Wait, Why Do We Have Colleges Again?

In keeping with a suggestion of the Radical Teacher board that (1) our blogs be more like provocations than like articles, and 2) we bloggers think of one another as our primary readership, with others hopping in as they choose, here’s a puzzle for you all.

For 30 years, government and think tank reports have built on the premise that schooling and higher education are valuable chiefly for their contribution to US prosperity, and more particularly, US “preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation. . . .”  (A Nation at Risk, 1983).  International competitors were overtaking the US then, and are still doing so, according to just about every report since, and every piece of educational legislation.  The main Bush II entry in these loser sweepstakes, with reference to colleges and universities, was A Test of Leadership; Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education(familiarly, “The Spellings Report,” 2006).  What “we want”  is “a world-class higher-education system that . . . contributes to economic prosperity and global competitiveness.”  What we’re in danger of getting is a system of higher ed “characterized by obsolescence,” like the railroads and steel mills of an earlier time.  Help Wanted, a report of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (2010), says “we will need 22 million new college degrees” by 2018, and that falling short of that goal will “damage the nation’s economic future,” as well as the prosperity of millions of workers unprepared for work in the new knowledge society.  And so on, through many worried studies about our endangered capitalists.

But wait:  how come, two and a half years into the depression, the job market for college graduates is still so terrible?  How come the market for professionals (e.g., Ph.D.s) stinks?  How come half of the older workers who have been unemployed for six months or longer have had at least some college education (TomDispatch, Oct. 5, 2010)?  It seems that the capitalists know what they are doing:  stock prices and profits have recovered briskly since 2008, with no recovery in employment, and no rush to hire college grads.

No surprise in any of this, for people who have followed globalizing capital’s assault on highly educated and well paid workers in the US.  Why, then, do the Obama administration, its Republican opposition, the think tanks and task forces, unions and privatizers, all agree that “we” need a lot more of such workers?  That’s my puzzle.  How come the ideology of education as engine of US competitiveness chugs along, untroubled by what actually-existing capitalism is doing every day to regain control and further its project of development?  And if I’m not missing something here, why does this ideology seem to require dutiful pledges of allegiance from academic administrators and progressive legislators?

Dick Ohmann

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