Ivory Tower Blues, the Sequel

The authors of 2007’s Ivory Tower Blues continue their exploration of a university system besieged and adrif.

Our most recent publication, Lowering Higher Education (University of Toronto Press, 2011), continues our contribution to the debate about the contemporary role of a liberal education. In the four years since the publication of our Ivory Tower Blues, we have learned much about the obstacles to having open discussions of what our universities should be attempting to accomplish in terms of learning processes and outcomes.

The fundamental problem in productively discussing the state of our universities appears to involve a general confusion about the very ‘idea of the university.’ Over time, the mission of our universities has been drifting from the original goal of educating students in the liberal tradition, including learning as an end in itself, to the objective of training students as a form of job preparation governed by a corporate model based on a market-logic. The title for this book was selected to signify a decline of higher learning in which the quality of liberal education is suffering to the extent that ‘hostile’ factions have appropriated its cachet. In a world where politicians repeat the vacuous rhetoric of ‘university for all,’ pseudo-vocational training is now routinely offered in hitherto liberal programmes that have been re-branded in recruitment efforts to promise students an edge in the job market.

Although a good liberal education undoubtedly is, and has been, of value for future careers, this drift toward pseudo-vocationalism is undermining that very value. Corporate universities have increasingly adopted pedagogical practices associated with training people to remember formulae, systems of facts, and procedures, largely through ‘gulp-and-vomit’ testing methods. This training model, which ‘efficiently’ awards degrees to large numbers of students in under-funded systems, is trumping the liberal model, in which students are more carefully educated to develop a critical awareness of the world at large and to communicate this awareness orally and in writing. We are thus witnessing a fundamental alteration in the structure and function of the traditional university and its curriculum. Regrettably, most of the stewards of the system—administrators—tend to be so caught up in the corporate model of service delivery that they apparently do not appreciate how much they contribute to the mission drift by marching in lockstep with this market-driven approach to university governance.

Our experiences in discussing our previous book with other academics, the media, the public, parents, primary and secondary school teachers, those in the ‘shadow research community,’ and (yes) administrators, have provided us with insights into the positions taken by key stakeholders in what we call the ‘higher educational forum.’ Looking at stakeholders as part of a forum helps us to understand why otherwise cooperative people are at loggerheads about how universities should function. In addition to helping us understand the gridlock among the competing interests of stakeholders in the educational forum, this metaphor of the forum illustrates how those making the most important decisions (politicians and administrators in the upper grandstands) are also most remote from the classroom (the arena). This remoteness from the realities of  the contemporary classrooms results in misguided stewardship,  exacerbating the  drift away from the liberal mission toward a pseudo-vocational one.

Somewhat to our surprise, strong moral support for our call to peg standards to liberal-educational ideals comes from teachers at the primary and secondary educational levels, who, from their front-line positions, are seeing a deteriorating respect for learning. Support from our colleagues at the post-secondary level has been polarized, with a vehement denial among those who are comfortable with a watered-down pedagogy that places few demands on them. Some of these obdurate colleagues raise the spectre of ideologies, associating us with the Right, but the call for liberal-educational standards does not neatly fit into either pole of the Left-Right continuum. The vehemence of the post-modern Left in opposing us has been particularly telling; accordingly, we trace how the Left has become factionalized, thereby allowing the corporatization to lead us away from the liberal mission.

With the Left paralyzed over cultural-war disputes regarding who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed, we argue that changes to the system will have to come from the grassroots of the educational system—dedicated teachers without political agendas or concerns about sinecure. University faculty  associations and secondary school teacher unions  will hopefully rise to the occasion of bolstering this grassroots support. These representative bodies must be convinced that there is an urgent need to address deteriorating working conditions in the classroom. It will take the collective opinion of their memberships to convince unions and faculty associations that some dysfunctions in the system are tied to the mission drift away from the liberal tradition and are not simply tied to funding levels.

Students are increasingly treated like customers by these pseudo-vocational institutions and, therefore, expect services and products in return for their tuition fees. The services include high grades achievable with little effort, while the products include credentials with a guaranteed job destination, again with little effort. But in a liberal model, students are not customers, they are the product, and they are attending in order to undergo a transformation that is largely intellectual in nature. Importantly, students must come to universities with the habits of heart and mind conducive to participating in this transformation. A higher educational system without a transformative culture is not worthy of its name.

Teaching is but one part of that transformation. The role of the teacher is to identify the reading material and written/oral assignments required for students to become proficient at a particular course level and to guide students through the learning process, which potentially transforms the student in some way. However, with the sense of entitlement engendered by the corporate university, most students will not prepare for classes and will expect all material to be told to them in simple terms in entertaining classes. What is lost here is the implicit bi-lateral contract of higher education for students to meet their teachers ‘half-way.’ When students put out the effort to partner with professors in the teaching/learning process, classes assume their proper place as the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of learning rather than the ‘iceberg.’ Programmes that require students to learn only in classes—thereby misleading students that classes are the ‘iceberg of learning’—are little more than high schools.

Thus, we now have many universities where a ‘culture of disengagement’ prevails instead of a transformative learning culture. Many students in this culture of disengagement have an institutionally validated sense of ‘entitled disengagement’ never found before in institutions of higher learning. Although, grade inflation and disengagement can be found in the past, never have both simultaneously occurred in such proportions and have been condoned by universities. The credential awarded by such institutions is more accurately called the ‘BA-lite’ or even the ‘faux BA’ in the case of students who do next to nothing to earn it and are, therefore, essentially untouched by the experience.

Are these problems severe enough to warrant being called a crisis? We argue that the answer is ‘yes.’ In contrast, many observers will apparently define something as a crisis only if there is evidence of impending doom. In our view, the crisis the Canadian university system faces is an identity crisis, and like the identity crisis that can be experienced during major life transitions, action is required to redirect behaviour patterns. People who do not resolve an identity crisis are not usually doomed, but they must take action if they are to derive more benefits from their future life. We argue that students and faculty currently face interrelated crises that are propelled by the wider system-crisis, but that the system-crisis must be addressed first. The example of Finland  shows how one country has reformed its higher educational system by carefully distinguishing liberal and vocational institutions and explicitly assigning them to different roles.

The issue of academic disengagement looms large in this debate, and there is now such an abundance of historical and comparative evidence that even the most ardent defender of the status quo must consider this new evidence, which refutes the claims by those who argue that disengagement is inevitable in our ‘mass’ universities and that students should be excused for it because they are too busy with other things in their lives. Using this new secondary evidence, along with new primary evidence based on our analysis of a large data set purchased from the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research (which  carries out the annual National Survey on Student Engagement), we show that these defences of ‘disengagement by necessity’ are fallacious and that most disengagement is ‘by choice.’

One final issue  is the growing enticement of the ‘new technologies’ that some people claim can solve the disengagement problem. Our systematical review of the various technologies, from clickers to podcasts, finds some pedagogical utility but concludes that they are unlikely to turn the tide in the current culture of disengagement. In fact, the wholesale embrace of the rhetoric surrounding these classroom technologies would likely hasten the corporatization of universities, eroding teacher autonomy, authority, and job security. In place of a professoriate that defines the university curriculum would be the imperatives of these technologies (i.e., what works to keep the attention of students in large classes, otherwise known as ‘edutainment’) and the growing power of the corporations driving the technologies.

Contrary to what some defenders of the current system might claim, as critics of the Canadian university system, we do  not advocate an élitist approach to student access to universities. Indeed,  students from disadvantaged backgrounds should be adequately prepared for, and welcomed to attend, liberal universities, but we should be certain that we are giving them a quality education and not just taking their money to subsidize those universities, as is currently the case. In addition, we do not want to return to some ‘golden age’ of education, and we are not complaining about ‘kids these days.’ To the contrary, universities are here to stay, and regardless of the past, the question before us is just what form they will take in the future. In the long view, those of us teaching in the system are its stewards, even if administrations have attempted to strip us of that role. Accordingly, we are obliged to look to the needs of future generations of students and not be guided by either the imputed sins or the imagined glories of the past, or by the neo-liberal logic of the current era. We owe this to the current generation of students as well as to future generations. 

James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar are professors in the Department of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario. Their previous collaboration, Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis, was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2007