College of Theseus

Most of us know to be skeptical about the public statements of a person paid to defend a particular organization or corporation. For the same reason, we tend to look askance on a pundit or expert who will derive some particular financial benefit if people heed his or her advice–a biochemist who is supposed to test a drug who owns shares in the company that will produce it, for example. There are often legal and ethical restrictions that apply in such cases.

You can’t so easily constrain a conventionalized narrative that mainstream reportage and experts collaboratively disseminate that just so happens to advance a strongly vested financial interest that is diffused across a particular business sector or range of organizations. Even if that story leaves out vitally important details, or is simply wrong in some crucial respect.

For example, almost every mainstream story I’ve read or heard about the financial struggles of Sears, Toys R Us, and other brick-and-mortar retailers leaves out the role of private equity, debt and cult-like management strategies employed by neophyte CEOs (often installed by private equity firms). The shorthand instead is always: couldn’t compete with Amazon. Which is a story that benefits Amazon and its shareholders: it is how Amazon survived years and years of continuous losses, because reporters and experts kept describing it as the inevitable future, kept using it as the singular causal explanation for every other event in retail.

Another example: autonomous cars. A ton of big players have a huge bet down on the table on autonomous cars, and virtually everyone writing about the issue is compliantly doing their best to make that bet pay off by describing autonomous cars as inevitable no matter what technical, political and economic challenges might remain in their implementation. Just saying something is inevitable doesn’t overcome fundamental material limitations: flying cars, jetpacks and moonbases were also once represented as inevitable in a near-term future, but all three turned out to be basically impossible within present circumstances. But in a sense the actual money knew that: no one but fringe visionaries put serious investment into those projects. With autonomous cars, there’s real money involved, and so every time an expert or a reporter casually and thoughtlessly treats them as a certainty, they are creating the certainty that they only claim to predict. If it turns out that you can’t simply unleash tens of thousands of perfectly working autonomous vehicles onto the current road network, it will be made to happen by changing the infrastructure. The autonomous car makers will buy out HOV lanes and put guides on them and get manually driven cars banned from them, in the name of safety or experimentation or innovation. Then they’ll argue that any accidents on non-guided roadways are actually human error, not autonomous car error, and push for eliminating manual drivers from all high-speed highways. Inch by inch it will happen–and “prediction” will have played its role.

The example that’s really got my goat this week, however, is the way that much of the press and a particular group of experts report on the closure or threatened closure of colleges and universities. Let’s take three examples that have been reported recently: Newbury College, Green Mountain College, and Hampshire College.

The reporting and prognostication tends to lump these closures together as a single phenomenon, stemming from a singular cause, interpreted within a conventionalized story. That’s usually something like, “College is too expensive, families are no longer certain of the value of traditional higher education, and this is just going to accelerate as we hit the edge of a demographic drop-off”. All of this is true enough in terms of pressures on the entire sector: college is expensive, its consumers are feeling doubtful about its value, and there’s a demographic drop-off coming. But it’s also a story that has a client behind it: various “disruptors” who have a huge bet down on the table that various kinds of for-profit online education will and must replace expensive, inefficient, “traditional” brick-and-mortar education. Those folks are getting impatient–or are starting to worry they’re going to lose their money. They’ve been moving fast but so far not that much has been broken. They’ve been angling to do the usual smash-and-grab theft of public goods but so far all they’ve been able to do is sneak a few bits of bric a brac into their pockets. So the story that all colleges are near to failing, about a kind of institutional singularity, is especially important for them to tell–and to urge others to tell for them.

The problem with that story is two-fold. First, even if we’re talking about “all of American higher education”, this is not the first time that the entire sector has been faced with severe economic and sociopolitical pressures and not the first time that these pressures have produced new institutional forms and marketing hooks–and waves of consolidation and failure. It’s not even the first time that people enamored of a new mass medium have specifically sought to use it to replace colleges and universities–it happened with television, it happened with radio, it happened with the postal service. And yet for the most part, the variety and richness of physical institutions of higher learning has remained intact in the United States through all those failures and consolidations and transformations. The current storyline forgets all of that. There is an unbroken clumpy mass of “traditional higher education” and then there is the disrupted, innovated future. Only occasionally does an expert or prognosticator go a bit deeper into the history before breaking out the shill for the brave new innovated future–Kevin Carey, for example, does an actually fair and responsible job of recounting how contemporary research universities in the US took on the shape they now have and understands that this doesn’t extend all that far back.

But it’s at the individual level of institutional closures that the conventionalized narrative is just plain misleading or even false. Because many of the places that have announced closures or crises recently have never been stable or successful institutions in the first place, or have always been outliers in certain respects.

Let’s take Newbury to start.

The United States is known, correctly, for a unique variety and quantity of institutions of higher education. This was primarily generated in the 19th Century between 1830 and 1890. Every institution created subsequently in the 20th Century was to some extent building on this unique earlier history, trying to fit into the infrastructure created in that era, but there were at least two significant waves of later institutional creation, one in the 1920s that capitalized on the new centrality of higher education to the training of professionals and specialists, one in the 1960s that was a response both to a massive new investment in public education and to the demographic bulge known as the “Baby Boomer generation”.

A lot of those 1960s institutions have lived on the edge of failure for their entire existence. They were responding to a temporary surge in demand. They did not have the benefit of a century or more of alumni who would contribute donations, or an endowment built up over decades. They did not have names to conjure with. They were often founded (like many non-profits) by single strong personalities with a narrow vision or obsession that only held while the strong personality was holding on to the steering wheel. Newbury is a great example of this. It wasn’t founded until 1962, as a college of business, by a local Boston entrepreneur. It relocated multiple times, once into a vacated property identified formerly with a different university. It changed its name and focus multiple times. It acquired other educational institutions and merged them with its main operations, again creating some brand confusion. It started branch campuses. It’s only been something like a standardized liberal-arts institution since 1994. In 2015 it chased yet another trend via expensive construction projects, trying to promise students a new commitment to their economic success.

This is not a college going under suddenly and unexpectedly after a century of stately and “traditional” operations. This is not Coca-Cola suddenly going under because now everyone wants kombucha made by a Juicero. This is Cactus Cooler or Mr. Pibb being discontinued.

Let’s take Hampshire College. It’s a cool place. I’ve always admired it; I considered attending it when I was graduating high school. But it’s also not a venerable traditional liberal arts college. It’s an experiment that was started as a response to an exceptionally 60s-era deliberative process shared between Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke and UMass Amherst. It’s always had to work hard to find students who responded to its very distinctive curricular design and identity, especially once the era that led to its founding began to lose some of its moral and political influence. You can think about Hampshire’s struggle to survive in relationship to that very particular history. You should think about it that way in preference to just making it a single data point on a generalized grid.

Let’s take Green Mountain College. “The latest to close”, as Inside Higher Education says–again fitting into a trend as a single data point. At least this time it is actually old, right? Founded in 1834, part of that huge first wave of educational genesis. But hang on. It wasn’t Green Mountain College at the start. It was Troy Conference Academy. Originally coed, then it changed its name to Ripley Female Academy and went single-sex. Then it was back to Troy Conference. Then during the Great Depression it was Green Mountain Junior College, a 2-year preparatory school. Only in 1974 did it become Green Mountain College, with a 4-year liberal arts degree, and only in the 1990s did it decide to emphasize environmental studies.

Is that the same institution, with a single continuous history? Or is it a kind of constellation of semi-related institutions, all of which basically ‘closed’ and were replaced by something completely different?

If you set out to create a list of all the colleges and universities by name which have ever existed in the United States, all the alternate names and curricular structures and admissions approaches of institutions which sometimes have existed on the same site but often have moved, you couldn’t help but see that closures are an utterly normal part of the story of American higher education. Moreover, that they are often just a phase–a place closes, another institution moves in or buys the name or uses the facilities. Sure, sometimes a college or university or prep school or boarding school gets abandoned for good, becomes a ruin, is forgotten. That happens too. We are not in the middle of a singular rupture, a thing which has never happened before, an unbroken tradition at last subject to disruption and innovation.

This doesn’t mean that we should be happy when a college or university closes. That’s the livelihood of the people who work there, it’s the life of the students who are still there, it’s a broken tie for its alumni (however short or long its life has been), the loss of all the interesting things that were done there in its time. But when you look at the story of any particular closure, they all have some important particulars. The story being told that flatters the disruptors and innovators would have us thinking that there are these venerable, traditional, basically successful institutions going about their business and then suddenly, ZANG, the future lands on them and they can’t survive. At least some of the institutions closing have been hustling or struggling or rebranding for their entire existence.

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4 Responses to College of Theseus

  1. Matt G says:

    Great to see another thoughtful post here. This echoes Jill Lepore’s fantastic takedown of disruption in the New Yorker a few years back. Might not be so bad if some of the business schools (they seem to be everywhere these days) pushing disruption went under.

  2. Koby L says:

    In the car on the way to work today I listened to an NPR piece about self-driving cars. The reporter ended by implying that “the future” and this technology are identical.
    Thanks for helping me stay alert to other possibilities.

  3. I was looking at Khan Academy this week to see what it had to say about the development of the U.S. Constitution. I don’t remember my search parameters, but the first response was an explanation of James Madison’s famous essay, Federalist 10. The lesson consisted of a voice explaining the text, line by line, with frequent references to the writers who apparently invented the idea of “natural rights.” This took a lot of the student’s time and provided no value. But the most serious problem was that it accepted as correct Madison’s description of how democracies work, and how republics solve all of the problems that democracies have. In fact, Madison’s arguments when he wrote them were inconsistent with respect to each other, revealing a problem for which he had no real answer, and he knew it. He said as much during the run up to the constitutional convention.

    But the essay is crystal clear that our form of government is a republic, not a democracy. I have asked many people over the years about this Madisonian statement and they immediately reject it. They say, often angrily, that we are a democracy. People get fighting mad about it. Just the other day I was called a “half-wit,” for bringing it up.

    In 1959, I took a course on the Constitution taught by one of the professors from my university’s law school. At that time I was 20 years old and had swallowed the story of American history hook, line, and sinker. On the first day of class, the professor said that the Constitution would be our text and the Federalist essays would be supplemental readings. He told us to read, and be prepared to discuss, Federalist 10. I went to the library and read it.

    At the next class someone asked about Madison’s claim in Federalist 10 that America is not a democracy. Others murmured support. The professor was ready. He said that Madison was arguing that an Athenian style democracy could not be implemented in a nation that had a population numbering in the millions. He said that Madison had done the next best thing. He designed a representative democracy and the scheme of representation made it possible for our representatives to listen to the folks at home and fight for their interests in Washington. Problem solved. Case closed. My universe was restored.

    But slowly but surely I began to doubt, and then I realized that our professor had no answer. He, too, had swallowed the story of American democracy hook, line, and sinker. But he knew he had to answer questions from students so he was the one who did the inventing. He invented a story to explain how it was possible that Madison’s essay was indeed consistent with the common belief that America is a democracy. I’ll bet that the professors who teach the Constitution everywhere in America still find a way to duck the obvious conflict between the Father of the Constitution, and some source somewhere that started this error. And this error is important. Madison saw a serious flaw in the governments of the states at the time the Constitution was written. Washington wrote about the “imperfections” in the Constitution when the Constitution was being sent to the states for ratification, then he brought it up again in his Farewell Address. His warning was dramatic and crystal clear. John Adams wrote a letter in 1780 about the Massachusetts Constitution in which he identified the flaw in that document. Then in 1796 he wrote another letter to Thomas Jefferson again pointing out the flaw in the Constitution. He, like all the others who recognized the flaw, had no solution. Washington said it first, “we can’t fix it—future generations will have to fix it—and if they don’t our nation will be destroyed.”

    Benjamin Franklin, assuming the anecdote is true, pointed to the flaw when he told a woman at the end of the convention that our form of government is “a republic, if you can keep it.” He didn’t say “democracy.” He said “republic.” Was he lying? Was he, along with Washington one of the two smartest men in America, mistaken? I will stick with Ben and George.

    So, my problem with our education system is how can such gross errors be made, and once made, how can they continue to be taught? Is it like the world of Charles Darwin and will take centuries to sorta, kinda, correct?

    Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, in the last couple of days, made big news when she shed light on the institutional corruption in our system of government. She did an excellent job of identifying the problem, but she did not solve it. I suspect that she will not be able to. No one has. But the problem she identified is the one that all of those Framers and great men identified, it is a flaw in our Constitution.

    Not so long ago, some very smart men wrote a book called “How Democracies Die.” When I saw the title I knew I had to get it. It would be reasonable that a book that proposes to teach us how democracies die would include at least one real democracy as proof of its thesis, but there are no democracies mentioned in this book. They are all republics. I searched the text to see if I could find a reference to any democracy. I found none. I did find a mention of “Athens.” It was in an endnote and it was part of a mailing address: “Athens, OH.”

    The corruption that we all are aware of is destroying our nation and the world. And the cause of that corruption is built into our republican Constitution. The cure is to implement a real democracy, but when I say this I again am deluged with outrageous assertions, all incorrect, about how democracies work. The democracies that Madison described in Federalist 10, have never existed, not anywhere, not at any time.

    I have descendants. They are in danger and I can do nothing about it.

    I have written several historians about this question and I have received no answer, nada, nichts, zip.

  4. kurt squire says:

    +1, Clap clap clap, Smile, and like. I’ve been reading in this area (Newfield in particular) and surprised by how disconnected the hyperbole is from the actual historical facts. This is an even more nuanced read I hadn’t yet considered.

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