Posted in Rants on June 25th, 2012 by Ed

Any moderately informed history of the decline of the Soviet and Chinese systems of communism in the 20th Century, especially from the right, justifiably emphasizes the folly of replacing cultural institutions with the state-sanctioned, ideologically Correct theory of political economy. A total re-imagining of the world – its history, its culture, its religions, its conflicts, and its societies – was to take place in the framework of a radically ideological system of education with the goal of producing the New Socialist Man. He would understand politics, art, economics, and every other subject from the Correct (i.e. Socialist) perspective. As is the case with every revolution, the Soviets and Mao's China understood that a new culture can only be instituted by destroying the old, and destroying the old can only be accomplished through dictating a new historical reality through re-education. This endeavor on the part of the two most prominent communist countries has been the springboard for 1001 tales of horror from American conservatives, and Right Thinking liberals, for more than 75 years.

So it is with an extra dose of irony that we see the American educational system being remade at the top – at the university level – in the same radically ideological framework. Universities are to be run as businesses, their component parts judged solely by the god of Value Added; if one cannot do work of value to the private sector (measured in grant dollars), then one's continued existence becomes unjustifiable. Now our universities are being placed under the control, along with the rest of our society, of those with Right Thought; that is, rich people. Rich people know what is best in every field and endeavor because they are ideologically Correct. They recognize in ways that the rest of us cannot that value extraction is the sole purpose of any social institution. Accordingly, our university system is being remade slowly to produce not New Socialist Man but the Randian Capitalist, the Uber-Entrepreneur. As the New Socialist Men failed miserably at reviving the moribund Soviet bloc economy, it will take years for Americans to figure out how little these throngs of virtually illiterate MBAs, with their New and Improved version of history firmly entrenched beneath their worldview, have to contribute except to extract wealth from the nation in exchange for a few scraps of the take.

Over the past two weeks a scandal of sorts at the University of Virginia has become fodder for public consumption. As is the case with most state university systems, UVA is overseen by a politically-appointed (usually by the governor) council called the Board of Visitors, which has ousted University President Teresa Sullivan. What used to be largely ceremonial positions on such boards and councils are now being used by New Capitalist Man to re-engineer higher education to reflect Right Thought. Sullivan's ouster was prompted by her "unwillingness to consider dramatic program cuts in the face of dwindling resources and for her perceived reluctance to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate chief executive." Specifically, she "lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German."

To recap: She refused to acknowledge that a university is a Business and should be run as such, and she refused to eliminate the Classics department from the school founded by Thomas Jefferson. Other reported philosophical differences included resistance to expanding pedagogically useless but phenomenally profitable "online degree" programs that amount to little more than for-profit scams servicing corporate clients and adult learners who need a rubber stamp in order to advance professionally. For years the Right has decried touchy-feely Multicultural studies displacing the real canon of Western thought – Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Adam Smith, and the like. Now it appears that the Business School and the Continuing Studies Online program are reflections of the true foundation of all Western thought – the Classics be damned.

Extrapolated twenty or thirty years into the future, these trends lead to universities consisting of little more than business, medical, science, and agricultural programs (to produce the next generation of Monsantans to sanction and patent life) offered in convenience formats offering guaranteed protection against having one's preconceived notions challenged. Here's an online course, and here are the readings. Skim them and conclude that whatever you already believe to be true is, in fact, reality. That things like the humanities and social sciences are being placed under the knife is not surprising, as the operation of public (and private) university systems increasingly falls under the sway of political appointees with no background in education and in fact no background in anything relevant at all; no qualifications, in short, except wealth and political connections (read: contributions). Does a millionaire land developer or trucking company executive know how to run a university? Of course they do – they're millionaires. They know everything.

From for-profit online education to Buy Your Own Endowed Faculty programs at public universities, the message is clear: education, like everything else, must be "run like a business." It must be so because the Business, as understood by Right Thinking entrepreneurs, is the final form of human organization much as capitalism is the final secular ideology and neoliberal democracy is the final form of government – the "End of History", so to speak. Who controls the present controls the past, and reshaping our past to produce the desired future is the goal of the current efforts to "reform" education. Inasmuch as re-imagining education through the lens of lemonade stand economics and a Bircher's view of American history and culture counts as reform, it appears to be proceeding apace.