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Can the University Be Reformed?

Some notable British scholars have created what they call the Council for the Defence of British Universities. The great historian Keith Thomas writes,

Over the past two to three decades we have seen ever-increasing government regulation of academic life. It is right that in a democratic country the people’s representatives should assure themselves that public money is properly spent and that state-funded universities are actively discharging their responsibilities. But the degree of audit and accountability now demanded is excessive, inefficient and hugely wasteful of time and resources. More fundamentally, the very purpose of the university is grossly distorted by the attempt to create a market in higher education. Students are regarded as “consumers” and encouraged to invest in the degree course they think most likely to enhance their earning prospects. Academics are seen as “producers”, whose research is expected to focus on topics of commercial value and whose “output” is measured against a single scale and graded like sacks of wheat. The universities themselves are encouraged to teach and research not what they think is intrinsically worthwhile but what is likely to be financially most profitable. Instead of regarding each other as allies in a common enterprise, they are forced to become commercial competitors….

Meanwhile, deep dissatisfaction pervades the university sector. Its primary cause is not the lack of adequate funding, for it is appreciated that higher education is expensive and times are hard. Rather, it arises from the feeling that an understandable concern to improve the nation’s economic performance, coupled with an ideological faith in the virtues of the market, has meant that the central values of the university are being sidelined or forgotten. A university education should assist students to develop their intellectual and critical capacities to the full — that is a good in itself, but it will also give them the transferable skills that will be essential in an uncertain future. Scientists and scholars should be permitted to pursue knowledge and understanding of the physical and human world in which we live and to do so for their own sake, regardless of commercial value. Out of such free enquiry comes a broader, moral concern for nature and humanity, standing in total contrast to market values. The task of the council is not just to challenge a series of short-term political expedients: it must also combat a whole philosophy.

What has happened in the U.K. — though to a lesser extent in the more diverse American academic scene — is the creation of a vicious circle. The more university education is seen in economic terms, as a means of preparing people to contribute to the financial well-being of the country, the more intent the national government becomes on controlling that education; and the more control the government exerts over education, the more it presses universities to produce graduates who can contribute financially to society. (Raise those tax revenues!) Caught in this circle, educators aren’t given much liberty to think about what a given educational model — not all models are the same — intrinsically is and what it is for; and they are given still less liberty to implement their ideas.

In America all this happens less directly, but it happens. I teach at a private Christian college, but in my time at Wheaton my freedom to shape my classes as I think best has been gradually eroded. The two major forces behind such erosion have been the need, or perceived need, to be accredited by the bodies who make such judgments and the need, or perceived need, to Manage Risks according to the dictates of our Risk Management department. Both accreditation agencies and Risk Management departments follow Taylorist principles and are therefore deeply hostile to anything eccentric, unpredictable, or individual. Every syllabus in the college should look pretty much like every other syllabus, with every possible eventuality spelled out in the same ways that they are spelled out on other syllabi, so that no student can be surprised by anything and, on account of such surprise, lodge a complaint or file a lawsuit. (There is also the problem that a Risk Management department will discern only certain kinds of risks — those that involve potential legal troubles — and will tend to be unaware that enforced uniformity of policy can put intellectual creativity at risk.)

These are not direct governmental forces, but they arise from the same centralizing, regulating, systemizing impulse to, yes, “see like a state.” Genuine education, in any sense deeper than simple training, is made almost impossible under such a Procrustean regime. I wish Sir Keith Thomas and his colleagues the best, but it’s hard to be hopeful for them.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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