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The Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education

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The great under-reported crime against education by corporate America is not the buying and selling of schools by for-profit corporations; that this is a significant threat to education is indubitable and well-documented. But the little-discussed threat to education is the deliberate “hollowing-out” of education from within—i.e. by the philosophy which views education, especially at and up through the community-college level, as preparing students to take jobs in the business world upon their graduation, rather than to learn the art of deepening their distinctly human character by engaging in learning and reflection through courses and content that cannot be bought or sold in the business world, such as philosophy, art, humanities, the history of human cultures, logic and critical thinking, ethical decision-making, etc. These are all activities the deepening of which has traditionally been seen as part of the very definition of a college-level education. These are the activities usually called “academic,” and their function was to deepen and expand the humans who engaged in them, in what, for many students, would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

There are three ways in particular in which this hollowing out is being done: emphasis on and money thrown into “basic skills” courses, used to get students to levels of reading and writing they need for jobs; emphasis on “student success,” defined as the numbers of students who pass a given course; and deliberately starving, reducing, and eliminating programs that widen student’s views and teach them to rationally reflect on and analyze their society and its trends.

The focal point of this corporate shift in educational philosophy is clearly reflected in President Obama’s so-called “community college initiative.” That Obama’s plan is not advocating academic education, but turning college-level education into job training, was put succinctly in a news story on PBS, which characterized Obama’s community college proposal as “a plan to better connect the training of students at community colleges with specific types of jobs in the marketplace.” Even more specifically, “the plan would offer $600 million in grants to support job-driven training, like apprenticeships, that will expand partnerships with industry, businesses, unions, community colleges, and training organizations to train workers in the skills they need,” said a White House statement. (April 14, 2014).

According to the White House’s own press releases, “The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act includes $2 billion over four years for community college and career training. These resources will help community colleges and other institutions develop, improve, and provide education and training, suitable for workers who are eligible for trade adjustment assistance. The initiative will be housed at the Department of Labor and implemented in close cooperation with the Department of Education.”

Note, too, that Obama’s plan also stipulates where students will see the most direct influence of that $2 billion: the offer of free tuition being touted by the administration would apply to students who maintain a grade point average of 2.5 or better.

So connect the dots of Obama’s plan: emphasis on higher graduation rates, minimal GPA (B average) requirements, teaching basic skills to be used for jobs, and focus on cooperatives between corporations and colleges so that the latter is used as a free (or very cheap) training ground for the former, and one can see the planned trend: community colleges are now to become the new vocational schools for American industry, not the traditional less expensive way to begin one’s collegiate-level academic studies before transferring to a four-year college. Add to that the increased pressure for grade inflation in order to increase the numbers of passing students per class, in order increase the graduation numbers, in order to receive more federal money under Obama’s plan for colleges, and the true academic experience of providing a college education all but disappears, replaced by a “get ‘em ready for the workplace—as quickly as you can (i.e. pass ‘em!)—so we can make our money” educational philosophy,” with the clearly implied enjoinder: “…and for godssake stop teaching them to think about things or to know human or cultural history!”

This latter phrase was not simply added for effect. Part of the process of corporatizing education through the philosophy of administrators currently running America’s colleges has been the deliberate shrinking or even the killing-off of philosophy and humanities departments in higher education, both at community colleges and four-year colleges, across the nation. This is a well-documented development, but it is not often tied to the philosophy behind it. But in brief, one cannot be a critical thinker, or engage in deepening one’s knowledge of human ideas or cultural development, if one is to be an employee of an American business. The corporate philosophy which is killing such programs does so primarily for two reasons: 1) such education does not have a monetary payback for the business world; 2) critical thinkers and those with knowledge are dangerous to corporate hegemony. (Former CEO’s have told me this directly, although not in these terms.)

For more evidence of the corporate philosophy that has infiltrated and changed college education, over-and-above this “reading and writing” and job training focus, note how the corporate “bottom line” mentality now prevails in administrative decisions concerning which courses and majors are maintained. For one example, in every college course now, there must be a pre-determined measureable outcome of student success—the latter defined as the numbers of students who pass the course—that justifies the retention of the course and/or its instructor. The goals are called “Student Learning Outcomes,” and the vocabulary of each such outcome must be specifically formulated in such a way that an examining administrator can quantify the “successful” outcomes by how many students pass the objective and then pass the course. Aside from the obvious fact that the education process cannot be so quantified—that there are significant elements of education that are qualitative in nature, such as expanding the student’s intellectual horizon, whether they pass the objective or the course or not—this “downward pressure” from the institutional custodians now in control of the education system results directly in grade-inflation and also in reduction in emphasis on content, the latter of which is certainly a part of the definition of “higher education.” Now, instead of focusing on students learning content, deepening their understanding of themselves and their societies, and developing a self-conscious worldview, college education is being measured strictly by its outcome in terms of total numbers of “successful” students.

Diane Ravitch summarized this new method succinctly. In her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, she summarizes the situation quite well: “In recent decades, the utilitarian argument for higher education has nearly supplanted understanding the role of higher education in developing intellectual, cultural, political, and aesthetic judgements…These are the fruits of higher education as distinct from vocational education. It may be a vain hope, but we should continue to urge our policy makers not to lose sight of the intangible values of higher education as they promote higher college graduation rates” (p. 83).

Good advice, and something which needs to be done. However, since the proverbial horse has already left the barn, the chances are slim that simply urging policymakers not to capitulate educational philosophy to the capitalistic philosophy of means-ends quantification and profitability will stem the tide of a shift in American educational philosophy that began in the 1990’s. It is likely that more active measures will have to be engaged, such as nonviolent resistance to this devolution of education into a branch of corporate America through refusal to cooperate in the hollowing-out of education. It will have to start with organized faculty setting limits to such corporatizing by refusals to cooperate with it.

No one is arguing here that teaching basic skills and offering job training should never be a part of a community college’s mission. But when that type of training becomes the primary emphasis of community college education, as it does both in Obama’s “community college initiative” and in current administrative practice in colleges today, and when it is made clear that this corporate educational philosophy determines where the money for education will be funneled, then the mission and value of a distinctively academic education are clearly at risk.

Most importantly for our democracy, when students are perceived as “future laborers,” when the college curriculum emphasizes skills needed for the marketplace, with downward pressure put on human disciplines such as philosophy and humanities (to name but two), and with added downward pressure from the top for grade inflation in order to gain more money for the college, at the risk of an instructor and/or course being cut completely, then ignorance and irrationality come to rule the day, in education, in culture, and in politics. Contrary to that, witness the stark warning from Thomas Jefferson about drifting from studying the human arts and sciences in academia. Jefferson himself was a staunch supporter of what has been, until lately, the traditional definition of college education. He believed that such studies were inestimable in having a functioning democracy: “In a republican nation, whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance.” He added to that the critical need for “an informed citizenry” in the democratic process. As he wrote to his nephew, an integrated, cross-disciplinary college education enhances just that process by providing the skills and information content needed for “the art of reasoning.”

The bottom line is that there is something in our humanity being lost when the national philosophy of education becomes a means-to-an-end capitalist-oriented enterprise. The understanding of who we are and where we have been as a country and as a species, along with being able to improve our ability to reflect and think, to learn new content that is interesting and informative rather than just useful for the directly practical end of employment, are all valuable and significant parts of being a human. But when students become simply commoditized as mere future job-holders, when education is defined as the numbers of successful passing grades in courses and in graduation numbers, when content-based education that deepens the human mind and widens the human perspective are downplayed as “irrelevant” to the marketplace, and when education is hollowed out into a matter of creating new or better employees, as Obama’s plan clearly states, then education is clearly in trouble in America. Note that this danger to education is not due to teacher incompetence, as the media and right-wing politicians like to portray it. It is because of a lack of vision from those politicians and college administrators who cannot see anything but the flow of money, and who are allowing the revered institutions to be hollowed out and die by using them as conduits of capital.

Robert Abele holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Marquette University and M.A. degrees in Theology and Divinity. He is a professor of philosophy at Diablo Valley College, in California in the San Francisco Bay area. He is the author of four books, including A User’s Guide to the USA PATRIOT Act, and The Anatomy of a Deception: A Logical and Ethical Analysis of the Decision to Invade Iraq, along with numerous articles. His fifth book, Rationality and Justice, is forthcoming (2016).

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Dr. Robert Abele holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Marquette University and M.A. degrees in Theology and Divinity. He is a professor of philosophy at Diablo Valley College, in California in the San Francisco Bay area. He is the author of four books, including A User’s Guide to the USA PATRIOT Act, and The Anatomy of a Deception: A Logical and Ethical Analysis of the Decision to Invade Iraq, along with numerous articles. His new book, Rationality and Justice, is forthcoming (2016).

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