Monday, September 29, 2008

Peak Education

A few - very few - in the world of the university are beginning to catch on. Sheltered as (we think) we are from the slings and arrows of worldly fortune, most of us blithely work under the assumption that what matters most is how many times our names appear in the index of obscure books published by obscure academics, and not some fundamental material conditions that have led to the rise of the contemporary university in its current form. As I've written here in a post over a year and a half ago, the end of the era of cheap energy (and therefore cheap money) means the end of higher education as we have known it. Then I wrote, "An issue close to home to readers of this essay, as it were, will be significant implications and challenges for higher education. Elite institutions have increasingly embraced a role as global or cosmopolitan institutions. As globalization itself declines, these institutions will necessarily return to a more local identification, including their student bodies and even faculty. Cosmopolitanism as a governing philosophy will again be the fancies of slightly kooky philosophers [e.g., Diogenes]. However, before this happens, the era of ever-growing endowments will end, and with it, the growth of the modern University. Those institutions that survive will nevertheless shrink, and the educational objective will return to providing an education for the benefit of localities and regions rather than for a globalized economy. The land-grant institutions, in particular, will return to their original mission and will bear a special responsibility in re-educating a populace in the arts of farming and cultivation."

Right on schedule, someone else has noticed the "Great Downsizing" is underway. An article in today's "Inside Higher Education" bears the tidings that "the party's over" (this happens to be the title of a book by Richard Heinberg on Peak Oil, as well). Its author notes that all of the sources of monetary expansion that have driven growth of the university system over the past fifty-plus years are about to decrease - the ability to raise tuition; endowment growth through fundraising; reliance on public funds. He also notes that the fantastic growth through market investments is also going to slow to a standstill and even reverse for the foreseeable future.

The author, Timothy Burke, also rightly notes that this decrease in higher education's monetary base will also have tremendous implications on the role and mission of the university, though he wryly notes that "I'm not hearing a lot of preparation for what higher education will look like if growth is over." It's not just a matter of belt-tightening - "There’s a different mindset involved." Among these changes in thinking that will be required are reconsiderations about the reality of "growth" of knowledge creation, mostly a phantasm by which growth of disciplines and faculty, as well as increasingly specialized journals publishing unread articles, is a stand-in for actual "knowledge creation." The most important challenge we face - not only in academia, but throughout the nation - is to face the reality that the era of easy and thoughtless growth is over. After all, when something biological grows forever, we call it cancer. Burke writes, "I think the most important but subtle thing that has to happen is just that every stakeholder in academia is going to have to develop new mental habits, to stop assuming or believing that growth is the default. At least at selective institutions, I find that in everyday conversation about curricular questions, administrative choices, and so on, the assumption of growth or plenitude is deeply ingrained."

While this essay is on the mark on many points, what is remarkable is how "deeply ingrained" reigning assumptions are even in the mind of this insightful author. He fails to mention, even in passing, that "the end of growth" will mean a fundamental re-thinking of the current mission of the university (notice how difficult it is for him to forswear the language of "progress"). He fails to connect the reality that this will impose on university budgets and research assumptions with how and what we will have to teach our students in the future. Most of us are incapable of entertaining the idea that growth will cease, and thus we're wholly unprepared to live in a world where that fact reigns. As Wendell Berry asked 2007's graduating class at Bellarmine College, oops, University (another grandiose term we'll have to downsize), "What more than you have so far learned will you need to know in order to live at home? (I don’t mean 'home' as a house for sale.) If you decide, or if you are required by circumstances, to live all your life in one place, what will you need to know about it and about yourself? At present our economy and society are founded on the assumption that energy will always be unlimited and cheap; but what will you have to learn to live in a world in which energy is limited and expensive? What will you have to know – and know how to do – when your community can no longer be supplied by cheap transportation? Will you be satisfied to live in a world owned or controlled by a few great corporations? If not, would you consider the alternative: self-employment in a small local enterprise owned by you, offering honest goods or services to your neighbors and responsible stewardship to your community?"

There is tremendous upside to this confrontation with limits, itself a salutary lesson that was once at the heart of a liberal arts education. How much healthier for us all if we released some of the pressure from the higher education balloon, returning it to its role and function as the place where civic elites and the intellectual classes received a decent training in the liberal arts, classic works of literature and art, and the arts of responsibility that are the hallmark of those privileged with the gift of higher education? How much better if admission to a few elite schools weren't interpreted to signify success or failure in the global sweepstakes to join the roving corporate class of itinerant vandals? How much better for our children (and ourselves) if they had a proper perspective on the benefits of a university education, viewing it rightly as the time and place for refinement and learning, not the capstone on a young lifetime of resume padding?

We, the adults, the grown ups, the teachers and leaders as a whole, are woefully ill-equipped to prepare our students for a world in which they will have less growth, less wealth, and less "upward mobility" than recent generations. We view such a prospect as a horrible civilizational failure, rather than as an opportunity to live with dignity closer to home, exploiting the world less and fostering communities and ways of life where memory and care begin to reassert themselves. We are unprepared to return to a curriculum that transmits a culture that has at its core the recognition of limits, care, and fidelity, rather than the wholly thoughtless rejection of culture in the name of "growth." Thus, because we refuse - are incapable - of recognizing the future we are entering, we are above all ill-prepared to equip our students for the great challenge and promise of this future, a future that most teachers will enter bitterly and grudgingly, viewing this time as one of failure and tragedy, a grand betrayal of everything they believed in. Essays such as this one may become more common in coming years, but until we face the real question of how we will begin to prepare our young to live in an age of growth's end, we will fail our students as surely as we have failed to educate ourselves.


Anonymous said...

I have an alternative hypothesis.

Things will essentially remain the same except:

(1) Tenured faculty will be expected to teach more.
(2) Class size will increase.
(3) "Distance learning" will be seen as a more viable way to get a degree.
(4) More and more classes once taught by tenured faculty members will be taught by adjuncts.

After all, capitalism will survive, I presume, and we're most certainly not going back to the medieval (or even the pre-WWII) university.

Anonymous said...

You guys should read Spengler, over at the Asia Times.

Or glance at Table 8 in this PDF document [although note that the PDF bookmark for Table 8 is broken and actually takes you to Table 7].

Or mull over the inverse relationships in these two sets of numbers:

IQ and the Wealth of Nations

List of countries and territories by fertility rate

The underlying phenomenon which will drive the collapse of the universities is precisely the same phenomenon which is now, as we speak, driving the collapse in the financial markets.

This is your future; if you are wise, then you will start preparing for it now.

Anonymous said...

I'll have to be anonymous today. I sat in a meeting just last month in which our university's execs (I'm in a pretty minor advisory role) set out a new primary agenda of discovering "how to maintain our recent growth in light of the downward demographic and financial trends that are clearly coming in the short- to mid-term." Granted, most of these folks are Libertarians, are not true academics, and have been embarrassingly enthusiastic over both STEM and the globalization narrative so I shouldn't have been all that surprised, but I still had to suppress a snort.