About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Universities are people, my friend

by Leonard Finkelman

In December 1997, my paternal grandmother passed away. Joyce Finkelman was a model bubbe: caring, always stubbornly principled, and never anything less than completely overprepared for Sunday dinner [1]. She would shoulder her family’s burdens whenever possible, but would sooner die than spread her own burdens to the shoulders of others. And so she did.

I don’t know if my grandmother had been diagnosed with melanoma before she died; either my father chose to indulge my blissful mid-teen ignorance, or he was never aware of it himself. It makes little difference. The bottom line is that, after decades of working in harmonious concert with the rest of her body, some of my grandmother’s skin cells began ignoring the normal checks on their reproductive growth. Some of these overeager cells eventually entered her bloodstream to ride the currents to other parts of her body, including the blood vessels in her brain, where they apparently set up a franchise. It was there that they choked off blood flow to the one organ in the human body that needs it most. The resulting aneurism served as my family’s first evidence — already far too late, coming as it did after anything could be done — that the normal rules of bodily maintenance had broken down in my grandmother’s mortal coil.

In June 2012, Theresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, was effectively ousted by the school’s Board of Directors. The various details of the event have been well catalogued; for the best write-ups I’ve found, I’d recommend the outsider’s perspective provided by the New York Times Magazine and the insiders’ perspectives found in University of Virginia Magazine. Incredibly oversimplified summary: fearing that UVA had failed to monetize new education technologies sufficiently, the Board’s rector and vice rector — a real estate developer and hedge-fund manager, respectively — privately demanded that Dr. Sullivan resign her post. And so she did, only to be reinstated by the Board after seventeen days of controversy and protest from the school’s alumni, faculty, and students.

This is not a non-sequitur. Trust me.

As much as I detest the perpetuation of the theory of intelligent design in biology, I can understand its enduring appeal: multicellular bodies are marvels of “engineering,” requiring the unlikely cooperation of a wide variety of different cell lines to keep the organism alive. In a microcosmic version of the social contract, each cell line tacitly “accepts” checks on its growth so that it may pool resources with other growth-restricted cell lines and secure the means of its own perpetuation. Cancer is a violation of this contract, when one cell line exploits the others so that it may grow unchecked; hence anarcho-environmentalist Edward Abbey’s comment that “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell” [2].

Look: I know how this is bound to come across prima facie, so let me sound a cautionary note. I am not comparing the UVA Board of Directors specifically, or business-minded university administrators generally, to cancer. There’s a broader point to which I’m getting, and I really have no desire to smother my nascent academic career in its crib. I’m often naive; rarely stupid [3].

The broader point is about biological individuality. My next post will explore the concept in much greater detail; for now, it should suffice to say that I take it to be the case that two conditions must be met for an entity to qualify as a single biological thing. The first condition is division of labor between the entity’s parts: a body has to know its front from its rear. The second condition is a cooperative population structure between the entity’s parts: since the rear needs the front, any attempt it makes to take over the whole is doomed to failure. Life is a fundamentally collaborative enterprise.

A year after my grandmother passed, I matriculated at the University of Virginia. As Andrew Rice notes in the above-linked article for the Times, the university “is a place of many stately traditions … people there refer to ‘Mr. Jefferson’ as if he had just left the room.” There’s no doubt that Thomas Jefferson, who established the school with the help of state legislator Joseph Cabell, exerted an influence that’s still felt today for better and for worse [4]. The better part of it would be the role that Jefferson envisioned for his “academical village”: he expected that his faculty would “develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds … generally to form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves” [5]. In my own experience, the school’s faculty took this responsibility seriously: it’s telling that almost all of my friends — most of whom were engineering students — took several philosophy or philosophy-related courses, most often at the suggestion of their academic advisers and rarely for any credit useful towards their degrees. My grandmother’s death showed me how individuality breaks down after a loss of coordinated population structure; UVA showed me how an individual can be molded by cooperation.

That, I think, is the greatest insight of Jefferson’s philosophy of education: the product of a university education is a person, fully developed. Just as the development of an organism requires the coordination of a number of disparate parts, so too does the development of an educated person require cooperation between various disciplines. You learn critical reasoning in philosophy; communication in writing; quantitative reasoning in math; hypothesis testing in science; aesthetics in art; citizenry in history. Division of labor and cooperative population structure: the university functions as an individual. Education, like life, is a fundamentally collaborative enterprise.

I’m not indulging in willful naivete here [6]. I teach at the college level; I understand that my experience at UVA doesn’t reflect the current reality of most higher education. Too many American students simply aren’t meeting the high-minded standards given above, and so we have boards of directors panicking and demanding private sector-style innovation before the university goes the way of the non-avian dinosaur. But that response is precisely the problem.

There’s little doubt that the corporate mindset is spreading through academia. One need only listen to the incessant drumbeat calling for colleges to turn out more degrees; most recently, President Obama’s “College to Career” initiative has set a goal to raise the country’s college graduation rate to 60%, despite rapidly-shrinking budgets for public education. Some university boards (such as UVA’s) are turning to massive open online courses (aka MOOCs) as a potential solution; others (such as the the City University of New York’s) are developing initiatives that establish accountability benchmarks for academic departments [7]. Both these solutions import corporate-style “innovation” and “accountability” into the academy. After all, if the private sector can almost literally put the world in your pocket, shouldn’t it be able to resolve this apparent crisis in education?

Well: no. We’re already seeing the fruits of these initiatives beginning to rot.

I worked in the English department of Queensborough Community College for two years in their Writing in the Disciplines/Writing Across the Curriculum program. QCC’s English department is relatively large, but only because it has to be large. It’s essentially a service department: faculty in other disciplines count on the English faculty to guide students toward writing competency so that those students can then succeed in those other disciplines. The labor of education is divided; education itself is only accomplished through cooperation [8].

Towards the end of increasing CUNY’s graduation rate, the Pathways initiative would decrease the number of English credits that QCC students are required to take while increasing the number of students in each English class. At the same time, and in the name of accountability, funding for the English department would be tied to student performance benchmarks. In short: the English department has been tasked to do the job it currently does in less time for more students, and with increasingly limited resources. If it should fail, then the entirety of the school would suffer: without the development of their writing skills, students would have a more difficult time succeeding in other disciplines, making it more difficult for those departments to meet their accountability benchmarks. Naturally, the faculty rebelled; the administration threatened reprisal. The impasse has not yet been broken [9].

The sorts of stories coming out of UVA and QCC are going to become increasingly common as the corporatization of public education continues. I take this to be the case because corporate administration imports the wrong model of individuality into the academy.

Grounded as they are in capitalistic principles, there is a division of labor within corporations, but their “population structure” is competitive rather than cooperative [10]. This works well towards a particular goal: that is, the evolution (and implicit improvement) of commodities. College degrees are commodities; if the purpose of a university were simply to churn out graduates, then Wall Street would be the place to turn for solutions to problems in higher education.

Unfortunately (or, to be more accurate, fortunately), universities are not degree mills. We take it as a sign of failure on the part of higher education that students graduate without really learning anything. Our intuitive understanding of how a university should work is therefore more in line with Jefferson’s philosophy. Education is not a commodity; it is the foundation of valuation for commodities, and this is why the competitive model of individuality is not useful for its development.

Consider MOOCs: despite their fashionability in some administrative circles, the effectiveness of impersonal online education is debatable at best. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at UVA who is critical of MOOCs, argues that such courses are useful for informing students about a topic without really educating them. The example of QCC’s English department shows why: a full education requires the interdisciplinary collaboration put into place by a university curriculum. You can’t get all that with this 21st century version of a correspondence course, but you can get a credential [11]. Which is more valuable?

I’m not saying that there’s no room for innovation in higher education. I’m not suggesting that educators shouldn’t be held accountable for their performance or potential lack thereof. What I am suggesting is that universities ought to be viewed as functionally integrated wholes wherein the isolation of particular parts may have incommensurately broad effects. To my knowledge, corporate leadership has not viewed the academy in this context, hence various attempts to quantify accountability and diminish the capabilities of smaller liberal arts departments.

My grandmother would never get to see the person that college would make of me. I sometimes imagine her engaging in the timeless tradition shared by all Jewish grandmothers, i.e., indiscriminately bragging about her grandchild’s accomplishments to anyone and everyone who will listen. But I can’t imagine that bragging ever being about the number of degrees to which I’ve contributed credits; if anything, it’s about the extent to which I help to develop growing minds. If we as a culture want to take that same sort of pride, then the time has come to reconsider the context of corporate-mindedness in academia.


[1] I would happily forsake the principles upon which I’ve based my vegetarianism if it meant that I could have just one more of Momma’s chicken cutlets. Let’s not get into the depths to which I’d sink for two of them.

[2] Substance dualism is almost as unpalatable a theory as intelligent design, but I can understand its appeal, too: when you can justifiably fear your own body’s betrayal, it’s not too far to conclude (as Descartes did) that you are not your body. Of course, you can also fear chupacabras and unicorn gorings, so I’m not sure just how much you should trust your fears as a metaphysical guide.

[3] 113 out of 150 student evaluations can’t be wrong [12]!

[4] There was one instance in which I felt that influence directly: writing a comic for the school newspaper, I drafted a strip that used the word “enslaved.” Guess who had some editing to do.

[5] Wagoner, Jennings L. 2004. Jefferson and Education. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press. Pages 130-131. (You have no idea how much it irks me to see this book published by UNC.)

[6] Time enough for that when I go on the job market this winter, right?

[7] Full disclosure: both Massimo and I work for CUNY; neither of us is particularly enthusiastic about the Pathways initiative.

[8] The phrase, “It’s not my responsibility to teach students how to write,” came up a lot in conversation with faculty from other departments.

[9] Last week, QCC’s vice president ostensibly offered an apology, explaining that the suggested reprisal measures are “hypothetical.” Don’t be fooled into thinking of this as a concession: speaking strictly in my capacity as a philosopher, I can assure you that all actions are hypothetical before they are made actual.

[10] To be fair: when Mitt Romney ineloquently blurted out the line that served as the inspiration for this essay’s title, he apparently was not preaching the doctrine of corporate personhood.

[11] Shortly after being reinstated as president, Theresa Sullivan announced plans to bring MOOCs to UVA. Thus did we all glimpse the Platonic Form of Irony.

[12] Confession: I made those numbers up.


  1. Quick note: the phrase "captalistic principles" links to a wiki article on Adam Smith / Wealth of Nations.

    Here's what Noam Chomsky had to say about
    Adam Smith / Wealth of Nations:

    He's pre-capitalist, a figure of the Enlightenment. What we would call capitalism he despised. People read snippets of Adam Smith, the few phrases they teach in school. Everybody reads the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations where he talks about how wonderful the division of labor is. But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be. And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits.

    He did give an argument for markets, but the argument was that under conditions of perfect liberty, markets will lead to perfect equality. That's the argument for them, because he thought that equality of condition (not just opportunity) is what you should be aiming at. It goes on and on. He gave a devastating critique of what we would call North-South policies. He was talking about England and India. He bitterly condemned the British experiments they were carrying out which were devastating India.

  2. If education were purely a commodity, it would not be a good investment on the part of the student. So the MBA's better watch their step. They might commodify themselves out of the market.


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