Laura Penny's flowing prose, her knowledgeable and humourous approach in meticulously setting out an argument to defend standards and quality education, makes More Money Than Brains a must read for educators. The reader may be surprised to encounter profanity including words such as "suck", "shit" and "idiot" in an scholarly tome, until they discover that this incisive social critic was a student activist and union organizer prior to becoming a professor of English at Mount St. Vincent University.
Penny's work of political economy combines breadth of scope and a depth of analysis in examining the ways in which capitalism has restructured the mission of major societal institutions. Her central thesis is a general indictment of anti-intellectualism, as evident in the popular cultural pronouncements of Fox News commentator Glenn Beck who disdains mental work, George Bush's joke that his "C" average as a student did not inhibit him from becoming president and Stephen Harper's sarcastic remarks about Michael Ignatieff's background at Harvard University. Penny states that such examples of a more "money-than-brains" mindset roundly dismisses intellectuals, celebrates money and fame and "dumbs down" the public discourse in both American and Canadian culture.
In turning to what Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie describe as academic capitalism through the alignment of higher educational activities to the marketplace that treats advanced knowledge as raw material to generate revenues in colleges and universities, Penny critiques the "money-minded" who view training rather than education as important in preparing students for new economy employment.
Chapter Four entitled "Screw U or Hate My Professors" is not only an indictment of the idea that the only thing worth learning is how to make a buck, but it is also an unwavering defence of critical thinking and problem solving against the philistine forces which aggressively promote STEMs (science, technology, engineering and math). Penny accuses writers for the New York Times of wanting to "hang the last art history prof with the guts of the last philosopher, to better serve science, engineering and business, the only fields of inquiry that justify their existence with tangible benefits." She is on solid ground when she writes about the devaluation of the humanities and social sciences by business think tanks and conference board spokespersons, at the same time they decry the ability of students to think and write clearly. As a manifestation of the assault by the neoliberal state on higher education, Penny examines the significant shifts within universities and colleges by increasing enrolment, raising tuition and generating external revenue, extensively rely upon contingent faculty and creating explicit career programs.
Chapter Five reviews the basic oppositional discourse of the "nerds" and "bullies" or the "bow tied and the Birkenstocked." The latter advocates, in their "school-panic speak", concerned with students being indoctrinated with "socialist ideas" and the United States losing grounds in standardized testing, are accused by Penny of using schooling as a "political football." She claims that "standardized testing regimes, perversely, reward uninspiring, ill-formed 'just following orders' teachers." At times she is equally as scathing is her indictment of the left on the other end of the political spectrum, whom she views as being concerned with "corporate brainwashing" that stunts the creativity of students and teaches them to be "little office drones." She takes up relevant issues concerning credentialism, grade inflation and plagiarism as contributing factors in the devaluation of intellectualism. Penny makes the cogent point that funding of U.S. public schools is below the OECD average and a substantial amount of funds are directed to private schools. And she echoes the sentiments of a significant number of educators when she states that the current "student-centred" philosophy and the ill preparedness of many students by public schools makes their participation problematic in higher education.
Penny does miss some issues that could appeal to a wider audience. She might have provided a more thorough discussion of equity other than to state the obvious that class matters in education, and she poses few solutions for the current dilemma other than to suggest that colleges and universities should adopt a CEGEP approach of transition from public school to postsecondary education. This approach, unique to Québec, requires that high school graduates complete a community college program with a vocational emphasis as a precondition for attending a university; nonetheless, she presents a worthwhile social commentary on the state of higher education in contemporary society. She concludes that society must reclaim the idea that education is both a public good and a private benefit to prepare students for citizenry in a democracy in addition to securing a job.
Diane Meaghan taught Sociology and Women's Studies at Seneca College for 32 years, and is currently an independent scholar at OISE/UT engaged in research on the restructuring of higher education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org