2. A Jeffersonian Matter? Shrinking colleges, shifting dollars to K-12.


Dear Mark,

Your question 2. about General Education in a Free Society reads as follows:

2. In Harpham’s account, the Red Book seems of a piece with the good old days of taxpayer supported higher-ed, but by far the strongest funding argument happens in chapter 3, where the authors note that inadequacies in state funding for what we would now call K-12 education mean that “out of every hundred young people between six and nine are good college material but do not reach college” (88). The argument here is not “college for all” but “America needs talent”: it is wasting youths that could succeed in college if only their parents could afford to get them through high school. Has Harpham considered that reclaiming midcentury clichés might logically mean shrinking the number of college students and, perhaps, shifting dollars to K-12?

I am going to treat this as a Jeffersonian question, leaving the Redbook’s consistent counterpoint of normalization and the Jacksonian goal of “raising the level of the average student” (27) to our discussion of 3.

I’ll speak to my sense of Harpham on this in a moment, but in general I would say two things about the status of “America needs talent.”

First, I think the conventional wisdom today outside academia is very much “college for all,” with considerable disagreement on how to fund that goal and whether you get a residential experience to go with your course credits. Populists on the left and right privilege “accessibility.” This term morphs according to the user. A Fox News editorial supporting the ouster of UVA President Sullivan propounds, “Simply put, high-quality universities have become too expensive and increasingly inaccessible because their presidents and other top leaders have failed to recognize and address the challenges and opportunities posed to their institutions by new technologies.” On the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Act, the Carnegie Corporation has put out a press release concerning new poll data that shows “3 out of 4 Americans Feel Higher Education Should Be a Right.”

That may be how Americans feel, but will they pay for it? In California at least K-12 funding is what gets people to the polls. Or so our Governor hopes. He’s using a threat to cut K-12 spending as a stick to encourage voters to support tax hikes. Meanwhile, we may soon have a state budget that boosts funding to higher ed if the UC and CSU systems don’t raise tuition any more.

It appeals to me to think of this question of “college for all” v. “America needs talent” in terms of broader thinking about meritocracy. Has college stopped seeming like an engine for generating meritocratic hierarchy? And is that a good thing or a bad thing? There is, I’m hoping, a Chris Hayes “America After Meritocracy” angle to the question of how humanities cliches relate to the politics of academic funding. Hayes argues that universities have gotten worse at talent spotting as test prep and application coaching programs blur the good and the great (and leave those who cannot pay for test prep and application coaching out in the cold). He goes further, contending that the ideal of meritocratic mobility “runs up against the reality of…the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible.”

For Harpham’s part, I confess to not having finished his The Humanities and the American Dream yet, but so far the closest he gets to this question is in a chapter adapted from a talk he gave at the University of Richmond. There, he rehearsed the cliches of liberal arts education with its “critiquing, probing, testing, speculating” (132). He ties those skills to professionalization but not to meritocracy per se. The “liberal arts faculty,” he contends, “was brought into being by the desire to professionalize knowledge” (135). He has his eye, I presume, on the mid-century field-definers we talk about too in our work in progress. For liberal arts faculty alarmed about the rise of the professional schools, he argues, “the glass is half-full. For if the liberal arts are already professionalized, then the intrusion of professional education into the curriculum does not constitute a second fall of man, and a productive collaboration may be feasible without either side’s having to capitulate” (136). Of the examples he offers, the executive training team Movers and Shakespeares is especially intriguing. “A two-person mom-and-pop company,” in Harpham’s characterization, “founded on the premise that in order to be a good leader, one must understand people, and that Shakespeare understood people better than anyone” (139). So many thoughts come to mind. Among them, reflecting back on your post from a couple of weeks ago: here’s Shakespeare as an example for you. Certainly, the humanities in this usage (or English in this usage, lest you accuse me of conflating the humanities and English [perish the thought]), are on the side of professional-managerial differentiation.

As for the Redbook, as you say the authors of this volume see high school as a sorting mechanism, and hope that it makes clear who has the talent to attend college and who is but one of those “young people of average intelligence…not suited for the traditional college,” rather capable of profiting from “training in agriculture or nursing” (89). Everybody should have the “chances to perfect what is in them,” but what is in some is not in others (98). I think of Althusser here, and of an education apparatus that boots people out into vocational / specialized training as their aptitude allows. The Redbook authors imagine general education as “the trunk of a tree from which branches, representing specialism, go off at different heights, at high school or junior college or college or graduate school–the points, that is, at which various groups end their formal schooling” (102). The smarter you are, the longer you remain general in your education. When you shift to vocational training, you are finding your place on the great tree of merit.

It is fortuitous that Harpham has a tree as well. The faculty in the professional schools, he suggests, have long looked out of their well-appointed offices and asked of the university, “Why aren’t the English teachers treated as the marginal ones, the ornaments rather than the tree?” (135). Who is the tree and who the ornament at UVA if, as some commentators anticipate, the Board of Visitors decide to un-oust Sullivan?

Trees aside, who if anyone has interest in funding meritocracy these days, and how much do our cliches of critique, etc. depend on their capacity to mold the “talent” those Redbook authors think America needs? To answer this question might well tell us how out of sync our cliches really are with the tenor of contemporary conversation about the university.


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