Sunday, August 15, 2010

Academic Bankruptcy, Shteyngart, Berlin and Barbarians

Mark Taylor writes about a serious problem in his article, "Academic Bankruptcy"

WITH the academic year about to begin, colleges and universities, as well as students and their parents, are facing an unprecedented financial crisis. What we’ve seen with California’s distinguished state university system — huge cutbacks in spending and a 32 percent rise in tuition — is likely to become the norm at public and private colleges. Government support is being slashed, endowments and charitable giving are down, debts are piling up, expenses are rising and some schools are selling their product for two-thirds of what it costs to produce it. You don’t need an M.B.A. to know this situation is unsustainable.

With unemployment soaring, higher education has never been more important to society or more widely desired. But the collapse of our public education system and the skyrocketing cost of private education threaten to make college unaffordable for millions of young people. If recent trends continue, four years at a top-tier school will cost $330,000 in 2020, $525,000 in 2028 and $785,000 in 2035.

He proposes the following idea to help stem the cost:

The competition between Columbia and N.Y.U. is an example of what educational institutions should not be doing. Universities should be looking for new ways to provide high-quality education to more students at a lower price. In today’s world, it no longer makes sense for every school to cover every subject.

For example, it is absurd for Columbia and N.Y.U. to be have competing philosophy departments at a time when there are few jobs for philosophy academics. Instead, they could cooperate by forming a joint graduate and undergraduate program, which would reduce costs by requiring fewer faculty members and a more modest physical presence, while at the same time increasing course choices for students. And in our wired world, universities on opposite sides of the globe could find similar ways to collaborate.

I'm for this, but only if we apply it fairly, across the board. Isn't it absurd for MIT and Harvard both to have competing engineering and biology programs? Sure, there are more jobs for academics in the sciences than for those in philosophy (or any of the liberal arts) but consider how much could be saved by avoiding the reduplication of labs and equipment. After all, these are not inexpensive programs to run. Same for Tufts and Boston University with their competing dental schools. (Hey, this is fun!) Why not combine the MBA programs at the Harvard Business School and Brandeis? Oh, and here's a real opportunity to save: form a mega-law school combining the previously separate law schools of Harvard, Columbia, NYU, Boston University and Boston College! Mass production worked for the model T: why can't it work for higher education?

For what its worth, I predict that in the near future, live-interaction with professors will be possible only for the wealthiest students, much like it was in the ancient world. But unlike the ancient world, all the rest of us will be teaching and learning online. Liberal arts classes will be so marginalized that they will eventually only be offered by modern "monastics," who will perpetuate their areas of study as part of their vocation. B.A. degrees will eventually fade away.

Maybe Gary Shteyngart is prescient. In his satirical novel, Super Sad True Love Story, he is said to write about a world where college students can "major in Images, minor in Assertiveness," and where the most prestigious occupations are "Media and Credit, followed at a discreet distance by Retail." (Slate)

Isaiah Berlin once wrote, "Only barbarians are not curious about where they come from, how they came to be where they are, where they appear to be going, whether they wish to go there, and if so, why, and if not, why not." In a democracy, the answers to those questions are unable to be standardized. Will that fact eventually cause them to be ignored in the future, sealing the direction of our society?

I refuse to encourage barbarism. I have been given a vocation. God help me to use every means possible--offline and online--to fulfill it.

1 comment:

Ann said...

I wonder whether the return of the self-taught, book-taught and family-taught may ensue? That's really sad, Beth! Thank you for posting this.