Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education by James E. Cote and Anton L. Allahar

Cote, James E., and Anton L. Allahar. Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education. Buffalo, NY: U of Toronto P, 2011. Print.

This book is the sequel to Ivory Tower Blues, which I have also written about on the blog, and the authors continue to explore the themes and concerns of the earlier book. In fact, you could probably read either book and get the gist of the other. However, since this book is more recent, I’d suggest reading it instead of the previous book. In both books, the authors are concerned that higher education has lost its way, abandoning the traditions of the liberal arts for the economic appeal of “pseudo-vocational training,” an approach that threatens to capsize the whole university enterprise: "These programs have been rebranded to promise that they will give students an edge in the competition for jobs. As this has happened, the pedagogical value of the liberal education in stimulating critical thinking abilities, and honing the skills associated with effectively communicating those abilities in writing and speech, is diminishing; thus, as universities adopt teaching practices associated with training people to remember formulae, systems of facts, and procedures, rather than educating them to develop a critical awareness of the world at large that they can defend epistemologically, we witness a fundamental alteration in the structure and function of the traditional university and its curriculum" (4). For writing instruction, this approach manifests itself in a lack of significant writing assignments, and, consequently, a lack of transformative opportunities for intellectual growth (86-87). The authors make a number of recommendations (177-78) to remedy matters, but only a societywide initiative is likely to succeed, for, as the authors note, the crisis in higher education stems from misguided government policies that promote higher education as the one-size-fits-all answer to questions of economic development (91). Furthermore, the authors suggest that student disengagement doesn’t stem from universities not embracing multiple ways of learning (127) or utilizing new technology (the entirety of chapter 6), nor from students working more hours to pay for college (139), but from a basic academic permissiveness in which the majority of students achieve above-average grades for what logically and statistically must include some below-average work (69). They ask, “why would someone try harder in their courses when high grades are so easily obtained, especially someone who prefers socializing or making some money on the side?” (144). But, without an effort on the part of the individual student, he or she will not achieve the benefit of a college education, an assertion of the authors that will likely find support in any reader of this blog (65). Therefore, in order to guarantee that students must exert themselves in their studies, colleges and universities should fight grade inflation and the accompanying relaxation of academic standards.

The good news is that at Ursuline we already employ many of the approaches that the authors recommend, such as a focus on developing the critical thinking skills of students (the epistemic positions discussed on 95-97 resemble those from Women’s Ways of Knowing), which is ironic since much of our curriculum might be viewed by the authors as pseudo-vocational. Apparently the core curriculum’s base in liberal education may be moderating the effects of the issues negatively affecting higher education. In any case, I hope that we don’t offer a “BA-lite” here, a trend that the authors see growing, with the more rigorous, traditional liberal arts education being discarded (6). But, like other institutions, we may do well to remember and resist the current fashionable metaphor of the college as corporation: students aren’t customers; instead, they are better understood as raw commodities “to be transformed in some way by the experience, not a consumer of knowledge or a credential” (78). The authors conclude that if things do not change, most colleges and universities “will pretend to teach students at a level of higher education, and students will pretend to learn at that level, but the truth will be that universities are simply providing empty degrees that are little more than expensive ‘fishing licenses’ for lower-level white-collar jobs” (191), resulting in a terrifying situation for both higher education and the rest of society.

The book is available through OhioLINK.