Education Under Siege


Caroline V. Hamilton has a PhD from Berkeley. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Journal of American Studies, Oxford German Studies, The Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, and elsewhere. She lives in Pittsburgh.

Campus of the Humboldt University of Berlin, 1938. Credit: German Federal Archives

On March 11, 1939, reporter Ralph Barnes cabled an article from Berlin to the Washington Post. It appeared under the following headlines:

Nazification Robs German Universities of World Reputation: Anti-Intellectualism Now Popular in Reich and Once Proud Schools Must Suffer Interference from Political Leaders

Sound familiar? Are we not facing a similar situation now? Once proud American universities are suffering funding cuts and verbal abuse from extremist politicians and pundits. New bills pending in the Pennsylvania legislature, for example, threaten to impose a “job-ready major evaluation advisory committee,” abolish paid sabbaticals (when tenure-track faculty recharge their intellectual batteries and produce new work), and interfere
with department assignments of teaching hours.

Against the first proposal (“job-ready majors”), many arguments leap to mind. First, college students are already aware of their economic prospects, and many of them are choosing their majors accordingly. Second, in an era of globalized commerce, who can reliably predict which majors will fare well on the job market? Free marketeers especially should oppose such meddling. Third, such advice might backfire, causing a glut of
applicants in desirable fields as desperate students compete for jobs in physical therapy, pharmacy, and engineering. Fourth, funding cutbacks in many teaching fields could make such predictions self-fulfilling.

Universities have promoted human well-being and contributed to economic prosperity for almost a thousand years. The University of Bologna dates back to 1088. Oxford, the first university in the English-speaking
Universities have promoted human well-being and contributed to economic prosperity for almost a thousand years. The University of Bologna dates back to 1088. Oxford, the first university in the English-speaking world, was incorporated as a universitas in 1231. In 1636 Harvard College was chartered to promote “the advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences; the advancement and education of youth in all manner of good literature, arts, and sciences; and all other necessary provisions that may conduce to the education of the … youth of this country.” Adam Smith, the patron saint of free marketeers, was a professor at the University of Edinburgh; without that position, he might not have been able to write Wealth of Nations, the Bible of capitalism. Great land-grant universities like Wisconsin and California were chartered almost one hundred and fifty years ago and have graduated generations of students. People who call themselves "conservative" should want to conserve these venerable institutions and many of their traditions.

For universities do change with the times. If anything, they may be too vulnerable to trends and passing fashions. They certainly don’t need state politicians or wealthy alumni telling them to abolish their classics, comparative literature, and German departments. If an academic field becomes, like phrenology, disproved, outmoded, and useless, it will vanish on its own.

Thanks to Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), who founded the University of Berlin (now Humboldt University), German universities became an international model for institutions that combined teaching and research. Like many Americans of his era (Franklin, Jefferson), Humboldt championed the principle of “free and universal education for all citizens.”

In the twentieth century, American universities claimed the premier place that German universities held in the nineteenth. Students flocked here from all over the world. In the twenty-first century, however, our status is eroding. Research and teaching are being de-coupled, as adjunct faculty replace retiring professors. Yet research and publication keep professors up to date in their fields and energize them for classroom discussion. This further division of labor can only have ill consequences.

The response of influential, tenured university faculty to this threat has so far been woefully inadequate. Although professors are experienced writers, researchers, and public speakers, too many seem disinclined to do battle in the public sphere. A few write essays for sites like Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education, but it is voters and citizens who need to be persuaded of the value of education, and that persuasion requires outreach.

Academics urgently need to go public. In particular, they need to discuss "value" itself, attacking the simplistic, utilitarian and vulgarly economic discourse that fuels attacks on public education, higher education, and the common good. They need to explain the longstanding, time-honored distinctions between “cost” and “value,” between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” value, between “market price” and “incommensurable values” like liberty, equality, knowledge, and understanding. They need to tell voters and citizens why their support for higher education benefits everyone in the long run and in ways that are hard to quantify or predict.

What the right-wing is calling “socialism” is in many respects “civilization” itself. The corporatization of our public universities will render them inadequate for a democratic republic and a globalized world.

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