A year or so ago, I was sitting in a session with an overly earnest consultant from the AACU. There came a point when employer surveys entered the discussion. The skills desired by employers were the same as those offered by a “liberal education,” thus making the case for a liberal education an economic one. One of the nuances missing in the discussion, though, was the fact that employers want problem-solving resources, not critically engaged citizens.
I did not raise that point in the conversation, and I’m sure the distinction would have been lost, or its significance downplayed, had I done so. However, it’s part of the same set of concerns involved with the Wisconsin legislature’s actions this session. Of course, the attack on tenure taking place this week, alongside massive budget cuts, are on everyone’s mind. However, it’s worth recalling that earlier in the session, Governor Walker basically proposed jettisoning the Wisconsin Idea of an academy engaged in the life of society. In Walker’s desires, and those of the Koch brothers financing him, it would be re-written to focus on the employment needs of the state.
Problem-solving resources, not critically engaged citizens.
These attacks are not new, nor are they surprising. The assault on tenure is part of the same process as the adjunctification of the labor force. This involves the replacement of full-time (salaried) faculty (with benefits) protected by tenure with (underpaid) contingent faculty (with no benefits), lacking any job security and dependent on student evaluations and administrative goodwill for their employment. Creating fewer people with “just cause” protections means a more insecure and inexpensive faculty.
It’s interesting that the Wisconsin stuff is happening at the same time as the Temple University hearing on adjunct unionization. It displays the worst ideals of management ideology. I think the heart of that ideology can be found in the term “human resources.” In that tiny little term, humans are reduced to things to be used in pursuit of organizational goals, things that happen to be human. Organizations want to use fewer expensive things, and if those things are expensive, they better pay for themselves (by grants and the like). And, like good things, they’d best not think too much or be too independent.
I’m not sure what the answers are, and we all need to think more about them. Two things come to mind, though. First, attack the idea that employment and economic activity is the sole rationale for education. It is true that people are looking for credentials that will be useful on the labor mark. However, as Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson has demonstrated, textual analysis is a useful skill taught in our college classrooms, as skill he obviously lacks.
The other thing deals with the employment side of academic labor: we must expand the “just cause” protections of tenure. That’s obviously one of the things that is being attacked, not only in teaching, but also in research. It’s about controlling the research and teaching agendas, such that we are building problem-solving resources, not critically engaged citizens.