The Idea of a University – Not what is going on now.

The Idea of a University – Not what is going on now. – Stanley Fish echoes John Henry Newman in this NY Times essay.

The Value of Higher Education Made Literal


Stanley Fish on education, law and society.

A few weeks ago at a conference, I listened to a distinguished political philosopher tell those in attendance that he would not be speaking before them had he not been the beneficiary, as a working-class youth in England, of a government policy to provide a free university education to the children of British citizens. He walked into the university with little knowledge of the great texts that inform modern democracy and he walked out an expert in those very same texts.

It goes without saying that he did not know what he was doing at the outset; he did not, that is, think to himself, I would like to be come a scholar of Locke, Hobbes and Mill. But that’s what he became, not by choice (at least in the beginning) but by opportunity.

That opportunity — to stroll into a world from which he might otherwise have been barred by class and a lack of funds — is not likely to be extended to young men and women in England today, especially if the recommendations of the Browne report, “Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education” (Oct. 12, 2010), are implemented by a government that seemed to welcome them and, some suspect, mandated them.

The rhetoric of the report is superficially benign; its key phrase is “student choice”: “Our proposals put students at the heart of the system.” “Our recommendations . . . are based on giving students the ability to make an informed choice of where and what to study.” “Students are best placed to make the judgment about what they want to get from participating in higher education.”

The obvious objection to this last declaration is, “No, they aren’t; judgment is what education is supposed to produce; if students possessed it at the get-go, there would be nothing for courses and programs to do.” But that objection would be entirely beside the point in the context of the assumption informing the report, the assumption that what students want to get from participating in higher education is money. Under the system the report proposes, government support of higher education in the form of block grants to universities (which are free to allocate funds as they see fit) would be replaced by monies given directly to matriculating students, who would then vote with their pocketbooks by choosing which courses to “invest” in.

“Invest” is the right word because the cost of courses will be indexed to the likelihood of financial rewards down the line. A course’s “key selling point” will be “that it provides improved employability” and students will be asked to pay “higher charges” for a course only “if there is a proven path to higher earnings.” (There is a verbal echo here, surely unintended, of the value nowhere to be found in the report, the value of higher learning.)

The result, anticipated and welcomed by the report’s authors, will be that courses of study that “deliver improved employability will prosper,” while those that don’t “will disappear.” This will hold also for universities, which will either prosper or wither on the vine depending on the agility they display in adapting themselves to student-consumer demands. “Institutions will have to persuade students that the charges they put on their courses represents [sic] value for money.” (Adapt or die.)

It hardly need be said that under this scheme the arts and the humanities (and most of the social sciences) will be the losers: the model of rational economic (as opposed to educational) choice does not encourage investment in medieval allegory or modern poetry or Greek history.

But the Browne report is taking no chances. Concerned that students might choose (invest) poorly and thereby threaten the viability of “priority” courses of study — science, technology, clinical medicine and nursing — the report proposes “additional and targeted investment “for those courses.”

The confidence in consumer choice as a means of identifying value will be supplemented (one might say weakened) by a state subsidy that will ensure that the proper values — technological and scientific — are nourished and make it even more likely that other values, associated with art, literature, philosophy, history, anthropology, political science, etc., are not. In addition, strict surveillance will be required to make sure that universities accepting these “targeted investment” funds actually use them for priority courses and don’t divert them to frills.

Students will not only be the drivers of the new system; they will pay for it, but only after they enjoy the income they have been promised: “Students should only pay towards the cost of their education once they are enjoying the benefits of that education.”

The logic is the logic of privatization. Higher education is no longer conceived of as a public good — as a good the effects of which permeate society — but is rather a private benefit, and as such it should be supported by those who enjoy the benefit. “It is reasonable to ask those who gain private benefits from higher education to help fund it rather than rely . . . on public funds collected through taxation from people who have not participated in higher education themselves.” No one who has not been to a university has any stake in the health or survival of the system.

At the end of the report, the authors congratulate themselves: “We have never lost sight of the value of learning to students, nor the significant contribution of higher education to the quality of life in a civilized society.” A first response to this declaration might be to describe it as either a lie or a joke. There is no recognition in the report at all of the value of learning; quality is a measure nowhere referenced; civilization, as far as one can see, will have to take care of itself .

But at second thought this paean of self-praise is merited once we remember that that the report’s relentless monetization of everything in sight has redefined its every word: value now means return on the dollar; quality of life now means the number of cars or houses you can buy; a civilized society is a society where the material goods a society offers can be enjoyed by more people.

One must admit that this view of value and the good life has a definite appeal. It will resonate with many not only in England but here in the United States. And to the extent it does, the privatization of higher education will advance apace and the days when a working-class Brit or (in my case) an immigrant’s son can wander into the groves of academe and emerge a political theorist or a Miltonist will recede into history and legend.

Stanley Fish is a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, in Miami, and this semester is Floersheimer Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law at Cardozo School of Law. He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke University and the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author of 13 books, most recently “Save the World On Your Own Time.” “The Fugitive in Flight,” a study of the 1960s TV drama, will be published in October. “How to Write a Sentence,” a celebration of sentence craft and sentence appreciation, will be out in January 2011.