A recent issue of The Economist includes a special report on the state of higher education, grandly titled “Excellence v Equity.” It’s a dispiriting read. The magazine tackles its sprawling, complex topic with hard-nosed pragmatism, monetizing everything, reducing all to the cold, hard reality of economic exchange. A strange picture of the university emerges from the magazine’s frigid gaze. From the Economist’s viewpoint, “education” has no real content; its value lies solely in the “sign” it confers on the consumer who purchases it. “Students,” the Economist claims, “…are not buying education. They are buying degrees, whose main purpose is to signal to employers that an individual went to a — preferably highly-selective — university.”*
What happens when students object to this cynical, consumerist model of the university? In Quebec, where a proposed hike in tuition fees was understood as yet another dangerous step toward privatization, students went on strike in 2012 to defend the notion of the university as a public good and a common right. Predictably, The Economist dismisses the striking students as a “European” anomaly and implicitly sides with Quebec’s complacent neighbors: “the rest of Canada, used — American-style — to much higher fees, was baffled by their fury” (12). It’s no small irony that the Economist approves of university students being baffled. But the kind of ignorance the magazine endorses here is not the receptive state of non-knowing familiar to anyone whose job is to teach and educate, it’s an irremediable incapacity to understand. The Economist’s readers are encouraged to believe that once accustomed to paying high fees, students will no longer be able to bridge the “deep cultural differences” that privatization has caused by severing them from the ethos of the traditional public university.
Twenty years ago, writing from his post in Comparative Literature at the Université de Montréal, Bill Readings penned an influential diagnosis of higher education, The University in Ruins. The author pointed out that writing from Quebec in the ‘nineties afforded him a unique perspective on the transformations happening at universities around the globe. Quebec, as an independent state in the making, still retained a sense of its universities as forming national citizens within a distinct cultural context; Readings argued that this “national cultural mission,” in decline most everywhere else in the first world, contrasted with the emerging paradigm of the globalized university as a “transnational bureaucratic corporation.”** Readings singled out one word from the bureaucratic jargon of new university administrators and devoted a whole chapter to its analysis: the word “excellence,” a basically vacuous term, which replaces references to “culture,” and so is symptomatic of the shift from the traditional university to a globalized entity tied to the abstract dictates of accounting. Twenty years later, “excellence” is now a ubiquitous term in university bureaucratese. Looking back, one notes that the catch-word emerged at the same time as Wayne’s World and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure — which suggests the new university is “excellent” the way Pez is “awesome” and an iPhone is “dank.” “Excellence,” appropriately enough, is the first word of The Economist’s so-called “Special Report.”
Readings’ analysis was prescient. “Excellence,” he wrote in The University in Ruins, “is clearly a purely internal unit of value that effectively brackets all questions of reference or function, thus creating an internal market. Henceforth, the question of the University is only the question of relative value-for-money, the question posed to a student who is situated entirely as a consumer, rather than as someone who wants to think” (27). Given that Readings’ bleak prognosis matches up with The Economist’s callous picture of students “buying degrees,” we might conclude that two decades later the contemporary university is now completely “ruined.” Why, then, is there so much talk in the “Special Report” about “destroying” the university? How is it possible to “destroy” a “ruin”?
The answer to this question is obvious to anyone teaching in the university sector today. Privatization has downsized faculty, raised teaching loads and increased class sizes; underpaid and overworked adjunct teachers outnumber traditional, full-time faculty; the student body is demoralized by the instrumental nature of the student-faculty relationship; and rising tuition and fees have locked students into the all-important need to snag a lucrative career. Under these conditions the university can no longer justify its former educational role. It’s time for the privatizers, the former advocates of the ruined university, to go in for the kill, to destroy what’s left. Never mind that privatization, by removing state funding from universities, is responsible for shifting the cost of “public” education onto individual students. Unconcerned by the contradiction, The Economist and its allies now strike a populist note, demanding that education be cheaper, more “equitable” for the sake of the students. The aim, however, is simply to cut costs, shed jobs, and redistribute wealth upward. Enter the MOOC.
“When massive open online courses (MOOCs) took off three years ago, there was much concern that they would destroy [sic] traditional universities,” The Economist scoffs. “That isn’t happening. ‘We’re doing a better job of improving job skills than of transforming the university sector,’ says Rick Levin, a former president of Yale, who runs Coursera, the biggest of the MOOCs” (18). The passage calls for some textual analysis, as it performs a kind of rhetorical bait-and-switch. It opens with a high-handed dismissal of the idea that edtech would “destroy” education as we know it, only to confirm in what follows that such is in fact the intention. After all, the quote from Mr. Levin would be a non-sequitur unless the idea of “transforming” the university were somehow equivalent to “destroying” it. The apparently reassuring statement that destruction “isn’t happening” should then be read as saying, at best, that it hasn’t happened yet. In the rest of the article, which promotes the supposed benefits of online education, the language of destruction is shifting and ambiguous. Thus, The Economist predicts that edtech startups “will eventually undermine traditional high-cost university education” — presumably a good thing — whereas some universities “are wary of undermining the value of their degrees” — probably a bad thing. These ambiguities derive from the equivocal meaning of the term “disruption,” which waves like a pirate jack from the article’s title: “Online learning could disrupt higher education, but many universities are resisting it.” Clearly, disruption is two-sided, as any crisis has its winners and losers. But from the lofty standpoint of The Economist, capital always benefits from disruption, never mind the costs.
If faculty wield the language of destruction, however, The Economist mocks and derides their concerns, all the while promoting its own plans for creative disruption. A case in point: when San Jose State University refused to adopt a MOOC, the faculty stated that it would “replace professors, dismantle departments and provide a diminished education for students.” Replace, dismantle, diminish: a fairly dismal assessment from the front lines of the crisis. The Economist, however, parses the statement as simply meaning that greedy professors want to keep their jobs. How, then, to pry those jobs away? How to make professors’ work more disposable, more flexible and insecure? The Economist suggests that faculty must be weaned from their quaint idea of teaching as a vocation, or, as the magazine puts it, “the belief that education is not an occupation but a calling.”*** It’s a running theme in The Economist’s “Special Report”: “For now,” the magazine concludes with thinly-veiled scorn, “the interests of academics … prevail over those of students.”
* The Economist, March 28th-April 3rd 2015, 16.
** Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 3.
*** Giorgio Agamben’s insight into the “confusion … between jobs and vocations” is pertinent here. “The idea that anyone can do or be anything — the suspicion that not only could the doctor who examines me today be a video artist tomorrow, but that even the executioner who kills me is actually, as in Kafka’s The Trial, also a singer — is nothing but the reflection of the awareness that everyone is simply bending him- or herself according to this flexibility that is today the primary quality that the market demands.” Giorgio Agamben, “On What We Can Not Do,” in Nudities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 45.