We recently announced the exciting news that Thomas Frank and John Summers, editors of The Baffler, will be joining the Department of American Studies for a spirited conversation on the future of higher education on October 30. Today, we offer an excerpt of a piece called “Academy Fight Song” that Frank published about the topic for their most recent issue. Expect the event to address and spring off of the arguments that Frank makes here.
The university deals in dreams. Like other utopias—like Walt Disney World, like the ambrosial lands shown in perfume advertisements, like the competitive Valhalla of the Olympics—the university is a place of wish fulfillment and infinite possibility. It is the four-year luxury cruise that will transport us gently across the gulf of class. It is the wrought-iron gateway to the land of lifelong affluence.
It is not the university itself that tells us these things; everyone does. It is the president of the United States. It is our most respected political commentators and economists. It is our business heroes and our sports heroes. It is our favorite teacher and our guidance counselor and maybe even our own Tiger Mom. They’ve been to the university, after all. They know.
Another fact: This same industry, despite its legal status as a public charity, is today driven by motives indistinguishable from the profit-maximizing entities traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
The coming of “academic capitalism” has been anticipated and praised for years; today it is here. Colleges and universities clamor greedily these days for pharmaceutical patents and ownership chunks of high-tech startups; they boast of being “entrepreneurial”; they have rationalized and outsourced countless aspects of their operations in the search for cash; they fight their workers nearly as ferociously as a nineteenth-century railroad baron; and the richest among them have turned their endowments into in-house hedge funds.
Grant to an industry control over access to the good things in life; insist that it transform itself into a throat-cutting, market-minded mercenary; get thought leaders to declare it to be the answer to every problem; mute any reservations the nation might have about it—and, lastly, send it your unsuspecting kids, armed with a blank check drawn on their own futures.
Was it not inevitable? Put these four pieces together, and of course attendance costs will ascend at a head-swimming clip, reaching $60,000 a year now at some private schools. Of course young people will be saddled with life-crushing amounts of debt; of course the university will use its knowledge of them—their list of college choices, their campus visits, their hopes for the future—to extract every last possible dollar from the teenage mark and her family. It is lambs trotting blithely to the slaughter. It is the utterly predictable fruits of our simultaneous love affairs with College and the Market. It is the same lesson taught us by so many other disastrous privatizations: in our passion for entrepreneurship and meritocracy, we forgot that maybe the market wasn’t the solution to all things.
The full article is available here.
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