Symptoms of the Public Good Challenge

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What are the symptoms of the public good challenge facing higher education?

The challenge facing higher education is complex and not easily summarized in a simple description.  As higher education becomes increasingly aligned with the private good, many negative effects emerge.  The symptoms are many:

Our Understanding of the World

Truth suffers.  In response to “market forces,” financial resources, research support, and young talent flows into schools favored by the demands of the corporate sector.  Meanwhile, disciplines and colleges less favored by the marketplace languish (relative to their counterparts) with fewer resources, fewer students, fewer outlets for their research.  Inexorably our scholarship, our conceptualization of knowledge, and eventually our sense of “truth” about the world becomes distorted.

Our View of What Matters

“Utility” and “practicality” become defined in terms that originate in the marketplace and consequently reflect a narrow view of science and progress.  Federal research support becomes concentrated in a small number of fields, and over time, the bureaucracies that manage the process of funding such support develop their own reasons for dominance.  Competing views of what could constitute useful knowledge become marginalized.  Over the last quarter century, our consensus view of “what matters” has often come at the expense of good teaching, the undergraduate experience, and the disciplines of study that have all but been lost.

Arts and Culture and Entertainment

Higher education is in danger of becoming part of the extended entertainment culture.  On an institutional level we find that our programs in music, the arts, and especially athletics are compromised almost beyond recognition or hope.  At the classroom and curriculum level, we make decisions based on “consumer interest” about what should be taught, when and by whom.

The Wrong Focus

By promoting higher education primarily for economic benefits, we invite competition on the basis of efficiency and convenience – and we lose.  Most importantly, our students lose.  If we fail to define and defend the importance of higher education as transformational for individuals and society, we put ourselves behind in a race we cannot win.  If relegated to a commodity, higher education can be provided more cheaply and to more students in ways that confer the property and status of a degree without the real, measurable, internalized changes that a college education should require.

The Critical Public Voice

From president to assistant professor, we lose our ability to speak out on important issues and eventually we internalize the belief that it is really not our job to do so.  When we consistently have little to say about what is important, eventually society stops paying attention altogether. The role of higher education as social critic and the role of educators as leaders are lost to society.