Blow Up the University: A Modest Proposal for Reform

by Thomas R. Wells

613-pAre universities places for neoliberal human capital formation, or for the construction of a secular cathedral of human knowledge, or the development and promulgation of policies and technologies for the material benefit of society, or a finishing school to ensure the critical thinking skills and moral character of our future rulers? Clearly they cannot very well do all these things at the same time. They must choose. And that choice, according to a series of articulate, erudite critics from the humanities, like Martha Nussbaum and William Deresiewicz, should be for the liberal arts finishing school.

The diagnosis is correct but not the solution. The university cannot be saved.

I. The problem: The pathology of prestige

Universities have become too big to succeed and too big to challenge. They funded their expansion by promising all things to all stakeholders – jobs for parents, economic growth for governments, a podium for activists, an education for students. They said we had to trust them because, like doctors, they were the best judges of the wisdom they were selling. Well we did trust them and now the university has become gatekeeper to all sorts of essential parts of modern life, from intellectual credibility to middle-class jobs with dignity to scientific facts.

But they haven't actually kept their promises. They hardly even try. The leftist critique that universities have been taken over by the logic of the market is laughable. Paying customers, whether students, parents, or government, are an afterthought. Of course the money has to come from somewhere, but universities have always found ways to escape the discipline of the market. They invest a lot in marketing but not in connecting their education to the skills valued by the labour market. They have strenuously resisted providing students with the independent standardised information about teaching quality and employability that they need to make rational choices about where and what to study. The degrees they offer, even the ones with practical seeming titles, are stuffed with irrelevant courses about theory that mainly serve to provide jobs for academics rather than practical skills for students (and much of the actual teaching work is then outsourced to grad students anyway). One is often more likely to get a real education in ideas by joining the student debating society, and real work skills by leaving for a 6-month internship.

What does motivate the modern university is the pursuit of prestige, maintaining or advancing their social status among other universities? In the absence of a single clear answer to the question, ‘What is the university for?', its managers look around to see what other universities are doing. Like the directors of similar institutions, such as public museums, they no longer try to decide which of the worthy functions of a university – including human capital formation – to organise their institution around. Instead they set out to win a social game of relative status in which their goals are generated from whatever arbitrary rankings happen to be in vogue, such as their application rejection rates, the academic ranking of their professors and the prizes they win, the size of their endowment funds, their ranking in various international comparison tables, the number of tech start-ups they spin off, the size of their football stadium, the newspaper coverage their announcements receive, and so on.

Some concern for prestige may be just an inevitable feature of social psychology. But for institutions it can easily become pathological. So universities become gigantic conglomerates, involved in all kinds of strange activities like risky real estate deals to increase their endowments, lavish student dorms to attract applications, mergers with neighbouring universities to increase their research ranking, and so on. The more prestige they accumulate the more money they get to invest in more prestige projects, but the more they fret over their numbers. Prestige is a trap that crowds out all other goals. Harvard, for example, must select students who are already prestigious, who are already covered in glory and are probably the least in need of a university education in the world. If it didn't it wouldn't be as prestigious. And it is also no coincidence that the most prestigious universities, though stinking rich with their winnings from the great game, still employ untrained low paid graduate students for much of their actual undergraduate teaching. The prestigious academics they hire don't have time to teach and strain every sinew to avoid it. Every hour spent teaching is an hour lost to their real careers, maintaining and advancing their own social ranking amongst other academics.

The university needs to return to its true purpose. But what is that?

II. The non-solution: liberal arts for all

One of the memes currently going around lefty circles, at least the magazines I read, is a criticism of the new political correctness being imposed by leftist students in American universities. They all seem to share one assumption, declared here by Kenan Malik:

The university is a space for would-be adults to explore new ideas, to expand their knowledge, to interrogate power, to learn how to make an argument. A space within which students can be challenged, even upset or shocked or made angry. It is, as the writer Jill Fillipovic has put it, ‘a place where the student's world expands and pushes them to reach the outer edges – not a place that contracts to meet the student exactly where they are.' To be at a university is to accept the challenge of exploring one's own beliefs and responding to disagreement.

Isn't it pretty to think so. But the real world is often disappointing. It is obvious that most students in most degree programmes do not go to university to expand their moral horizons, but to get jobs (the ones enrolled in vocational courses) or perhaps learn interesting things (the ones in social and natural sciences). Nor is that the motivation of the parents who help them choose what to study. Nor is it the interest of the teaching or research faculty of most departments. Nor has it ever been otherwise. With the exception of a handful of American colleges, universities have never historically been primarily about moral development, even if they were sometimes obliged to impose religious conventions of morality on students and faculty with great fanfare as a condition of their license to operate.

When one drills down it is clear that this conception of the university only really exists in the humanities: those subjects like literature and philosophy concerned with the study of culture – the human condition – and which are fundamentally useless and add nothing to human knowledge besides commentary. The purpose they have valorised instead is a good and important one – the critical self-understanding of ourselves – that naturally comes with a lot more explicit moralising than the implicit ideologies of human capital formation or human knowledge creation that should drive vocational and natural sciences departments, respectively. Hence, the humanities' obsession with the moral growth of their students, often confusing their explication of leftist moralisms for moral philosophy or critical thinking – what students really get is more of a moral education in the Catholic church sense. In their hands, for example, reading novels has changed from a private pleasure to a moral duty to self-improvement by training your ability to empathise with the other (previously).

Unfortunately me-we studies are not faring too well within the conglomerate university. They aren't generating the prestige that they used to for the greater whole – see their declining relative enrolment and funding figures since the 1970s heyday, although their absolute numbers are higher than ever. The humanities' rebellion now in the name of restoring the real university, i.e. one that is all about them, is an act of exasperation and exaggerated desperation. Not coincidentally English literature departments, the most confused about what they are for and thus the least able to imagine their future survival, seem to produce the most histrionic rebels.

But the rebellion is never going to succeed in installing moral coaching as the core purpose of a university education. Universities are constitutionally incapable of buying into any single purpose after all, let alone one so out of step with the doctrine of individualism. You can't patronise 18 year olds like that anymore. And the humanities are in any case too small to hijack and redirect the juggernauts that mass education and government research funding have built.

If moral coaching is a worthy goal of higher education – and I think that it is, so long as it isn't imposed on students who just wanted to become better readers of poetry – then it requires a distinct and specialised institutional form dedicated to it. Perhaps more like those developed by religious conservatives (critical reasoning isn't the only kind of moral character worth developing) such as Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Or the wonderful Deep Springs College. Or determinedly middle-brow institutions like Alain de Botton's School of Life, which also, unlike the standard university, welcomes the middle-aged self-improver and tries to takes moral philosophy back to its roots as a practical rather than theoretical discipline. In fact we need a diversity of forms to accommodate the diversity of moral characters that society should be interested in developing. But none of them look like the standard prestige chasing research university.

III. A modest proposal for reform

The conglomerate university has to go. We need institutions that can keep their promises. It might even be a good idea to ban the word ‘university' for some time: the very word seems to trigger a drive for prestige chasing that could overrun and corrupt its successor institutions.

Form should follow function. If there is more than one telos that must be served, let there be more than one kind of 'university'. Let us have vocational training schools for human capital that actually serve students' needs; independent think tanks not activist professors for public policy interventions; commercial research labs for technology development; Alain de Botton style schools of life for those seeking to discover themselves; and scholastic monasteries of pure research for those who want to contribute a brick of their own to our secular cathedrals of knowledge.

Now you may say, 'Don't we already have all of that?' Yes, especially in America where stakeholders seem a bit more demanding about where their money goes. But even in America these operate mostly as ineffective fringe institutions in the shadow of the real universities which soak up nearly all the resources and attention available. In these circumstances we can't expect diversity to appear from the bottom up out of the choices of individual actors in the market. The peculiar genius and problem of the university is exactly that it has made itself indispensible: the rational if far from ideal choice for all its stakeholders. Large numbers of stakeholders, such as parents or corporations or academics themselves, have to move together to these new forms if they are to flourish. Of course the biggest stakeholder is the hardest to budge but the most influential. If the university's largest customer, governments, could be persuaded to stop propping up the institution so central to so many of its fantasies of social engineering then we could really make some progress.