Free College, Brief Thoughts on

I have a somewhat rocky relationship with the idea of federal or state paid higher education, aka free college. I support the idea fully, but also have some qualifications based on both experience and looking at places where it has been instituted.

In sixteen years of teaching and tutoring at the college level, well, not everyone is cut out for college. And this isn’t a bad thing. Some people, whether a talented auto mechanic or a trust fund baby, just don’t do well with classroom learning and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Likewise, not everyone needs college. Contrary to cultural myths, college is not necessary for a “good” job, assuming we define “good” as paying well. For instance, the average plumber earns more every year than the average college instructor (most of whom are adjunct or “contingent” faculty working for low pay and no benefits).

In the countries where free college (university, in most of them) has been implemented, the percentage of people who attend college is lower than in the U.S. A big reason is that entry exams raise the bar for applications. However, the number of people who attend some form of post-secondary education, ex. trade schools, rises. This is, perhaps, a good thing. After all, society will always have need of plumbers, mechanics, electricians, and related trades, and in the U.S. we’re seeing a shortage in the trades.

I suppose the short version is that I think free post-secondary education or training for anyone and everyone is necessary. Any post-secondary training. Just focusing on college causes problems, like our current overproduction of degree holders at all levels. Also, frankly, focusing on just college is the bad kind of elitist (as opposed to thinking that people should be qualified for their job), and definitely classist.

Marketplace of Ideas: A Poorly Chosen Analogy

The last few days, I’ve been thinking about the idea of the university being a “marketplace of ideas”.  Like many such analogies, or metaphors, I’ve come to think that this one was created by people who don’t understand the university.  Moreover, it is deeply flawed and dangerous as a concept.

Considering the university (or any educational institution) as a marketplace is a false conception.  Comparing the two effectively commodifies ideas and thought.  It introduces, or creates, the idea that we can, or should, simply go shopping for the ideas we like.  This has always been a dangerous idea, but is especially so in the Digital Age.  In an era and culture in which the likes of Alex Jones and Steve Bannon are given the same breadth of audience as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Fareed Zakaria, and in which it is increasingly common to commit character assassination against those with whom one does not agree (ref. the attacks against noted geneticist and food biologist Kevin Folta), conceptualizing thought and ideas as commodities that we can shop for and buy is dangerous.

This concept also creates the false assumption that all ideas are somehow equal and should be given equal weight.

As I tell my students, virtually all theories have potential, but not all theories or ideas are created equal.  The measure of a theory or idea’s strength lies in the evidence that supports it and our ability to test it (and, of course, whether it passes objective testing, often in competition with other ideas and theories).

The university is, and always has been I think, a proving ground for ideas (not a marketplace).  That is, the university is not a place where we shop around for ideas, but a place where we test ideas and theories.  We challenge ideas and try to break them.  Those ideas and theories that fail, we either try to salvage and fix (ex. Linnaean taxonomy), before retesting, or discard if they are unsalvageable (ex. theories of racial supremacy).  Those that survive testing, we keep and teach until such time (if any) that they are supplanted by better supported or more refined theories or ideas.

The misunderstanding of the role of the university is, I think, one reason (of many, and perhaps the most innocuous reason) that universities are criticized so heavily.  Particularly by conservative commentators.  The common refrain from such individuals is a screed against professors “pushing liberal ideology” and “unfairly attacking conservative values” (ex. Creationism).  The reality is that the professors, the university, the proving ground of ideas and theories has considered many conservative ideas and theories, has tested them, and has found that they cracked under the pressure of testing and exposure to competing ideas and theories (ex. natural selection and evolution), therefore they are not taught, because they hold no weight or less weight than their competitors.

Academic Dead End

I’m going to preface this post by saying that I enjoy my job and know that I am helping a lot of people (they tell me this pretty regularly). That said, everything else below is also true.

It seems strange to call a position in collegiate level education “a dead end job”. Culturally, we’re primed to think “dead end job” refers to food service, retail, etc., not positions that require a Masters degree. However, after a great deal of thought, I think the label is appropriate. After all, I’ve spent nine years in just such a position, with the same employer (for certain external reasons, plus assurances were made by said employer and never followed through), at a near poverty annual income. Frankly, people who have six or more years of post-secondary education cannot live on a pittance, really no one can at least not well.

So, why is this a dead end position?

In nine years, there has been no chance of promotion. There has been no opportunity for transitioning to full time (despite assurances of regular internal hiring, which hasn’t happened). There has been no raise, so someone with 10+ years makes the same hourly as the person hired yesterday. In fact, we’ve had a mandatory 20% pay cut, “to cut costs”, while the school created and hired new, six figure salary VPs.  There’s no incentive to do well, as pay remains the same and there’s a cap in hours that apply the same for the best and the worst.

I say all this not to complain, as such.

Rather, I say it to inform people about the model that’s been more or less standardized across higher ed for the last 40 or so years, at least in the U.S., though I hear it’s catching on in Canada & Europe too.

This is an unsustainable model for higher education. Colleges & universities cannot continue to rely on hourly positions, single semester contract positions, low annual pay positions that require a Masters degree and prefer doctorates. In the end, this practice harms undergraduate education, graduate teaching assistants, and doctoral graduates all; not to mention the fact that it shifts full time faculty more and more to administrative duties (shrinking pool of full timers to draw from) rather than teaching and conducting research.

Stereotypes & Assumptions

I’m not a deep thinker or writer, despite my background, education, and training.  This may seem odd from someone with a PhD in an arts/humanities field given the reputations of said fields.  We’re expected to be thinking and writing deep, meaningful, philosophical things.

That’s not me.

Maybe that comes from being the grandkid of working class families.  Maybe it comes from my Polish lineage (though we have Copernicus and John Paul II, so maybe not entirely).

I think this is the big reason I rejected doing literary theory in grad school.  Most of the things we read and discussed were doing pure theory, theory for the sake of theory.  People like Roland Barthes, Toril Moi, and Stanley Fish who were totally divorced from texts, just developing theory to further theory drove me crazy.  Meanwhile, I embraced, halfheartedly because theory was required, New Historicism, in short studying a text’s historical context or the historical context in which it was and is received.  It seemed, and still does, the most practical of the theories out there.

I remember being in a graduate level Shakespeare course, during my MA.  We were reading Othello and a fellow student asked, “Why is Othello so obsessed with his reputation?”  As I recall, a few theories were posited, some “I don’t knows” floated around.  Then I spoke up (and I usually didn’t talk much in class), saying, “Othello’s a mercenary, the commander of a company of mercenaries.  His reputation is literally his life.  It’s how he gets jobs for himself and his men.  That would be important enough, but he’s also a Moor, a Black Muslim, working in Catholic Italy.  That makes his reputation at least twice as important as it is for other mercenary captains.”  To me, this seemed obvious.  From the looks I got, it seemed to be a revelation to many others in the class.  It’s not a deep, philosophical interpretation, but a practical, historically important one, I think.

During a decade as a student in higher ed, I concluded that  students sometimes forget about the practical side of critical thinking and get too caught up in some skewed sense of how they think they should be responding and thinking, trying to “sound college”.  The problem is that “sounding college” is built on a stereotype, maybe an idealization, possibly fueled by pop culture (especially movies), in which the faculty are almost invariably the enemy who need to be appeased and outwitted (often by presenting convoluted responses, answers, and thoughts that really make no sense in the light of day).  Often, we just want a straight response that seems likely (at least I do).

Was Shakespeare using Othello as a commentary on hyper-masculinity?  I don’t know.  Possibly.  It’s perfectly valid for modern audiences to read the character that way.  But, I think, for an audience that was being reminded of the War of the Roses, had survived the Spanish Armada, was dealing with the Succession Question, and had the Vatican & Papists fomenting insurrection . . . I suspect they’d understand Othello’s obsession with reputation as part and parcel of being a mercenary captain and an outsider by faith and appearance.

Maybe that all means I’m not a deep enough or philosophical enough thinker for this field or academia.  I don’t know.  Maybe the stereotype & expectation are just false.