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Awake inside the American Nightmare

In his 2011 book Liberal Arts at the Brink, Dr. Victor E. Ferrall, Jr., president emeritus of Beloit College, examines the way in which America’s liberal arts colleges, which have traditionally been based on “a uniquely American higher education ideal” embodied in “small classes led by professors devoted to teaching and mentoring, in a community dedicated to learning,” and which “produce a stunningly large percentage of America’s leaders in virtually every field of endeavor,” have come under assault by the culture-wide shift toward vocational education. Here’s the official description of the book and its argument by its publisher, Harvard University Press:

A former college president trained in law and economics, Ferrall shows how a spiraling demand for career-related education has pressured liberal arts colleges to become vocational, distorting their mission and core values. The relentless competition among them to attract the “best” students has driven down tuition revenues while driving up operating expenses to levels the colleges cannot cover. The weakest are being forced to sell out to vocational for-profit universities or close their doors. The handful of wealthy elite colleges risk becoming mere dispensers of employment and professional school credentials. The rest face the prospect of moving away from liberal arts and toward vocational education in order to survive.

Yesterday in a brief piece for Pacific Standard, Dr. Ferrall argued — compellingly, I think — that this trend has dire implications for an American polity already afflicted by a raging pathology: Read the rest of this entry

Beware the American craze for college credentialing

The editors of the always-valuable n+1 have published a penetrating and damning assessment of what’s wrong with the craze for credentials that marks the American economic and educational landscape right now. It’s all the more valuable for putting the whole thing in long-historical perspective.

For the contemporary bachelor or master or doctor of this or that, as for the Ming-era scholar-bureaucrat or the medieval European guildsman, income and social position are acquired through affiliation with a cartel. Those who want to join have to pay to play, and many never recover from the entry fee.

…Over the last thirty years, the university has replaced the labor union as the most important institution, after the corporation, in American political and economic life. As union jobs have disappeared, participation in the labor force, the political system, and cultural affairs is increasingly regulated by professional guilds that require their members to spend the best years of life paying exorbitant tolls and kissing patrician rings. Whatever modest benefits accreditation offers in signaling attainment of skills, as a ranking mechanism it’s zero-sum: the result is to enrich the accreditors and to discredit those who lack equivalent credentials.

Jean Baudrillard once suggested an important correction to classical Marxism: exchange value is not, as Marx had it, a distortion of a commodity’s underlying use value; use value, instead, is a fiction created by exchange value. In the same way, systems of accreditation do not assess merit; merit is a fiction created by systems of accreditation. Like the market for skin care products, the market for credentials is inexhaustible: as the bachelor’s degree becomes democratized, the master’s degree becomes mandatory for advancement. Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly  – and very dimly — a system for imparting knowledge.

— “Death by Degrees,” n+1, June 19, 2012

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