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Prolegomenon: A word about which universities I have in mind, because not all universities are the same. I wish to speak about third- and fourth-tier ... schools that are primarily undergraduate institutions. Historically, these schools have had few graduate programs and have focused their curriculum on the liberal arts and sciences. Today they are abandoning this tradition at an alarming rate in favor of professional programs like engineering, nursing, education, and business ...
Simulacrum: There is no real education anymore, but I still have to create the impression that education is happening. Students will therefore come to class, but they will not learn. Professors will give lectures, but they will not teach. Students will receive grades, but they will not earn them. Awards and degrees will be granted, but they will exist only on paper. Smiling students will be photographed at graduation, but they will not be happy ...
Nihilismus & politesse: ... Once our youthful, grad school illusions wore off in the trenches of a real academic job, it became clear to us that what we were doing did not matter either to those in power or to many of our students and colleagues. In the intervening years the culture had declined so precipitously that to argue, say, that the work of Albert Camus offered an important critique of the contemporary cult of efficiency that merited serious consideration would be met with silence, incomprehension, or even ridicule. I remember making such an argument in a large undergraduate class taught by multiple faculty members only to have one of my colleagues respond by asserting that what I was saying was merely “fluff.” How is one to respond to such a claim — made in a university classroom? According to the reigning ethos, politely, as it turns out. When it comes to a fair fight the barbarians are … well … barbarians. Incapable of virtue, they insist hypocritically on etiquette — and the powers that be are so vigilant about keeping up the appearance of civility that they may even suspend you or charge you with harassment should you have the temerity to call them on their hypocrisy and refuse to play nice ...
Mission accomplished: University administrators have discovered that a “successful” classroom is only in exceptional circumstances positively correlated with the academic excellence of the person instructing it. In fact, the two are increasingly inversely related — the more academic excellence, the more work, the less fun (of the type I’m describing, at least — for some of us, real effort is fun), the poorer the ratings, the lower the subscriptions, and therefore the less “success.” So why care about academic excellence at all?
Narcissism: Under-educated instructors fill university classrooms, compromising the value of your sons and daughters’ education. But these instructors also allow administrators, many of them without PhDs, to weaken and destroy real academic departments, thereby giving themselves a free hand in setting a curriculum that has far less to do with knowledge than with pandering to market forces and student whims. The curriculum that results from this practice is more a mirror than a book or other object of study. When you look into it you encounter no enigma, no question or “other” luring you from your solitude, but only a precise reflection of yourself.
Lying liars and their lies: Universities, like people, are duplicitous and loathe having their duplicity exposed publicly. They therefore seek ways of obscuring the truth of their decline while also creating the impression of ever-increasing achievement. But how is this grand trompe-l'œil to be sustained? How can you cease to do, or at best do very badly, what you claim is the raison d’être of your institution — cultivating intelligence and learning — while still persuading people to pay you large sums of money for your services? Without putting too fine a point on it, you lie, obfuscate, and “redefine” your mandate so as to hide the truth of your institution.
Spin control: Consider, for instance, the growth of university Public Relations Offices, or Communications Departments, as they are more often called these days. These Offices and Departments work directly for the upper administration, and so do its bidding without resistance. They advertise the university, inflating its accomplishments and spinning its failures so as to maximize exposure and limit damage. And they are often quite well resourced. At my university, which is a small, primarily undergraduate institution with a student population of roughly 4,000, this department has a full time staff of 12 in addition to whatever operating budget it receives.
Functional Birkenau: None of what I am describing here is ever said in so many words. It doesn’t need to be, because in this regard the university operates much like a reality television show in which overt scripting is unnecessary, because everyone — the participants (students) as much as the directors (professors and administrators) — knows the script by heart: be outrageous, stupid, vulgar, and then cloyingly sentimental to bring the whole story to a satisfactory conclusion. The university’s narrative is not quite so lowbrow but it is just as scripted and just as empty: fill your classrooms with the rhetoric of experiential learning, e-learning, student-centered learning, lifelong learning, digital literacies and so on, and then top it all off with superlative grades to confirm the truth of the rhetoric, QED. Thus you may dispense with real learning and real intelligence, just as reality television has dispensed with reality.
Send in the clowns: The older administrative cast, with its sobriety and its appreciation of the real ends of the university, no longer exists. Today presidents and vice presidents act like bosses and CEOs as they jet around the world, post pictures of themselves on their institutions’ websites receiving clown checks, cutting ribbons, and shaking hands, and build around themselves large cadres of expensive staffers dedicated exclusively to serving, well, them. What they and their universities’ boards of governors fail to understand is that we don’t really care about their strategic plans and new programs and buildings projects because we do not recognize their authority to do these things. The university does not belong to them, nor does it belong to us; it is a public trust, a beautiful idea to which all of us who inhabit it subscribe and to which we must subordinate our own interests in order that its real work may be done. Anyone who violates that trust violates also her place in the institution and forfeits her right to act on its behalf.