September 18, 2003

I Was Going to Post about Stanley Fish's Latest Op-Ed...

I was going to post about Stanley Fish's latest op-ed in the NYTimes, but Timothy Burke beat me to it. And Burke does something much more interesting than what I had planned to do: he puts Fish's defence of the status quo beside NYU President John Sexton's radical proposals for reform in order to offer A Tale of Two Adminstrators.

I had much the same response to Fish that Burke relates in his blog entry. I've read the "The College Cost Crisis"[PDF] document to which Fish refers, and I basically agree with Fish that the authors offer little by way of analysis of the problem, never mind a realistic solution to it. And yes, discussion of the crisis is often characterized by what Burke describes as "crude anti-intellectual caricatures and lazy rhetoric about the pampered professiorate," and Fish is surely within his right to respond to this kind of populist pandering. But I was struck by Fish's apparent lack of concern with some of the reasons for the growing dissatisfaction with the academy, and his seeming lack of interest in trying to engage with the critics in order to come up with some viable alternatives. "If the revenues sustaining your operation are sharply cut and you are prevented by law from raising prices," he writes, "your only recourse is to offer an inferior product." For Fish, then, there are only two possible scenarios: business as usual, or the utter collapse of the academy.


Laura at Apt11D also responds to Fish's op-ed. And she doesn't like Burke's use of "the sexist term, 'mommy track.'"

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at September 18, 2003 08:21 PM

Something about closing down departments struck me as interesting. We have seen an expension of certain departments which didnt really exist untill recently like biomechanical enginnering. However, does anyone know of departments which have closed down? And why is that?

Perhaps specialization is the key to lower costs. Schools that specialise in say engineering can just stop offering history classes, instead allow students who want to take a class or two to register with a local community college or another college instead. Similarly, schools in the more traditional liberal arts mold can stop offering computer science classes, directing students to nearby colleges for these. Of course certain departments like English and Math will proberbly be found in all colleges, but stuff like biochemistry,philosophy,music dont necessary have to be. With this "division of labor", costs might be lowerd because of specialization.

Posted by: Passing_Through at September 18, 2003 09:19 PM

I doubt that more specialization is the key. Engineering schools still want their students grounded in the traditional liberal arts. We wouldn't want engineering schools turning out students who were even less connected to the society around them. The general education requirements for most colleges seem pretty important for a well rounded education. So a smattering of history, art, music, philosophy, literature, grammer, and basic sciences should be a requirment for every graduate.

I think schools ought to be more focused on these basics in a broad sense, and less focused on vocational type training. The idea of education to get X job and make X amount of dollars seems to be a killer for colleges. The drive is simply to get the marks and get out so you can start earning. Of course this is selling a false notion to students anyways. It's quite possible to not go to college and still make more than many people who do.

Posted by: Matthew at September 18, 2003 10:25 PM

I agree with Matthew, in part for selfish reasons (I teach English and film studies), but I don't think that the ideology of attending college to become a "well-rounded individual" holds anymore, especially in a culture increasingly fixated on profit. With students being forced to take out astronomical student loans, it's impractical to major in English, the classics, philosophy, or history. In that sense, I think Fish is right to criticize the utter hypocrisy of the state for underfunding universities and then expecting them to do better work than before (even bracketing professors' salaries).

Still, like IA, I see Fish's account as a false either-or. I don't think the cost burden should be placed on students (nor do I think Fish implies that it should), but these aggressive tax cuts will *will* severly challenge the ability of universities to pursue their missions. Not sure I have any kind of solution here...

Posted by: chuck at September 19, 2003 02:31 PM

"With students being forced to take out astronomical student loans, it's impractical to major in English, the classics, philosophy, or history."

I'm not sure how impractical it is unless you were actually planning to work in the field of classics, history, etc. If you don't mind taking your degree and entering the business field or public service then you're probably ok. One often overlooked area by people in the Arts are NGO's. Many of the jobs in the NGO sector don't require degree's in technical fields but they do require strong interpersonal skills. I mentioned to the dean of Math and Science at my school that I was preping for graduate school in philosophy. He said "A lot of people will think your crazy, but I don't. If you can read, write, and do research you can always get a job." I think he's probably right.

Maybe if students focused more on learning, instead of thinking about simply doing just enough to get the degree, then they might end up as more well rounded individuals. Further they might be smart enough to see that they can use their newly aquired skills in all kinds of places.

Posted by: Matthew at September 19, 2003 04:08 PM

Students can find excellent jobs with liberal arts degrees. I'd still suggest that the goals many students have for a university education have changed. Becoming a well-rounded person seems less important than getting the right internship or co-op (which could translate into a high-paying job). This isn't intended to suggest that students are materialistic, but that education has been redefined to a certain extent as vocational training.

Your dean's comment illustrates this viewpoint in a way, in that he comments that "most people will think you're crazy...." He's right to say that an advanced liberal arts degree can provide you with important skills, but it also illustrates a general consensus that liberal arts degrees tend to be seen as less practical.

I'm not saying that students shouldn't take their educations seriously, just that universities seem to be redfining their mission with an eye toward the corporate job market.

Posted by: chuck at September 20, 2003 01:13 PM

Re: career paths and liberal arts. In the private sector, I've worked with several fine British executives who had Classics degrees. I don't think they lost much by going this route rather than the more typical American route of an MBA.

Perhaps universities should offer the option of a strong liberal arts program, with a semester or two tagged on at the end to cover the "hard" aspects of a business program (mainly, finance.)A lot of the trendy organizational theory would have to be sacrificed...but a solid grounding in history might be worth more than acquaintance with the management theories du jour.

Posted by: David Foster at September 21, 2003 10:25 AM

I'm not sure I understand why any universities should be subsidized by the state. The external benefits these institutions confer are also conferred by many other non-subsidized businesses. The food industry, for one. Would we like to live in a society where many of our neighbors are starving? No, obviously, but that doesn't argue that they should be subsidized (yes, I realize they are but on different grounds). This "externalities" argument is just another piece of hokum concocted by a special interest group to justify receiving taxpayer money.

Posted by: JT at September 22, 2003 01:35 PM

This thread is disappointing. People seem willing to pontificate on job prospects without any actual data. I think that's a nonstarter.

Posted by: Skeptic at September 25, 2003 09:16 PM

Am I too late? I read Fishface's column also. He missed the point completly. The expense side of the academic ledger is not a given. $250K/yr superstars are not found in scripture. The cost structure of academia is the number one issue, and until it is solved, things will only get worse.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 30, 2003 01:15 PM