A moment of dreaming about higher education

What would a better system of higher education look like?

Our political vocabulary has never been geared towards this kinds of discussion; in the long, excruciating age of Reagan, anything not directly conducive to the accumulation of profits will slowly or quickly be changed into a version of itself that  more effectively serves the interest of finance capital. It’s hard not to become a certain kind of conservative, then, to defend what is or what was because what threatens to be in the future seems likely to be much worse. This is how Occupy would find itself demanding an end to the state, for example, and also for a return of the new deal: against those who say that There is No Alternative, we might be right to retort that another world is possible, but in practice, the “other world” we work for tends to look a lot like the world we know was possible—and can show, by pointing to the past—because we can recall it through glowing accounts of the postwar boom, and because in an age of austerity, it seems more possible, more practical, to recover what we used to have than to try to create something new.

In one sense, this is less of a contradiction than it can seem; to want tax dollars to be spent for socially productive ends, rather than militarism and oligarchy, is a coherent desire. But it’s also a conceptual problem. When we find ourselves fighting against efforts to privatize public universities, for example, we can often beg the question that the university is actually “public.” In defending ourselves from the worsening future, we can gloss over the flaws of the past, flaws that its bad faith critics use to make their cases. But those who aren’t operating in bad faith can also see those flaws. When Californians don’t want to spend money on public universities, because they know that their tax dollars are being funneled to Wall Street, who am I to tell them they’re wrong? This is why, as we’ve been arguing for years, the problem isn’t an absolute lack of money, but the kind of political corruption which seeks to use the crisis of the moment to continue a project of privatization that has been underway for decades already. Never let a good crisis go to waste is only one part of their logic; the other is to spend public money on privatizing the university.

As a friend put it, therefore, in California “we can’t not want the master plan.” My Dissent article with Mike Konczal was this kind of can’t-not-wanting, for example; we know what its limitations were, but it’s the only option that seems available to fight for, because vestiges of it still exist. Like voting for Barack Obama, the terribleness of the alternative makes the pragmatic choice seem more appetizing, easier to defend. And in the short term, the passage of Prop 30 will prevent what would have otherwise have happened: a dramatic rise in tuition. But delaying the inevitable is also to surrender to it. Can we fight for something other than things not getting worse faster than they already are?

I am opposed to the MOOCification of higher education out of this kind of conservative defensiveness. On their own, MOOC's are all to the good. As a solution to the problem of higher education, they are a case of the surgery being successful but the patient died. What looks good in theory, I believe, will have the practical result of deepening the difference between elite and non-elite higher education--undoing the way the best public higher education institutions blurred the line between education for the masses and education for the elites--and limiting free education to the subjects which can be taught for free. It could be done well, I think, but it won’t be. Instead of using new technology to do what we have always done, but do it better, it will be so thoroughly co-opted and driven by venture capital that it will be another battering ram against what’s left of high quality, low cost higher education. And it will destroy subjects and disciplines that aren’t conducive to being MOOCified, like mine. Many of the MOOC-boosters like to pretend that academics are just luddites in the worst sense, defending their out-of-date positions out of naked self interest, but while writing their apparently objective articles on the wonders of the coming age of MOOC’s, so many of these people are pulling down salaries or investing in the very industry whose inevitability they proclaim. And if you hear me making a plea for my salary, when I observe that the discipline of literary studies cannot and will not be MOOCified, well, you need to listen harder: I have devoted a decade of my life to a painstaking form of labor that may, in the end, have a chance of delivering me a salary, but which so far has not. This is my third year on the job market, and it could well be my last. If you see me—and academics like me—making these kinds of rationalizations as defenses of their cushy positions, you need to look at how this “industry” would not exist without the effectively volunteer labor of so very many people who actually value what they do and believe in it.

I can’t not not-want MOOC’s, in other words. I value what I do, and so I am conservative in wanting to hold on to that somewhat-good thing, in the face of the worse that looms.

At the same time, the advent of MOOC’s might have brought something to the discussion that was radically missing: the sense there is a purpose to higher education beyond credentials and profit. MOOC’s will never function as serious credentials, of course; perhaps in a labor market where expert labor was in short supply, an employer might actually credit a course completion certificate from an online course, but we’re not in that world. In the world we actually live in, the difference between “real” and “online” courses will always be an important distinction between those who have a shot at getting jobs and those who don’t. Even proponents of MOOC’s admit that they aren’t the real thing, and they’re right; they’re better than nothing, but you still get what you pay for. But while venture capitalists are interested in MOOC’s because they want to sell these courses to universities, the thing about actually existing MOOC’s is that they actually are free to the consumers, and must be. That’s the point, and there is no MOOC without that fact. As a result, you find people thinking about how to provide education to people who couldn’t otherwise get it, and for reasons that are explicitly not about credentials or profit.

If the actual MOOC-ification of higher ed is likely to be a dead-end, in other words, MOOC’s do enable us to ask a question that we’ve often been too defensively crouched to think about: what should or could “higher education” look like, if it were stripped of its credentialing and profit-making functions? If it were free, and if it wasn’t about determining who gets jobs and who doesn’t, what would it look like?

This is largely not the discussion that the MOOC boosters are having, again; MOOC boosters proceed from the question “what can we do, given economic constraints?” in which the word “should” is subordinated to the iron laws of economic necessity, and the word “can” is oriented towards where the money is, which will always be tax-payers, tuition, and debt. But maybe the magic fetish object of technology has also given people permission to dream, a little, and to imagine what could be, if the iron laws of economic necessity were relaxed. And so, you find people thinking and talking about providing education for free, long after it seemed like anyone still thought that was possible, and certainly long after anyone with any clout was trying to make it so.

Here’s what I find that I want, instead of not-wanting: what non-profit mass higher education is and should be is a public works program. It’s hard to see the logic of this position for many different reasons, starting with political unthinkability of public works projects: because the new deal could not happen in today's political climate, it’s not a conceptual framing that occurs to us. And public universities actually exist, while the WPA and PWA belong to a lost era when FDR and other strange three-letter anachronisms still roamed the earth. But of course, the WPA and PWA are still here, just as so many of the buildings which were built still exist and still shelter us, along with the bridges, tunnels, roads, and other forms of infrastructure which are slowly crumbling into disrepair. Our public university system—which similarly crumbles—dates back to that era as well, to the energies which were released by the new deal, and by the progressive desires and ambitions that a post-war boom might have fueled but which it did not create.

But the larger problem, I think, is that student labor is essentially invisible. We don’t think of it as labor, or of students as workers, because we don’t value the work that students do, in the most literal sense: we don’t pay them. Even when it’s not “busy work”—and oh! what a damning phrase that is!—we think of their work as pleasurable, or as self-cultivation. We don’t pay them for it because it is of no social value, only individual value; they pay for the right to do it, or the state pays it for them, in which case tax-payers get upset at the injustice of the spoiled brats getting a free ride. And again, shouldn’t they? As university education becomes a more highly valued commodity—as you pay fourteen thousand a year for a UC education, instead of nothing—the university experience has, indeed, become more a pleasurable self-cultivation, since university administrators prefer customers to workers. This is why universities spend more and more money on new dorms, new campus programs, and new ways of making their campus experience an attractive prospect for incoming freshmen: as universities transition towards a customer-payment model, they moving out of education business into the production of education products. They spend less and less money on classrooms and teachers, the spaces where student work happens, because they are, quite literally, not interested in student work. Their financial interest is in student-customers, and it shows.

In this sense, while it’s worth marveling at the way the apprenticeship model has survived into late capitalism—how, before a worker has the right to contract their labor, they must labor for the right to have access to the guild—we should remember that this is possible because students and children are coded as “non-laborers,” because they lack the political and social franchise to make their complaints matter. If we pretend that school is what prepares a child to take his or her place in society, then we put the cart before the horse: school ends where voting starts, because adults cannot be made to labor for nothing.

But all of the labor that students do is, in the final analysis, the production of social value. Students are the buildings being built by a modern-day PWA, as well as the builders being paid to build them; they are the economic, social, and political infrastructure which the state must pay to produce, and does. The work of self-cultivation that students do—when they learn language, learn to paint, learn to design and build, learn to socialize, and learn everything else that they learn—all eventually pays massive social dividends. A capitalist society like ours does not function if the state doesn’t educate its citizenry, and that’s why they do it, the same way it does not function if tax dollars don’t pay to build roads. It just doesn’t know it. There is nothing more blind to itself than a huge government which has enshrined “small government” as its ruling philosophy, and which exists only by spending tax dollars and but believes it can be against both taxes and spending.

Most jobs do not require most or any of the skills that students develop in schools or in university. Some of what students do in their classrooms is job training, after all, but most of it really isn’t: the calculus I learned is irrelevant to my job prospects, which is why I’ve forgotten most of it (while the novels my engineering students read will not make them into better engineers). But if we can see outside the frame of cultivation and pleasure, we can see that producing a mass population with all sorts of apparently superfluous skills—engineers that read novels and writers that know calculus—is a better society than one in which all human activity is reduced to pure utility, and bare recreation.

MOOC’s are interesting because they re-frame the problem: by unbundling higher education, they will “fix” the disconnect between classes and utility, suture over the apparent contradiction of job training that doesn’t train students for jobs. All education that can’t be turned into a commodity to be purchased—a pleasurable experience or a job skill to be capitalized on—will be trimmed from the curriculum, the classes that students won’t take because they don’t need them, don’t want them, and don’t like them. This is where the logic takes us, where only the education which pays for itself will be paid for. But in the process, by posing the question of why students would work for free—why thousands or millions of people will take an online course for free—it helps to clarify what is actually valuable about education, precisely by shining a light on the shadow where it used to be.