I have said before that there is something about a cultural object when it crosses over into parody. It can either signal that the object’s legitimacy is so established that it’s ripe for poking a few holes. Think about a comedy sketch about bloviating Harvard professors, for instance. No one thinks the joke undermines Harvard’s prestige. In a weird way, the joke being rooted in privilege, no matter how annoying or out-of-touch, mostly reaffirms the cultural belief that Harvard is elite. That’s a net win for a place in Harvard’s position.
But, let’s say your product hasn’t quite achieved the golden ticket that is “taken-for-grantedness” in our culture. That’s the idea that something is seen as so natural and “right”, that challenging it’s rightness would be a social violation. For example, few people question anymore that college is a “good” thing. Sure, we ask if it should be so expensive, if it should look the way it does, etc. But the idea that college is a right, normal thing to aspire to and to achieve is pretty well established…for some colleges.
I have argued that part of the reason for-profit colleges must work so hard to defend their political right to exist — Senate hearings, legal cases, regulation — is because they are not fully ensconced in the cultural rightness of “real” college in the social imaginary. Something about them seems “off” to people. That leaves for-profit colleges vulnerable to attacks that traditional colleges do not face. For example, when for-profit leaders say that there are traditional colleges with graduation rates as bad or worse than theirs? They’re not lying. But those colleges benefit from the taken-for-grantedness of being considered a “real” college so you’re unlikely to see them in front of the Senate any time soon.
I say all that to say that when the joke is on you and you do not have the cover of rightness, you might need to worry. The joke could become taken for granted before you are and turning the tide against “rightness” is an uphill battle.
With that I give you SNL’s “The University of Westfield Online”, which I assume conflates online with for-profit like most people who aren’t higher education wonks usually do.
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