As a college professor, I’m in the education business, a word that repels me but which nowadays is undeniably true. One of the marketing slogans where I teach is “A degree is measured by its success in the workplace.” In other words, if a college degree leads to a decent salary in the “workplace,” it’s worth it, but if the “workplace” does not reward you with a position with good pay and benefits, your degree is without merit.
Education in America has become just another business. It’s increasingly monetized and corporatized. Hence it’s unsurprising that educational results are measured increasingly by standardized tests developed by corporations. If education is reducible to standardized metrics, you can run it and control it just like a business. Professors become providers, students become consumers, and education becomes a commodity which is marketed and sold to consumers. Administrators are the middle managers who ultimately answer to corporate-dominated boards. “Success” for an administrator is measured mainly by money: funding drives, corporate donations, endowments, and similar issues related to budget and “the bottom line.”
As usual, Joe Bageant knew the score. And he knew how to express it in pungent prose:
Now that education has been reduced to just another industry, a series of stratified job-training mills, ranging from the truck-driving schools to the state universities, our nation is no longer capable of creating a truly educated citizenry. Education is not supposed to be an industry. Its proper use is not to serve industries, either by cranking out feckless little mid-management robots or through industry-purchased research chasing after a better hard-on drug. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live responsible lives that create and enhance their democratic culture. This cannot be merely by generating and accumulating mountains of information or facts without cultural, artistic, philosophical, and human context or priority.
Consider the harsh reality of Bageant’s statement: America “is no longer capable of creating a truly educated citizenry.” It’s impossible to deny this statement, especially when institutions of higher learning use the “workplace” as the measure of success for their degree programs.
Education today is disconnected from democracy. It’s disconnected from producing an educated citizenry with critical thinking skills. Rather, it’s connected to consumption; indeed, education is just another ephemeral consumable in a world of goods. It’s valued only for its monetary fungibility, i.e. how much money can I make with this degree? Alternatively, from a provider’s perspective, how much money can I make from offering these degrees?
Increasingly, there’s only one true degree offered by American colleges and universities: the business degree. Such is the uniformity of market-driven ideology applied to education.
Say what you will of “diversity” in higher education as measured by differences in age, gender, skin color, sexual orientation, and all the rest. Such diversity doesn’t matter much when all these “diverse” students are striving for the same thing: a fungible degree that’s translatable into money, money, money.
Update (12/4): When you treat students as consumers, there’s a tendency to buy the idea that “the customer is always right.” In other words, don’t offend the customer with disturbing ideas, such as the legacy of structural racism in society. Better to ignore such topics, especially when the “customer” complains about being offended by the ideas the
professor (whoops — I meant the provider) introduces in class. See this story from Slate for more details.