem; that somehow profit incentives, patriarchal administrators, corporate values – in short, “the Man” – have only recently taken over American education. We like to believe that once upon a time higher education had a golden age that was due, not simply to the nation being flush with cash or to growing populations, not to bull markets or boards full of generous millionaires, but to high-minded, honorable prevailing philosophies about democracy and justice that have since fallen by the wayside.
But, as philosopher Stan Goff points out, the idea of education-for-all didn’t enter American culture until well after the Civil War (even then it remained heavily segregated), and this was for somewhat suspect reasons. Progressives at the turn of the century “were concerned about the feminization of men, the recent influx of non-English speaking immigrants, the temptations to vice of urban life for boys, and a general lack of discipline among the young. The compulsory public school … was a ready-made solution. Progressives equated ‘good citizenship’ with respect for authority.” Widespread education was designed to produce manly men, and obedient women and workers, who would answer their nation’s call in peace and wartime. Football, Boy Scouts, and the National Rifle Association were parallel projects of this era. A flourishing of land grant universities and private institutions – supplementing the already-existing elite institutions – began producing a steady supply of human capital so that America could enhance its economic and military dominance.
In other words, American education has always owed its primary existence to the Man and has never really challenged his dominance. Not everyone is equally invested; there have been student uprisings here and there, and certainly particular persons on the margins have called for radical change. But by and large higher education has never demanded a fundamental re-thinking of the American project.
For example, on the whole, the educational sector doesn’t call for the return of the continent to Native Americans (my house!), payment of reparations to descendants of slaves (my taxes!), the end of industrial economies (my iPhone!), or the radical revision of state or national borders (my scary neighbors!). On the whole, we don’t question the concepts of nation-states, economic and social progress, the primacy of individual choice, or the use of state force – instead quibbling over their limits. Such concepts are the water we swim in and the air we breathe; except for an extremely small number of us who truly live off the proverbial grid, we hardly notice these assumptions, much less interrogate them.
And even those of us who are radical enough to challenge governmental or corporate sectors are almost certain to rebel against any wholesale revision of higher education. We may call for tweaks – more diversity, more tenure-track lines, fewer administrators, better family leave, better need-based financial aid. But the end goal of democracy (not to mention getting/keeping my job) stays the same. It’s not just Arne Duncan who sees educators as “nation builders.” Many times have I heard colleagues bring up “citizenship” when pressed to defend the work that we do.
While we may hope good citizens will speak truth to those in power, we must also admit that most of our students will end up – like us – not as revolutionaries but as more or less comfortable (and eminently replaceable) cogs in the global economic machine. Even in flagship institutions of liberal arts, a mainly white Western canon prevails that is designed to shape students who will foster some variation of American-style democracy, at home and abroad.
This is not the mythology we live by, of course. I, for one, am conscious to include readings in my classes that will anger nice white liberals and Fox News devotees alike. And I like to think of myself as counter-cultural in my educational ideals of “learning to think” or “awakening human beings,” which often involve a soft-focus image of toga-clad ancient Greeks or medieval monks, mingled in with brochure-worthy photographs of diverse and smiling young people doing good works. Such images are what motivated many of us to work in education, and are among the reasons (along with summers, health benefits, and retirement funds) that many of us stay on even after we’ve become disillusioned.
But in the end, I’m pretty dedicated to colleges and universities continuing to exist mostly as they are; the liberal arts education that has shaped me is, in very real ways, my religion. I’m unlikely to renounce it as such. Thus, all the stories I’ve told myself about changing the world are probably indicative of my wishes and best intentions rather than my reality.
What if revolution, not mere reform, is called for? What if we – yes, even those on the margins – have been so indoctrinated into the putative value of education-for-freedom that we can no longer see the ways in which educators – as educators – are part of the problem? If, as Audre Lorde says, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, what makes us think we can somehow make the institutions of American higher education work for something other than the master? Is it at least possible that, just maybe, the American educational system is so corrupt at its roots that we should welcome its passing?
Don’t get me wrong. If the Ivy Leagues and other billionaires are all that’s left when the rest of us crumble, I will be furious. But perhaps, if we take the long view, we could rejoice in the opportunity that this crisis presents – if not for us as individuals, then at least for future generations on the earth. What if our demise will make room for, be the mulch that nourishes, something even better? Perhaps instead of institutions imprisoned by endowments, academic calendars, boards, legislators, tuition discounts, or profit margins, there will be “flying universities,” “artisanal” colleges, online-residential hybrids, or various kinds of micro or macro institutions actually run by the people and for the people, not yet invented or even imagined.
As someone once said, “Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends.” Why not us?
Kate Blanchard is associate professor of religious studies at Alma College.