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You Failed. Now What?

Iain Pears calls for a new model for the humanities, telling A.C. Grayling that he and his generation had their opportunity to protect the humanities, and they failed, miserably. Instead of coming together to create a shared vision, they squabbled over course modules, created inhospitable departments filled with petty competition and back-stabbing peer review, and spent their time and energy setting course for their own individual success stories—every tub on its own bottom.

If the purpose of higher education is to create engaged, critical thinkers, then we have failed. If the purpose of higher education is to create economically productive workers, then we have also failed. Can we create a model that simultaneously meets the demands of democracy and capitalism? Or is education, like health care, doomed to sit at the uncomfortable crossroads between our political dreams and our economic realities?

If our institutions and our governments are obsessed with higher education’s bottom line, with growing revenues rather than growing engagement, then we must be honest with ourselves and admit to providing a private good that reserves critical thinking for the elite and workforce development for the rest. Although I am a strong advocate for fiscal responsibility, the move from fiscal responsibility to increased revenue generation is a dangerous one for nonprofits, taking institutions well beyond a goal of responsibility and into one of institutional greed.

What type of intellectual community is created by institutions and governments that evaluate higher education on its ability to meet the demands of the market? Does market-driven higher education even need an intellectual community? Isn’t it almost certain that an intellectual community just gets in the way of matching course outcomes to an employer’s immediate needs? Do we alter our conceptions of intellectual communities, or do we refine the goals of higher education?

What if, instead, we became obsessed with public engagement and critical thinking? (Some of you will say that we are obsessed with critical thinking, but I see the phrase more as a sound bite and a buzzword than a true obsession.) What if programs were evaluated on the basis of whether they uphold democratic ideals rather than exceed fiscal targets?

Perhaps we cannot afford to focus on public engagement and democratic ideals. Perhaps our president’s goal of remaining competitive is driven by our current economic reality rather than a vision for the future. There is an urgency to create more jobs today, and that often trumps creating a better society for tomorrow.

If that’s the case, and I believe it is, then we need to do both, and we need people who are willing to bring the realities of capitalism and the ideals of democracy together to create a shared vision for the future of higher education.

I will end with a particularly telling quote from Iain Pears:

Such people should not now be delivering lectures about saving the humanities: they had their chance to do so, and they blew it. It is time they stood aside.

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