When I was working on my dissertation, I read through the lengthy transcript of a Southern Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry that had been charged with investigating the poor living conditions in some of the rural reserves that Africans had been sent to after being removed from their land. It was a given that the commission would not be considering whether the seizure of the best and most fertile agricultural land in the colony for the use of white settlers was the only real problem worth discussing. So instead most of the debate among the commissioners concerned who or what they were going to frame as the suspect. Some of them argued that the problem was the poor quality of African agricultural practices. Some of them blamed unscrupulous merchants (Jews, Greeks, Lebanese or South Asian, for the most part) who were supposedly exploiting rural Africans. Some of them blamed the weather or other kinds of happenstance. A few blamed various minor government policies, though never the removals or the poor agricultural quality of the reserve lands.
I am the first to argue that higher education and academia could do with all sorts of transformations. That’s been my stock in trade as an academic almost from the beginning, even before I started a blog. I am still arguing for many of those transformations, because I think they’re in our interest and in the interest of the societies that we serve. But we’re at a moment where much of the negative attention being directed at academic institutions seems rather like that Rhodesian commission. It’s an elaborate distraction from the real ills of the global economy, a search for a patsy.
Sarah Kendzior’s November 3 piece for Al-Jazeera is a good redirection of attention. The issue is not majors. It is not whether or not universities are teaching employable skills. It is that the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few very large companies and a few very rich individuals is fueling a tighter and tighter feedback loop. Companies (and universities and law firms and every other institution that employs) are making bigger and bigger profits through casualizing more and more of their skilled labor force. They cut more and more people out of benefits, they find ways to employ workers in a strictly “just in time” fashion, they move their operations any time there is a hint of regulation or taxation in a given locality. Which leads to institutions and individuals sitting on large piles of money that they can’t spend. There’s almost nothing left to invest in, which is why something like Pinterest is suddenly valued at $3.8 billion. “When the plutocrats saw the size of their hoards, they wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” The only thing left to invest in is people and society and the public interest, which is the one thing that the Peter Thiels of the world can’t abide investing in. But the Fordist bargain of the digital age rested on credit card debt and the last great ride of the white-collar middle classes in the 1990s. Now the professionals are out of money and most of their employing institutions and firms have been broken open like so many piggy banks. If their children chase culture on the cheap through peer-to-peer sharing, that’s as much a canary in the coal mine as it is an indication of their morality, a sign of the slow impoverishment of their social class, of a long slide into downward mobility. Some day, perhaps some day soon, even the near-necessary digital gadgetry that serves as the struts and foundation of professional life and work will be less and less affordable.
No! Repent, Professor, Said the Disruptive Innovator. You just aren’t preparing students for the real 21st Century economy! You should teach Nanotech Neurofabrication! Jetpack Discobobulator Prototyping! Inverse Investment Matrices! Something! If only the people were there, we’d employ them for…well, for what? Can anybody name me an industry or company that would double or triple its workforce in a week but doesn’t because there are skills it knows it wants but cannot have? That has that much work ready to be done, that much value to produce? It’s not what people know. As Kendzior says, it’s people themselves. And rather than talk about what might happen if we–or perhaps more precisely, they–valued people, society and publics, about how that valuing might begin a renaissance of other kinds of value, including the economic possibilities that flow from a society where a lot of people have some cash in their wallets, they would rather talk about majors and professors and universities.