Friday, August 6, 2010

A Weird Idea That I Don't Like

Twitterland denizens include LitCritHulk, GRAMMARHULK, FilmCritHULK, and feminsthulk.  In addition to being academically diverse, Twitterland also ecumenically hosts JESUSHULK and  BuddhistHulk.  Would that they would all unite to smash, smite, and, thereby, enlighten Dr. Richard Vedder who uses The Chronicle of Higher Education to suggest that the ivory tower should emulate Walmart and McDonald's.

Let's begin with the the requisite disclosures, I am a high school teacher who has been described as a "frustrated academician"; I am not a college professor nor do I portray one on television.  I make purchases at Walmart and occasionally consume McDonald's fare.

On to the crux of Professor Vedder's argument; Vedder contends,
To keep costs down, both McDonald's and the University of Phoenix offer a relatively modest number of products and produce them efficiently in a highly standardized way. The traditional universities teach thousands upon thousands of courses, most of them unimportant either to learning skills or understanding and advancing Western civilization, but are taught because the employees want to teach them. They are not standardized because that would be a violation of academic freedom, allegedly.
Maybe it is time traditional universities learn something from both McDonald's and the University of Phoenix (and Bridgepoint, Kaplan Higher Education, Corinithian Colleges, etc.). Why not do what Vance Fried proposes, and offer an $8,000 or $10,000 full cost per student university, offering a limited but adequate number of courses to give a solid education and even some vocational skills, but cut out all the rest?
Far be it from me to dispute the necessity of an inexpensive college education.  I'm helping put two younguns through college now.  I am channeling my inner Hulk at the idea that the university should emulate a big box store that increases the idea that everything must be disposable.  No one goes to Walmart to buy something that ought to last a lifetime.  I hope that education has such permanence. People shop at Walmart to buy inexpensive products so that the consumers will not feel guilty when they they throw away the gegaw, doodad, trinket, or widget.  I shudder at the fact that an allegedly learned individual would consider education a disposable product akin to bulk paper plates.  The comparison between the spiritual and intellectual nourishment from a good education and the nourishment provided by a Big Mac and fries shouldn't need any detail beyond a mere mention.

Further, "limited" and "standardized" seem to be the goal of NCLB.  Once again, I'll leave it to big boy blogger Rod Dreher to explain the pernicious effects of NCLB:  "intellectually capable public school students are stagnating in the era of NCLB."  So high schools are now allowing smart kids to languish; soon colleges and universities will be doing the same.

Finally, the terms "limited," "standardized," and "vocational" indicate that education is not good for its own sake; instead, it must have a practical use.  Based on my experience as a high school teacher, people who want education to serve at practical purpose usually seem to believe that the most practical thing in the world is training young people to make money for CEOs and other upper level management.  Given that "[t]he overall CEO-to-worker pay gap is exceptionally high; S&P 500 CEOs in 2008 earned 319 times more than the average worker," I suppose the McDonald's and WalMart examples or, at least, the companies' pay structures make sense if further entrenching a class system is one's ultimate goal.  Vedder was writing his modest proposal "on a boat on the Rhone River in France," sardonically observing "the life of a college professor is tough."

Ideas have consequences; the film Inception observes that ideas are "resilient parasites."  I'm afraid of the side effects of Vedder's parasite will have far reaching and sickening consequences.

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