A Post-Lecture Assessment of Thomas Frank on Higher Education

Last week, we were delighted to host Thomas Frank and John Summers, founding editor and editor-in-chief of The Baffler, for a conversation on the future of higher education. In case you weren’t able to attend the event (or watch our live-tweeting), one of our graduate students, Brendan Gaughen, has penned this thorough and thought-provoking write-up of the event. Feel free to weigh in in the comments, too – where is higher education going in the age of market pressures and student loans?

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A student protests tuition hikes at McGill University in Quebec

Thomas Frank, founding editor of The Baffler, gave a talk called “Academy Fight Song” on October 30 in Avaya Auditorium on issues in higher education. Comparing higher education to an impossible dream burdened by unfulfilled promises, Frank decried the fact that universities have over the past few decades been increasingly run as businesses that value profits over the interests of students. Though his jeremiad was quite effective in articulating some of the problems presently occurring in higher education, his solutions were less clear.

Frank began the talk by describing the perception of the American university system as a dreamlike utopia of infinite possibility. Then all of a sudden, he said, recent college graduates wake up from the dream to discover themselves $100,000 in debt with no prospects to speak of, despite the pervasive myth that their college degree grants automatic entry into the professional managerial class. Frank was careful to differentiate between a college degree and a college education, the former being what is thought of as the single most important credential to obtaining a career.

According to Frank, universities themselves are guilty of perpetuating this myth of self-importance. They are driven by what he called academic capitalism, selling promises to students but acting in their own institutional best interests, calling Harvard, for example, a “hedge fund with a university attached to it.” Frank cautioned against universities functioning like businesses that answer to the needs of the marketplace.

He claimed college students also feed into the problem, calling them cash cows who are duped into believing a college education is necessary. Like lambs to the slaughter, said Frank, they sign a student loan application, a blank check drawn on their own future, not knowing what they are getting themselves into. Once in college, they are trapped by the high cost of textbooks and ever-increasing tuition. Afterward they are saddled with huge amounts of student loan debt.

Higher education has been undergoing what he called deprofessionalization, and the bulk of the teaching is now done by low-ranking faculty with no tenure, benefits, or job security. University budgets go toward things like fancy architecture, sports stadiums, food courts, and celebrity professors with no academic credentials such as General David Petraeus and Chelsea Clinton, who was given a high-ranking position despite not have finished her doctorate. Perhaps most importantly, higher and higher percentages of university budgets are spent on an increasing number of administrators, whom Frank believes are largely unnecessary. Instead of a dreamlike utopia, said Frank, the American higher education system has become a “dystopia brought about by parasites and billionaires.”

The problem will remain unnoticed, said Frank, until there is an eventual breaking point: a bursting bubble that would take the form of a debt-driven failure of a prestigious university. The failure, he said, will inevitably be blamed on socialism, and the solution will be more standardized tests and more number-crunching administrators to monitor budgets and standards. There will be a mass faculty extinction that will miraculously spare administrators, and as a result humanities education will only be available to the very rich.

At the end of the talk, Frank outlined some components that would begin to reverse the process of marketization in higher education. Ideally, college should be very cheap, he said, with greater subsidies from the state. Universities should reduce the number of adjuncts and get rid of most administrators. Student loan debt should be forgiven in bankruptcy. Finally, he suggested college students speak up for their own interests and strike for better higher education. Though he did mention a recent event in Quebec where students were able to negotiate for lower tuition, one wonders if he truly believes college students would be able to successfully organize on a grand scale, given that he previously portrayed them as unsophisticated and charmingly naïve (though perhaps it takes a bit of youthful naivete to proceed when the odds are not in your favor).

In the question and answer session that followed, several audience members brought up good points. What about the positive experiences and transformations of students? What about the fact that universities continue to be at the forefront of scientific and intellectual innovation? Why isn’t the solution to dream more, rather than less? Frank acknowledged the transformative power of college but again lamented the fact that it has largely been captured by market logic. He then described an intellectual epiphany that he had in college when he used to be a Republican, though surely he must have had a more significant transformative experience than that.

But let’s face it – the climate of higher education was much different then. The cost of tuition and textbooks was much lower. University budgets were not burdened by cadres of administrators, and a significantly greater portion of the teaching was done by tenured (or soon-to-be-tenured) faculty rather than adjuncts. The high cost of a college education today has made it increasingly more difficult for even the middle class to attend, let alone those from lower socioeconomic classes. This makes the privileges afforded to certain groups (based on race, gender, and class) even more pronounced. Despite a somewhat condescending view of the ones who should be central to the story – college students – “Academy Fight Song” described quite effectively some of the main problems facing higher education today: belief in the necessity of a college degree, skyrocketing debt, shrinking budgets that have decimated some humanities departments, and a proliferation of administrators. But as I’m sure even Thomas Frank knows, outlining the problems is much easier than articulating realistic solutions.

Announcement: Thomas Frank’s Take on Higher Education in The Baffler

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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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Announcement: The Baffler Joins American Studies for Discussion on Higher Ed

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Guys. Deep breath. You are about to learn some awesome, awesome news.

We’re extremely excited to announce to you that John Summers and Thomas Frank – the editors of The Baffler – will be joining the Department of American Studies for a conversation about the future of higher education. The event will take place on Wednesday, October 30, exact time and location TBD. We’ll keep you posted with further details on Facebook, Twitter, and right here at AMS :: ATX.

Here is a brief synopsis of the event’s guiding questions:

College is the best thing in the world; college is a complete ripoff. How are these two statements compatible? How do they differ? How can we assess the campus battles of this era, which are more focused on money than the niceties of Western Civ. and Great Books? And what are we to make of the fact that a college education, which was essentially free for the World War II generation, serves today to fasten the bonds of inescapable indebtedness to an entire generation of students?

John Summers is the editor-in-chief of The Baffler and founder and president of the Baffler Foundation. He’s the author of an essay collection, Every Fury on Earth, and editor of three collections of cultural criticism: The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills, Dwight Macdonald’s Masscult and Midcult, and James Agee’s Cotton Tenants. He received his PhD in intellectual history from the University of Rochester in 2006. From 2000 to 2007 he taught social studies at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Thomas Frank is the founding editor of The Baffler and the Easy Chair columnist at Harper’s. He is the author of five books, including What’s the Matter with Kansas? and Pity the Billionaire, both national bestsellers. He has been a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a guest columnist for the New York Times. In 2004 he was awarded a Lannan Literary Fellowship for Nonfiction. He received his PhD in history from the University of Chicago and now lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

Announcement: Interview with Kelli Schultz, AMS Senior and Dean’s Distinguished Graduate

Today, we’re pleased to share with you an interview with one of our undergraduates, Kelli Schultz, who was recently recognized as one of only twelve Dean’s Distinguished Graduates in the College of Liberal Arts at UT. Congratulations to Kelli on this very prestigious honor!

What was/is your favorite class in American Studies?

I loved Prof. Ware’s AMS 310: Intro to American Studies course. I have taken a lot of specialized AMS 370 courses which I loved but I’m intrigued by how each professor teaches the whole story of American History in one semester. Her underlying mission, it seemed, was to tell the untold accounts of US History, the ones you weren’t told in high school. We learned about the Carlisle Indian School, Japanese Internment and Coney Island. This was the first class I took in the Department and it sparked my interest in the pedagogy of social studies, which I ultimately ended up writing my honors thesis on.

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