Sweeping HigherEd’s Crystal Stairs**
*A Drive-by Post*
Inside Higher Ed’s Matt Reed wrote a stellar post on higher education enclosure today. Matt generally goes stellar but he was really speaking to me today. I had to highlight some of what he teases apart.
The first was a widely shared piece by Clay Shirky. It’s one of those broad-scope pieces that’s easy to nitpick in plenty of ways, and others have done a thorough job of that. The core of his argument, though, is that the basic structure of most colleges and universities has not changed in a fundamental way for a long time, because at some level, most people who work in higher education believe either that the last forty years have been an aberration and that we’re about to return to the finances of the 1960’s, or that they’re close enough to retirement themselves to ride out the clock. It’s a tough argument to write off entirely.
I also read the Shirky piece this weekend. I was accused of giving a serious critique from a Serious Thinker short shrift when I said my official response was “eh”. Matt does a better job with what I called “eh”. It isn’t that Shirky is wrong. It is that his scope his narrow, his conclusions prescribed and what he presents as a uni-directional causation is bi-directional. I find it hard to think through an argument that nimbly addresses globalazation, labor market stratification and structural change but then says the intervention is at dismantling higher education. You just said GLOBALIZATION. How do you end up at an intervention at highered?
In that larger context, it’s easy to read changes in higher education as consistent with changes in the larger political economy. The elites are doing better than ever; everyone else is struggling, but cultural myths around merit make it difficult to organize around that struggle. To the extent that education was the preferred apolitical answer to economic struggle, an extended recession has suddenly cast college as the god that failed. Put differently, public higher education struggles to the extent that it’s trying to create a middle class for a country that no longer understands what it takes to create one.
And nothing about that statement isn’t perfect.
Often people take my position on this to mean that I, elite black girl, don’t understand or appreciate the value of higher education. After I get through laughing over how elite I am, I am clear: it is precisely because I value higher education so deeply that I resist making it a social policy prescription.
I don’t think it is pedantic to think through the complexity of our arguments about higher education. If anything, we may not be pedantic enough. The complexity matters.
To wit Shirky’s argument: if you accept declining wages and occupational polarization acted back on higher education’s financial structure then you have to also consider how the production of PhD labor contributed to the expansion of for-profit higher education. Then, hopefully, you can talk about how a segmented higher education labor market further exacerbated race-class-gender long-standing divisions in traditional higher education hiring. And then we can talk about interventions at every point of the cycle of labor-education-policy-agency-labor cycle that emerges.
Not that thinking precludes doing. Lots of people are doing. More people could be doing. That’s a classic problem for any social movement. You gotta stick and move at the same time.
** Bonus points if you get the reference in the title.