College Quarterly
Summer 2008 - Volume 11 Number 3
Reviews Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis
James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

What Robertson Davies called the clerisy—the audience of informed, intelligent and attentive readers which all serious authors hope will be attracted to their books—can perhaps be forgiven if they display signs of crisis fatigue. No matter what the topic, it seems that unanticipated events, sudden twists in historical trends, long-ignored and toxic patterns of behavior, and sudden clashes of culture combine with measurable warnings of climate change, economic collapse and lowered literacy scores to provoke public indignation and despair in an ever-widening range of human affairs. So it is that we may have become insensitive to “real” crises which, the Chinese tell us, are rare occasions that mix danger with opportunity.

An example of a crisis in education came upon us in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The unanticipated Soviet venture into “outer space,” that was signaled by the launching of a small Earth-bound satellite named Sputnik, was spun (on both sides of the Iron Curtain) to betoken a new era in scientific advancement for the purpose of “world domination.” The side-effect was an explosion in postsecondary education. Fear that the USSR was opening a technology gap triggered a massive expansion of older universities, the creation of new universities and colleges, and opened the fiscal spigot as public monies flowed like a contemporary private-sector bail-out. This enormous increase in educational funding and an attendant shift in educational priorities was accompanied and sustained by deeper and more enduring changes in the political economy of the West as automation, cybernation and eventually the information revolution altered ways of production and distribution of civilian goods and services. Rather than maintaining elite institutions dedicated to the production of priests, senior civil servants and professionals (architects, lawyers, physicians and the like), it became fashionable to open postsecondary schools to the masses and to shift the curriculum to privilege the practical over the theoretical and the vocational over the liberal arts. There was an odor of democracy in the air in terms of incoming students and a scent of “applied” as contrasted with “pure” research in academic goals. In short order, the value of “marketable skills” would become all the rage.

Mass education, of course, came with a price. The fellows in my high school who dropped out as soon as their sixteenth birthdays permitted permanent truancy used to spend the rest of their lives hanging around gas stations, working on loading docks and generally performing menial tasks for little pay for the rest of their lives. No more! According to the alleged experts, high school certification is barely enough to qualify for unskilled jobs, and college diplomas are now deemed necessary for entry-level positions in almost any field. Consequently, contemporary educational administrators view attrition as a sign of institutional failure whereas, in my day, it was embraced as evidence of high academic standards.

I am surely not alone in recalling my first exposure to rampant elitism as the welcoming address to new students by a university dean. “Look to your left,” he said. “Now, look to your right.” Then he put on a smile of satisfaction and threatened us as follows: “Two of you will not be here to graduate!” And so, we thought, it should be. A degree was a valued prize awarded only to the fittest, and those that stumbled along the way doubtless deserved their fate. Even those few of us who were proletarians through and through felt vaguely honoured to be considered for inclusion in what was said to be an emerging meritocracy, and were frankly baffled about how we had managed to pierce the ramparts of the upper classes.

Today, of course, no such false ideals ring true. Elitist delusions are out of fashion. No longer! Earnest academic apprentices, students are now customers. Education is not enlightenment; it is a commodity to be sold in the marketplace in the same manner as breakfast cereal and wearing apparel. What James Côté and Anton Allahar call the current “crisis” in university education is a reflection of this profound shift in the nature and definition of postsecondary studies. Rather than providing access to positions of social leadership, postsecondary education is failing both to provide an opportunity for upward socio-economic mobility and the kind of communicative competence and general civic needed for young people to become knowledgeable, responsible and politically engaged citizens. Their rousing critique of postsecondary education at the university level highlights a number of fallacies upon which the crisis can be blamed.

One of the most misleading is the myth concerning the nature of the labour market in the “information society.” Late twentieth-century school promoters insisted that higher education was essential not only to individual, but also to social success in the “high tech” era. “Futurists” from Newt Gingrich’s mentor Alvin Toffler to Canada’s chief huckster, Frank Ogden (aka Dr. Tomorrow), offered roseate visions of well-paid, creative and intellectually challenging occupations that would flourish, while low-paid, routinized, mindless and demeaning manual labour would largely be turned over to robots. The robots, of course, have appeared, but the intrinsically fulfilling jobs have not.

I was first alerted to the vacuity of the post-industrial dream in 1983, when I read a disturbing analysis of the future labour market by Stanford University researchers Henry M. Levin and Russell W. Rumberger.1 Contrary to the promise that computers would usher in a time of prosperity, job fulfillment and an abundance of leisure time and that automation would prove to be a great equalizer of opportunity, the reality lurking behind the hype was of the growth only of a low-skill, low-wage, insecure, non-union labour market in which, Levin and Rumberger predicted, the great areas of employment expansion would be in the occupations of fast-food servers, office cleaners and nurses’ aides. The high tech demand for computer literacy would be more than overshadowed by the systematic de-skilling of what remained of a saturated, over-educated, low-wage market. The education bubble, tied as it is to exaggerated (but sincerely held) beliefs about credentials, work and the economy, has not burst, but troubles are plainly in sight. Postsecondary institutions are, of course, filled to more than capacity; but, as Côté and Allahar report, in 2000 only about 16% of existing jobs required a university degree and only 30% required a college diploma or equivalent (down from 33% in 1990). On the other hand, 43% asked for high school or less. “Clearly,” they say, “we are not now in a position where almost half (45%) of jobs require a bachelor’s degree, as the Statistics Canada prediction of 1994 implied.”

In fact, it is commonly conceded that one of the essential political tasks of colleges and universities is to “cool down” the optimistic expectations of already coddled and often infantilized high school graduates. Postsecondary education therefore performs an essential temporary warehousing function for unemployed youth, while being sure that they are not blamed for whatever reduction in student expectations takes place. So, an important question arises about what happens to students in terms of the education they do acquire? Côté and Allahar make a strong case that, given “the results-oriented ethos so engrained in popular culture, where a given set of ends justify the means, learning is not valued as much as passing.” Students incessantly want to know if what is being discussed in class is on the final exam; if it is not, they immediately lose interest, implicitly demonstrating that education is not valued for itself but only instrumentally as a means to an economic end.

This is just one aspect of the process of commodification of education. “It is in this climate,” charge Côté and Allahar, that the McDonalization or standardization of education has occurred. Cookie-cutter values shape the “learning objectives” and “exit standards” for courses and necessarily dilute authentic education by “encouraging students to plod mindlessly through degree sequences in pursuit of guaranteed vocational rewards.” Active involvement with the subject matter and the potentially critical interrogation of the curriculum is not encouraged; instead, the rote learning of pre-digested information and the repetition of the content of “dumbed-down” textbooks is demanded. The guarantees, as we have already seen, are fake.

Even more seditious is the process whereby “customer satisfaction” is built in to a system that hypocritically insists upon “accountability.” In order to ensure that attrition rates do not balloon and ensure students wear perpetual happy faces, Côté and Allahar speak to the matter of grade inflation. Pressure is put upon teachers to award unearned grades for at least three reasons: academically disengaged students have a strong sense of entitlement and a weak work ethic; cash-strapped administrators need to justify their budgets by pointing to phony “success” statistics, and terrified teachers want to earn excellent results on their student evaluations (not evaluations of students, but evaluations by students). Astonishingly, professors are complicit in their own oppression by reassuring anyone willing to listen that they favour student “feed-back,” despite the irrefutable evidence that teachers are evaluated mainly according to three criteria: the grades they give; their “charisma” and entertainment value (or lack thereof); the amount of work they assign. These combine to undermine the authentic value of their classes and to feed into the commodification system that defines quality in terms of popularity and price – the “price” of a course grade being the low expenditure of effort needed to secure a high mark.

Côté and Allahar also pay some attention to the “resource materials” that have become endemic to undergraduate studies. “Textbooks,” they inform us, “are now the most common way of providing material for students in courses at all levels, but even at university, reading comprehension is expected to be at only the grade 10 level.” As a result, clunky $100.00 “door-stop” books, “filled with colourful pictures and graphs, with key words highlighted, and running summaries of important points in the margins” are provided to ensure that students do no serious thinking. Even so, however, these students have been heard to complain that these “notoriously oversimplified” books are too difficult, while their teachers safely say that they are sufficiently challenging and inspiring. Who is kidding whom?

According to Côté and Allahar, these are only some of the elements of rot that have been inflicted on the universities. What is worse, in the college system they may appear as fundamental assumptions and consciously produced conditions. So, as frustrated managers are wont to say, “It is easy to complain, but what constructive suggestions do they have?”

Given that we are compelled to deal with the results of “progressive” education in the elementary and secondary schools, a generally “permissive” society, and an array of distracting electronic communications devices from i-Pods and videogames to the unreliable information sources on the Internet that are arguably producing an unprecedented epidemic of attention deficit disorder, a disdain for reading books and an inability to do cursive writing, the options are few and their prospects seem bleak. Not since Socrates voiced his contempt for the written word and Plato eagerly sought to ban poetry from the streets of Athens has there been such widespread consternation about the state of young people.

Yet, there is at least one small ray of sunshine. Let me begin with the nostrum, “the older you are, the better you were.”

Ever since Plato, the younger generation has been treated with a combination of disrespect and jealousy. I therefore look to the children and grandchildren of my “peers” and worry some; but, I also recall that my own “cohort” was written off by my “be-bop” and “rock-and-roll” comrades by “the greatest generation” in much the same manner that oldsters today shriek in horror at the emergence of grunge, hip-hop and rap (or am I already passé.

I also take seriously the corrective offered up by Côté and Allahar. Throughout, a sub-theme of their narrative is that a good liberal education is necessary for the creation of the clerisy of which I spoke. This is understood by many of the business and professional leaders to whom corporate educators appeal when they attempt to fashion curricula to meet the needs of the corporate marketers. They are pragmatically wrong. Contemporary social relationships are simply unsustainable from an ecological, political, economic or moral viewpoint. We are in a crisis of sorts, but it spells danger without much in the way of hope apart from the sloganeering of Barack Obama and the assertion: “Yes, we can!” To which the only reply is … “what?”

Côté and Allahar make an eloquent plea for the resuscitation of the liberal arts as a core component of any educational policy. The past few decades have witnessed a hideous abandonment of fundamental educational principles. Whether expressed in terms of neoliberal economic ideology or philistine cultural policy, the fact remains that instrumental, market oriented programs have not only failed our cultural needs but have not even met their own “business” requirements. As the Western world experiences an economic collapse, a “democratic deficit” and what Arthur Kroker has called a “recline of Western civilization” in which our moral heritage has become comatose, there can be no greater need than a reinvigorating of the study of history, philosophy and social studies.

This message, of course, applies equally to universities and colleges. … perhaps to colleges most of all. In my forty-three years as a classroom teacher in one high school, a single college, four undergraduate and three postgraduate programs in Canada and the United States, I have learned one thing above all. Education must never be reduced to the acquisition of blind technical skills. It must encompass reflection and criticism. It cannot simply endorse the social order of the day.

Many colleges have forgotten (if they ever learned) that there is more to public education than the mere transference of “skills.” Now that the dangers of economic “meltdowns,” political instabilities, environmental catastrophes and a serious decline in syntactical standards among the literate and the less literate members of college faculty a (dare I say it?) “critical” change is necessary. At best, the strictures of an obsolete marker mentality will be thrown off and a recognition of the new opportunities as well as the present dangers will be recognized and embraced.

Côté and Allahar have set out the parameters of the dilemma from one point of view. I disagree somewhat with their analysis (though I have not dwelt upon it here), but that can be because I approach the topic mainly from the perspective of a college teacher with somewhat different day-to-day issues to confront. Generally, however, I support their argument. Perhaps one day, the artificial divide between colleges and universities can be bridged. In the meantime, it is well to have cogent and competent voices on each side. I, for one, am grateful for their contribution.

Endnotes

1 Henry M. Levin and Russell W. Rumberger, “The Educational Implications of High Technology,” IFG Project Report 83-A4 (Stanford: Institute for Research on Educational Finance and Governance, 1983) and “Low Skill Future of High Tech,” Technology Review, 86(6), pp. 18-21. For an application to Canada, see, for example, Shaun P. Vahey, (2000) “The great Canadian training robbery: evidence on the returns to educational mismatch,” Economics of Education Review, 19(2), pp. 219-227.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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2008 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology