A New York Times editorial back in February caught two trends in higher education today: the proliferation of underpaid adjunct professors as well as the expansion of administrative positions within America’s colleges and universities. These trends are unsurprising. America’s colleges and universities are becoming more and more like businesses every day, with a small legion of administrators being hired in fields like assessment, retention, recruitment, student affairs, workforce development, and the like. Adjunct faculty, meanwhile, are treated as interchangeable providers of ephemeral product, to be hired and dismissed at the whim of administrators.
As faculty increasingly inhabit lower niches within higher ed, students’ aspirations are increasingly shaped by the pursuit of high salaries. How else to obtain “aspirational products” such as the latest Kate Spade handbag, the latest Apple iPhone, perhaps a BMW or even an Ivy League degree if you’re truly seeking to flaunt “success.” An inherent contradiction in higher ed today is the way colleges and universities flaunt their success in helping graduates to get high-paying jobs, even as these same colleges and universities underpay adjunct professors. Contradiction – what contradiction?
Administrative bloat and faculty contingency (“contingency” as in no job security for adjuncts, therefore little in the way of academic freedom, i.e. speak your mind, lose your job) are contributing factors in the loss of purpose within higher ed. After all, if not for higher salaries or aspirational credentials, what is the higher purpose to higher ed?
Critical thinking should be one such higher purpose. Alerting students to societal inequities – maybe at their very own colleges, perhaps even staring back at them in their dormitory room mirrors – is a start. Remediating these inequities should be a goal.
Education, after all, should wake us up. It should disturb us. It should also strengthen our democracy. It should reinforce our freedoms as defined in the Constitution. It should counter prevailing anti-democratic trends toward plutocracy and authoritarianism within American society and government.
Too many students today are apathetic because they see little connection between their “higher” education and living a life that is fulfilling in wider settings. They lack a compelling vision of what education is all about. It doesn’t help when colleges and universities focus on making the educational money train run on time with little thought given to the passengers on board and their ultimate destination.
So, what should be the ultimate destination? A questing and questioning mind. Critical and creative thinking. Curiosity about the world. At the same time, students need to think and act to preserve what’s best about our world: our freedoms. Fairness. Fighters for fair play: that’s what we need more of in America.
Let me give you an example. One of my favorite scenes in any movie comes in “Flash of Genius” (2008). It’s about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. His idea was stolen from him by the Ford Motor Co., and he takes them to court (true story). When he’s asked why he’s fighting so desperately hard against Ford, why he’s risking everything, he replies: That idea was my Mona Lisa.
That line has always stayed with me. Not only because it highlights the fact that technology is an act of creation, a work of art (or artifice). But also because it highlights the need to be a fighter, the need to fight for what’s fair.
I like to tell my students that they too are society’s creators, that they too can create their own Mona Lisa (even if it takes the form of a new windshield wiper). But that they too may also need to fight for their rights, and to fight for what’s right.
Motivating and equipping them for that fight: That’s what higher education should be all about, Charlie Brown.