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College Quarterly
Fall 2010 - Volume 13 Number 4
The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities
Frank Donoghue
New York: Fordham University Press, 2008
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

About a decade ago, I was privileged to be invited to spend a week at a friend and former colleague’s condominium in Florida. Contemplating what then seemed like the possibility of a leisurely retirement, I wondered if it might be possible to augment my modest pension with occasional work in one of the near-by community colleges. So, on a day when the weather was not conducive to lolling on the beach, I explored the nearest institution that might have need of my services.

I was surprised to learn not only that the college was eager to hire contract help, but that contract help was all they hired. A thriving enterprise, this institution had no permanent teaching faculty at all. The place was a revolving door for educators who could either fit into the various “generic” introductory courses offered in everything from accounting to zoology, or could offer specialized courses in their own disciplines, which would become part or the curriculum when and for as long as “customers” chose to pay money for the delivery of that particular product.

The “business model” of that benighted place was, of course, all about business. Though an extreme example, much of the same mentality has insinuated itself into the thinking of a vast number of educational facilities throughout North America and the world.

This transformation is part of a more general trend that has many facets and is encumbered with many debates about the social function and proper organization of postsecondary education. The transformation is said to be driven by as many factors as can be identified by the diverse interests—governments, employers, research priorities, academic concerns, student needs and demands and a broad range of human and social interests—each wanting education to be shaped to meet their ideas, expectations and material requirements. Essential in the resulting deliberations and more than occasional conflicts is the eternal question: who will pay the price for the choices we make.

The price, of course, has many meanings. The most obvious is the financial costs. Colleges and universities—even those eschewing bricks-and-mortar and going on-line, exploiting part-time labour, minimizing libraries and laboratories, and selling pre-packaged curricula and multiple-choice test banks—rarely offer their goods free of charge. Less clear are the long-term social and personal costs of an “education” that is driven by market values and results in an accumulation of accredited certification, but less skill, knowledge, understanding and wisdom than we might wish.

In The Last Professors, Frank Donoghue assesses some of the main problems that have driven colleges and universities into what sometimes seems like a state of permanent crisis, as educational bureaucrats and entrepreneurs do their best to assess and take advantage of opportunities for “cutting edge” trends and developments in an increasingly “competitive” and allegedly “global marketplace.”

Professor Donoghue, who teaches English at Ohio State University, approaches his topic in a sober fashion. He is neither a giddy enthusiast nor a reproachful curmudgeon. He has a sense of history and proportion. Educational turmoil, he understands, is nothing new. From the establishment of the great medieval institutions—and, in fact, from the time that Plato established his “academy” and Diogenes met his contrarian students in the “place of the dogs”—enduring disputes have arisen about who should teach what to whom and why. His gaze, however, does not extend all the way back to the time of origins. He is content to focus on the last century, and to observe that there is plenty of conflict evident in the recent past to fill a book, or maybe more.

Conflicting ideologies and passions seem to Donoghue to involve one constant theme. It involves, on the one hand, the corporate sector with its emphasis on practical knowledge, science and technology, business administration and a conventional set of “values” that are conducive to the maintenance of capitalist economics and a fairly restricted version of liberal democracy (mainly the furnishing of market choices in politics and culture as well as the production and sale of goods. In contrast, there are the traditions of the liberal arts—the humanities and (though somewhat ambiguously) the social sciences. I should acknowledge that Frank Donoghue’s particular interest is in the humanities, which normally includes the study of philosophy, history, literature and the arts. I have, without permission, chosen to append the natural and social sciences as well, perhaps, as the natural (as contrasted with the applied) sciences. It is my belief that much that can be said in support of philosophy and history can also be said about anthropology and even physics (or natural philosophy, as the ancients said). I trust I am not distorting Donoghue’s message unduly.

The teaching of history and philosophy ought not, I think, be necessarily antagonistic to the teaching of mathematics and science. Moreover, when we reflect upon what C. P. Snow famously described as the two cultures, we can hardly help notice the proportion of scientists who demonstrate not only an appreciation of the arts but also some considerable skill in addressing themselves to issues in the humanities is not small. The reverse may not be as evident, but it would be foolish to believe that a specialist in literature or sociology would necessary be ignorant of at least the elements of chemistry (so to speak). Though we may not all have the talent and the time to become modern polymaths, there is surely a sizable proportion of people whose interests are not discipline-specific. What may matter more, therefore, are less the academic than the economic and technological interests and the corporate ideologies that sustain them. I am, to put it bluntly, talking about the dominance of the mode, means and relations of production and distribution of goods and services as the ultimate determinant of cultural and social formations.

Colleges and universities, perhaps more transparently than ever before, are susceptible to the whims of the governing classes and, more particularly, to those members of the dominant elites who have an interest in maximizing instrumental skills while maintaining cultural domination. This is not to say that higher education has not always taken care to reproduce the ideology of the governing classes; but, until at least the mid-twentieth century, that merely meant reproducing themselves. With the advent of mass education beyond primary and secondary schools, the rules of the game have changed.

Currently, it is a large part of the process of postsecondary schooling to replicate the labour process of late capitalism. This is done partly to built colleges and universities on the capitalist business model for classical capitalist reasons; namely, to run an efficient and profitable enterprise. There is, however, another reason, which is to ensure conformity of graduates to the corporate world by ensuring that they are never permitted to witness and to at least temporarily inhabit an alternative form of social organization.

The inherent antagonism between academic and corporate values is portrayed in Donoghue’s book as pretty much a done deal. The corporate sector has been victorious; academic values and traditions—not least academic freedom are in retreat, and continued student and faculty resistance is all but doomed.

Corporate hegemony takes many forms. The triumph of vocationalism over the liberal arts is just one of them. The prevailing view that education is to be understood as investment in human capital, that higher education is the key to economic competitiveness in a high-technology global economy, and that even (or especially) the putative survival strategy among some liberal arts faculty to “sell” the humanities as a crucial “value-added” element in the training of corporate citizens combine to show that the position of professors in the liberal arts has already been compromised where it has not been completely lost. Writes Donoghue: “professors of the humanities have already lost the power to rescue themselves.”

So, what can we expect in the future?

First, there will be a confirmation and tightening of the already emerging institutional hierarchy. In North America, there are about one hundred well-funded, well-connected elite universities. Their predominance will remain and grow, both as centres of learning and of research. Beneath them will be distributed second and third-tier universities and an array of colleges with highly profitable but academically and vocationally dubious for-profit diploma mills at the bottom.

Second, within this hierarchy, there will be an increasing gap separating a small and dwindling group of tenured professors and an growing number and proportion of contingent faculty—variously known as adjunct, contract, sessional and part-time professors who will supply cheap labour with few, if any, benefits and little or no job security. Vulnerable and desperate not to offend, these teachers (who, incidentally, may be among the finest and most committed educators) make up the reserve army of underemployed academics who will resist the corporate culture mainly under their collective breath. In the process, of course, anything akin to a collegial atmosphere will be cheerfully jettisoned by a management sector who sees no value in a genuinely academic community.

Donoghue describes and explains all of this in some detail, and is especially good when dealing with the internal organization and ideology of the colleges and universities as academic supermarkets. Close to eighty percent of postsecondary educators are now in non-tenure-stream positions and cannot reasonably expect to escape the revolving door. This is, of course, a terrible thing for anyone who prizes academic freedom and academic integrity; however, it is plain that the majority of those now in authority dismiss such concepts as irrelevant in the era of market-driven education and managerial entrepreneurship.

At this point Donoghue might be expected to find some redeeming qualities in the postsecondary institutions of the twenty-first centuries. It is, however, to his credit that he is consistent in his analysis and his prognosis. The corporate college is not a threat. It is a reality. So, what can we do now, other than hunker down, keep a low profile, feign obeisance and wait patiently for retirement with a desperate hope that our pension plans can survive or, in some cases, recover from the financial woes that are far from behind us?

Donoghue finds little to cheer him up in business as usual. It is foolish to imagine that those paying the piper will call for a new tune. Collaboration, of course, is always a possibility but, although administrative jobs are the only growing sector in education, they are not overly abundant and more likely to go to private sector transfers than teacher “promotions.”

So, there seem to be only two options, which are not mutually exclusive. The first is to become an academic critic of academe. It is required of serious teachers who seek to address their personal interests in the humanities and social sciences to become relentless interrogators of their own institutions and of the educational systems in which they find themselves. This, of course, is dangerous in a number of ways, not least that such critics will inevitably run afoul of the authorities and may very well annoy colleagues who are either ideologically or pragmatically committed to the corporate model. Still, there is a certain amount of nobility in quixotic endeavours and, it should be clear, the chances of redemption from the top are slim indeed. So, if change is to be forced, it must come from the bottom. Of course, a single voice whinging in the wings will not impress anyone and will open the critic up to ridicule, which makes adds ignominy to insult.

So, the real answer must come in the form of collective action—through union organization (though even that has its limits and complications) or at least through informal associations of like-minded teachers perhaps recalling some of the clever thoughts of old-time organizers (the name of Saul Alinsky comes prominently to mind). The one thing I learned from Alinsky was this: the establishment can never live up to its own rhetoric. Accordingly, it is easy to expose the weaknesses and hypocrisies in its language and its policies. That might be a start.

There is also, according to Donoghue, one main trap to be avoided. Defenders of the liberal arts have a tendency to rely on the elitist arguments of antique times. The argument in support of “art for art’s sake” is unlikely to win support. In the alternative, the temptation to hitch the wagon of the humanities and social sciences can quickly become a cruel joke if educators try to display skills that are supportive of vocational training. English literature can quickly become corporate communications. Sociology and psychology can morph into human resource management. Some jobs may be saved, but at what price?

No, the liberal arts must not defer to what is and to what is likely to be. That is an invitation to a slow and discomfiting death. Not only are the liberal arts essential to the education of (post)modern citizens, but educated citizens are essential to the survival of our society and what passes for our civilization. It is therefore a time for active scholarship and engaged teaching. It is a time to acknowledge that education is an inherently political and moral enterprise. Such claims infuriate corporatists, but they must be made and enacted. Anything less is a betrayal of whatever ideals we may have left.

Frank Donoghue pulls no punches. His message is not mindlessly upbeat. His prognosis is not optimistic. He does, however, have a very good idea of what a healthy educational system would look like for students, for teachers and for our somewhat fragile society. He has a clear diagnosis and he has a recommended therapy. It will require some strong intervention and, in the end, it may well fail. It is, however, all that we have if we intend to look at ourselves in the mirror each morning and not be at least a little ashamed.


Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy and globalization in the degree programs of nursing and social work at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howardadoughty@yahoo.ca.

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