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How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps

By       Message Debra Leigh Scott     Permalink
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Step Five -- Destroy the Students

While claiming to offer them hope of a better life, our corporatized universities are ruining the lives of our students.   This is accomplished through a two-prong tactic: you dumb down and destroy the quality of the education so that no one on campus is really learning to think, to question, to reason. Instead, they are learning to obey, to withstand "tests" and "exams", to follow rules, to endure absurdity and abuse. Our students have been denied full-time available faculty, the ability to develop mentors and advisors, faculty-designed syllabi which changes each semester, a wide variety of courses and options. Instead, more and more universities have core curriculum which dictates a large portion of the course of study, in which the majority of classes are administrative-designed "common syllabi" courses, taught by an army of underpaid, part-time faculty in a model that more closely resembles a factory or the industrial kitchen of a fast food restaurant than an institution of higher learning.

The Second Prong:  You make college so insanely unaffordable that only the wealthiest students from the wealthiest of families can afford to go to the school debt free. Younger people may not know that for much of the 20th Century many universities in the U.S. were free -- including the CA state system -- you could establish residency in six months and go to Berkeley for free, or at very low cost. When I was an undergraduate student in the mid to late 1970s, tuition at Temple University was around $700 a year. Today, tuition is nearly $15,000 a year. Tuitions have increased, using CA as an example again, over 2000% since the 1970s. 2000%! This is the most directly dangerous situation for our students: pulling them into crippling debt that will follow them to the grave.

Another dangerous aspect of what is happening can be found in the shady partnership that has formed between the lending institutions and the Financial Aid Departments of universities.  This is an unholy alliance. I have had students in my classes who work for Financial Aid. They tell me that they are trained to say NOT "This is what you need to borrow," but to say "This is what you can get," and to always entice the student with the highest possible number. There have been plenty of kick-back scandals between colleges and lenders -- and I'm sure there is plenty undiscovered shady business going on. So, tuition costs are out of control because of administrative, executive and coach salaries, and the loan numbers keep growing, risking a life of indebtedness for most of our students. Further, there is absolutely no incentive on the part of this corporatized university to care.

The propaganda machine here has been powerful.  Students, through the belief of their parents, their K-12 teachers, their high school counselors, are convinced by constant repetition that they HAVE to go to college to have a promising, middle class life, they are convinced that this tuition debt is "worth it" -- and learn too late that it will indenture them.  Let's be clear: this is not the fault of the parents, or K-12 teachers or counselors.  This is an intentional message that has been repeated year in and year out that aims to convince us all about the essential quality of a college education.

So, there you have it.

Within one generation, in five easy steps, not only have the scholars and intellectuals of the country been silenced and nearly wiped out, but the entire institution has been hijacked, and recreated as a machine through which future generations will ALL be impoverished, indebted and silenced. Now, low wage migrant professors teach repetitive courses they did not design to students who travel through on a kind of conveyor belt, only to be spit out, indebted and desperate into a jobless economy. 

The only people immediately benefitting inside this system are the administrative class -- whores to the corporatized colonizers, earning money in this system in order to oversee this travesty. But the most important thing to keep in mind is this: The real winners, the only people truly benefitting from the big-picture meltdown of the American university are those people who, in the 1960s, saw those vibrant college campuses as a threat to their established power. They are the same people now working feverishly to dismantle other social structures, everything from Medicare and Social Security to the Post Office.

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Looking at this wreckage of American academia, we have to acknowledge:  They have won.

BUT these are victors who will never declare victory -- because the carefully-maintained capitalist illusion of the "university education" still benefits them. Never, ever, admit that the university is dead. No, no. Quite the opposite. Instead, continue to insist that the university is the ONLY way to gain a successful, middle class life. Say that the university is mandatory for happiness in adulthood. All the while, maintain this low-wage precariate class of edu-migrants, continually mis-educate and indebt in the students to ensure their docility, pimp the institution out to corporate interests. It's a win-win for those right wingers -- they've crippled those in the country who would push back against them, and have so carefully and cleverly hijacked the educational institutions that they can now be turned into part of the neoliberal/neocon machinery, further benefitting the right-wing agenda.

So now what?

This ruination has taken about a generation. Will we be able to undo this damage? Can we force refunding of our public educational system? Can we professionalize faculty, drive out the administrative glut and corporate hijackers? Can we provide free or low-cost tuition and high-quality education to our students in a way that does NOT focus only on job training, but on high-level personal and intellectual development? I believe we can. But only if we understand this as a big picture issue, and refuse to allow those in government, or those corporate-owned media mouthpieces to divide and conquer us further. This ruinous rampage is part of the much larger attack on progressive values, on the institutions of social good. The battle isn't only to reclaim the professoriate, to wipe out student debt, to raise educational outcomes -- although each of those goals deserve to be fought for. But we will win a Pyrrhic victory at best unless we understand the nature of the larger war, and fight back in a much, much bigger way to reclaim the country's values for the betterment of our citizens.

I am eager to hear from those of you who have been involved in this battle, or are about to enter it.  We have a big job ahead of us, and are facing a very powerful foe in a kind of David and Goliath battle.  I'm open to hearing ideas about how to build a much, much better slingshot.

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Writer, Co-Producer,   'Junct: The Trashing of
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How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps