Monday, June 22, 2009

Let Them Eat MBAs!

It's funny- whenever I find myself talking to a grad student from another university, we wind up commiserating about university work instead of talking about our scholarship. Last week, a grad student told me about her university's plan to save money by getting rid of their unionized faculty and scrapping certain departments; in particular, Women's Studies.

Women's Studies departments are sort of easy targets. Conservatives criticize them as amounting to activism instead of scholarship, and not being intellectually serious. Some stuents and parents complain that a degree in Women's Studies is not very profitable; like a Latin degree, you're most likely to end up working in academia. I can't comment on the intellectual criticisms, having never taken a course in that field. However, I will note that the word "studies", which some take as left-wing code, just means that the department is interdisciplinary- scholars from different areas working together on a common topic. Interdisciplinary work is sorely needed in academia, where scholars tend to know everything about one topic and nothing about how it relates to the rest of the world.

Nevertheless, the criticisms make the department easy prey. Make no mistake- the university administration objects to the department primarily because it has low enrollment: many of the Women's Studies courses attract less than ten students, or as they are apparently called internally, "basic income units". Like the American universities that have begun to rid themselves of publishing houses argue, losing money during a recession is a sure ticket to the scrapyard. Those of us who are aghast that a university would see publishing scholarly books or encouraging interdisciplinary study as peripheral to the academic mission already know the response: it's just business.

This, I think, is what's unnerving to me about dismantling women's studies. We're living in an era in which worried parents are likely pushing their children to major in something profitable- or euphemistically "responsible"; we can expect law and business schools to be sitting in the cat bird seat. In contrast, expect things like Medieval History and Classical Languages to be underenrolled. When you've decided that the academic mission is first and foremost to make a shit-load of money, it's hard to justify keeping unprofitable departments around at all (although, interestingly, it's never hard to justify keeping unprofitable sports programs). It's therefore possible to imagine a future university- a lot of universities- without a degree in Latin. After all, life is about the Benjamins, not the Augustins.

The problem with this mentality- often called a "free market" ideology, but perhaps better called the Middle Class Mindset- is that it's nearly impossible to argue with. Why should societies choose to lose money? Why would anyone choose to lose money? Norman Mailer, who was basically middle class himself said something funny about this:
"In the middle classes, the remark, 'He made a lot of money,' ends the conversation. If you persist, if you try to point out that the money was made by digging through his grandmother's grave to look for oil, you are met by a middle-class shrug."
I think the problem though is that it's impossible to argue with a bourgeois for devoting one's life to anything unprofitable. Why should a student get a degree in Medieval Literature? Have you seen what they pay those people?

And yet, I suppose I'm a 'cultural conservative' in that I believe that culture which elevates is worth more than that which lowers. So for me the novels of Aurthur Schnitzler are worth more than those of Dan Brown- this in spite of the fact that "the market" says I'm wrong on that count. I believe that Chopin is better than gangsta rap and Ingmar Bergman's movies are better than rape porn- according to the market, I'm dead wrong there as well. In fact, before they take me to the asylum, I might as well admit that I'm fine with judging culture by other standards- say beauty and truth- than their market share. I believe that cultural value has nothing to do with market value.

In that regard, it's interesting to me that nobody has talked yet about "letting the market decide" which religions are worth preserving. The idea that a priest is a leech on society because he doesn't create wealth would, thankfully, appall the middle class- although students of the French Revolution might remember a time in which the rising middle class was all-too-happy to be rid of those leeches. But, in fact, all of us recognize certain things as having cultural value, even if they have no market value. There are few of us who would argue that Van Gogh wasted his life by painting instead of becoming an accountant, although there are certainly parents who would rather have the accountant than Van Gogh for a son.

But, to the students, I say- don't worry. In the end, all degrees increase your 'earning power'. The legend of the philosophy PhD who works at 7-11 is totally exaggerated. There are plenty of people in the white collar world who got their job simply because they have a college degree, even if that degree happens to be in Medieval Literature. We have a friend who works in ordering and shipping who makes money hand over fist, and her degree was in something much more interesting than ordering and shipping. The job bores her to tears; but she can buy things that Claire and I can only dream of. She's on her second house!

Here's the punchline though: if you spend your life doing something that bores you to tears in order to buy nice things, it will slowly and surely eat you alive. Sorry. Your parents never tell you this, because in many cases it hits too close to home, but people who spend all day at jobs they hate are not free. It's as simple as that. They might be semi-free- after all, they constitute the free market- but in a fundamental way, they are unfree. And libertarians, who never seem to consider economic servitude to be unfreedom, might ask themselves how they can expect people who are dragging themselves through their lives to stand up for political freedom. What difference does it make to live in a police state, so long as you can get to the supermarket before curfew? Can I still buy a black leather couch under tyranny?

It's hard for me to explain why it is that letting the market decide the value of academic programs strikes me as being as culturally poisonous as letting the market decide the value of churches. I'm certainly not "anti-Capitalist", if only because the societies that have been anti-capitalist tended to be less free. I just recognize other sorts of value as being worth more than market share. I think the priests would understand.

And societies, if they hope to facilitate the sort of life that's worth living, need people who can say "This poem/ painting/ book/ thought/ dream/ faith/ etc. is worth having and preserving, even if its worth is not immediately evident or economic in nature". Some of the people who could say that sort of thing used to work in universities. Indeed, people who work in universities need to start saying those sorts of things a hell of a lot more often to people who don't work in universities. It's a matter of their cultural survival.


Brian Dunbar said...

e're living in an era in which worried parents are likely pushing their children to major in something profitable- or euphemistically "responsible"

Insanity: the kid will be far more productive working at something he likes than otherwise. If he wants to be a harpsichord player, then he needs to be the best one he can be. Becoming a lawyer for the income only means you get a mediocre lawyer.

And we've got plenty o' them already.

In that regard, it's interesting to me that nobody has talked yet about "letting the market decide" which religions are worth preserving.

Hunh? Are you speaking of state religions in Europe or tax exemptions for churches in the US?

people who spend all day at jobs they hate are not free.

Amen. They are also not very good at their jobs - at least when compared to someone who loves his work.

It's a matter of their cultural survival.

I pretty much agree. But I reserve the right to make fun of people who study Latin and then do not understand why they don't have the bucks for a big house in the suburbs when they are 30.

It takes both kinds - engineers and poets - to make a culture work.

rufus said...

"Are you speaking of state religions in Europe or tax exemptions for churches in the US?"

No, it was a pure hypothetical. Maybe not the best one.

What I'm getting at is that there are plenty of admins in academia- and according to Ira's blog, in elementary education too- who are convinced that every academic problem can be solved and every school improved by privatizing the school, running it like a corporation, making it more economically competitive, and letting the market decide which programs or courses of study are worth keeping and which are worth scrapping. If we go by that mindset, something like Medieval Literature is doomed- it's much less 'valuable' than cash cows like Med degrees.

And, indeed, there are universities that are moving in this sort of direction. But, I'm not sure how any of this is making a university education richer or more worthwhile.

My hypothetical was imagining someone saying that religions would work better if religious institutions were treated like companies and made more economically competitive. Maybe priests could make their sermons more flattering to their parishoners and charge them to sit closer to the front. Or work in product endorsements. "And, when he was carrying the cross, Jesus sure would have liked a Gatorade!" And then, the religions that couldn't get their numbers up would be deemed false.

My point is that the market is great for some things- say improving the quality of cars or the delivery of shoes. But that doesn't mean it will improve everything. And, indeed, there are some things that we don't want judged by how profitable they are- religions, I hope, still being one of them.

In terms of education, it's nice that the MBA makes a lot of money for universities, while a BA in Latin makes far less; but that doesn't mean that the one is more educationally valuable than the other. At least, I hope not. I've met admins that would strongly disagree!

Matt McKnight said...

"So for me the novels of Arthur Schnitzler are worth more than those of Dan Brown"
Well, the market actually agrees with you there. For $1.99, you can get a nice used copy of "The Da Vinci Code". Schnitzler's books generally garner a higher price, even though some have entered the public domain and can be acquired digitally for free.

The point is well taken that the price of something does not correspond to it's aesthetic or moral value. In fact, it is often said that the best things in life are free.

In any case, the price of university education is absurdly high. The price demands that we consider why we would exchange our labor for this education. The economic payoff is in the signaling value conferred by a degree, particularly one from a prestigious school.

If one wishes to take the position that the courses themselves have intrinsic value, then why even pursue a degree program? Why not simply audit courses of interest to you? You don't have to attend university to learn to paint, to be a creative writer, to act, or to learn a foreign language. No one is checking Dan Brown's diploma before they read his books.

Perhaps the less vocational training, the training that doesn't lead to a career should be removed from the economic constraints of the modern university. Perhaps a collective approach to the creation and sharing of this knowledge and understanding can be created, outside of the shell of the more prosaic and economically viable courses of study.

With the preponderance of open courseware and other free things that technology has brought to me, I can enjoy things such as your writing on this blog without contributing much the GDP, as measured in dollars and sense.

Let's leave the degrees and the certifications to the professions that require them. The "studies" of which you speak should be allowed to flourish independently, not tied to the huge costs people have to pay to get their societal stamp of approval. As the world continues to evolve, the degree of specialization required to keep it moving forward means education needs to continue to evolve as well, to support this specialization, while providing mechanisms that continue to enable the interdisciplinary flow of information that will make us all better off, even if it doesn't fill our wallets.

Rufus said...

I'm glad you mention the cost. It's a huge issue in academia. And I think there are a lot of people working on alternatives. Right now, I'm working on offering the exact same courses that I'm preparing for Mall University at a local free school as well. What's frustrating to me is that I meet a lot of young people who want to study these things but just can't afford it. It makes hash of the ideal of a meritocracy if only the upper middle class can afford to go to university in order to get an upper middle class job. Universities are sort of the gatekeepers of the class system.

And just like there was a 'housing bubble' and a 'credit bubble', I think there's a huge university bubble right now. The cost of a university education is so ridiculously high- and keeps rising faster that inflation even in a recession- and it's almost impossible to quantify why it's so high. Universities are absolutely terrified that someone will try to measure just what their students are learning because they're not sure they learn much of anything. People go into debt for years to get a piece of paper that says they're qualified to work in an office, which they probably were before university! Finally, white collar employers are getting tired of hiring college grads who aren't sure how to write a paragraph. So, I tell Claire it's like working at Enron three years before the crash.

The free school annoys me a bit with some of its dreamy populism- we're supposed to teach in a way that 'demystifies the hierarchy of specialization'- which is what I thought all teaching did. Also, they're mostly anarchists and nothing I teach is particularly political- well, unless you're a Napoleon partisan. But I like that they offer courses for free, and I love not being required to give grades that are unnecessary in the first place.

As for Dan Brown, $1.99 still sounds like an inflated price for his writing! But it's good that Schnitzler costs more- the only problem for me is his stuff goes in and out of print. I went to three bookstores looking for Road into the Open before finding out it hasn't been reprinted since 1992. Of course, the nightmare would be that the book was popular enough for Ron Howard to make it into a movie! The last attempt at a Schnitzler movie was Eyes Wide Shut, and I can't imagine how that would have been with Tom Hanks and an uplifting ending. Forrest Gump goes to an orgy! Yeesh.