Values in conflict: The university, the marketplace and the trials of liberal education

by Paul Axelrod
ISBN: 077352407X

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A Review of: Values in Conflict: The University, the Marketplace, and the Trials of Liberal Education
by Nicholas Maes

Despite its apparent removal from daily events, the university shapes and influences our society to an extraordinary degree. Through its training of professionals, intellectuals and businessmen, the university serves as the gateway to our common future; on the other hand, because it sponsors a profusion of scholars whose daily task is the interpretation of our culture's evolution-archeologists, historians, literary critics and the like-it is as well the repository of our collective past. Indeed, when one glances at the prospectus of the typical university, with its course offerings in physics, engineering, nursing, commerce and education, to name but a fraction of its possibilities, it is difficult to think of a subject that lies entirely outside its jurisdiction.
Given the university's crucial place in our world, it should worry any thinking individual when this pivotal institution undergoes a change of operation, especially one that seemingly undermines the integrity of its academic practices. It is such a change that engages Paul Axelrod's attention in his short, but cogent study Values in Conflict: The University, The Marketplace, and the Trials of Liberal Education.
The liberal arts, Axelrod explains at length, have been a central prop of post-secondary education since the creation of the university in medieval times. Unfortunately, Axelrod laments, this age-old primacy of the liberal arts has been seriously compromised in recent days by governmental preoccupation with outside market forces. Whereas a liberal education should be an end in itself and require no justification beyond the intellectual adeptness it bestows, various observers of the academic world have begun to question its purpose and desirability. Political and economic considerations have entered the higher education equation, and because the liberal arts graduate fails to bolster the economy to the same degree as the chemical engineer, administrators and government are no longer willing to support the Humanities as they have in the past. To be sure, since the Industrial Revolution there have always been critics who have advanced a pragmatic agenda within the ivory tower, one that would equip students for the rough and tumble of the work-a-day world, but this initiative has always been counterbalanced by the traditionalist's emphasis on inquiry, knowledge and the pursuit of higher truth until now.
The devaluation of a liberal education has produced a drastic change of attitude. By departing from its former generosity and reducing its funding of post-secondary education, the government has caused tuitions to skyrocket and allowed certain disciplines (within the Humanities and social sciences) to fall by the wayside. To guarantee administrative accountability, moreover, governmental agents have devised a series of performance indicators' that are supposed to measure institutional efficiency, but ignore the less tangible (yet substantial) aspects of a university education, cultural significance, quality of scholarship and intellectual refinement. Finally, to compensate for the withdrawal of public funds, the government and various university administrators have encouraged the private sector to play a greater role in daily academic life.
This last development, in Axelrod's opinion, is particularly questionable. Corporate funding can create a climate in which faculty members are not valued for their intellectual prowess so much as for their capacity to contribute to a company's bottom-line. Business needs, and not curiosity, often determine the direction of research, whose participants are now expected to kill' discoveries that might otherwise compromise their corporate sponsor (e.g. Olivieri vs. Apotex), or to conceal their findings until the appropriate patents have been filed.
This last development, in Axelrod's opinion, is particularly questionable. Corporate funding can create a climate in which faculty members are not valued for their intellectual prowess so much as for their capacity to contribute to a company's bottom-line. Business needs, and not curiosity, often determine the direction of research, whose participants are now expected to kill' discoveries that might otherwise compromise their corporate sponsor (e.g. Olivieri vs. Apotex), or to conceal their findings until the appropriate patents have been filed. It is difficult to disagree with these contentions. Government funding of the universities HAS declined in recent years, and corporate influence on the campus IS unquestionably on the rise, with no blueprint in sight to limit undue encroachment on the integrity of academic standards. On the other hand, Axelrod ignores a serious component of the academic/corporate equation, the university's internal chaos and outdated priorities. Despite the accuracy of his observations, Axelrod never considers the possibility that the academic may himself have brought this market-driven philosophy into being, through his impracticality and, worse, self-indulgence.
In response to mounting economic constraints, the university has been turning more and more to private institutions for financial assistance, with worrying results (loss of academic independence etc). If we look closely at a class of academics that has appeared in recent years, the part-time or temporary faculty member, and describe this population's employment conditions, an ugly picture emerges.
Unlike his tenured counterpart, a non-tenured faculty member is overworked, underpaid, receives few benefits, enjoys no job security and is poorly represented by his faculty union. Hired essentially as a departmental work-horse, the contract worker is often burdened with less desirable teaching assignments, ones that involve large classes, lots of marking and inconvenient scheduling-at a fraction of the salary that a tenured professor might receive. Because few or inferior research resources are placed at his disposal, he must prove himself through his capacity to teach, but unfortunately such success seldom leads to tenured employment (an irony we will discuss in detail below). Doomed to low-paying contract work, then, this hidden' academic is often scorned by his tenured counterparts and essentially excluded from the core of daily university routines.
Axelrod, attributes most of these gross imbalances to the cost-efficient practices that universities have been required to adopt, and not to the vagaries of academic culture, as if the current crisis in the university, in particular the devaluation of a liberal education, were solely the consequence of our profit-oriented globalized economies. While this line of thinking is partially justifiable, it tends to absolve the academic of his own substantial contribution to this debacle.
For the last twenty-five years, as Axelrod himself points out, undergraduate enrollment figures for the Humanities and social sciences have been on a steady decline, even as engineering, computer science and the like have continued to attract large numbers of freshmen, to the point that these disciplines regularly turn prospective students away. However one explains the appeal of these latter fields over their less practical' counterparts, even an ardent Humanist would admit that enrollment is something of a market force and cannot be ignored altogether by the bureaucrats and administrators whose job is to direct funding to the university's various limbs and organs. If the department of Classical Studies, for example, were suddenly overwhelmed with students, government assessors would look favourably on this discipline and funding would dramatically increase. At any time, therefore, but especially in an age when the value of literature or historiography is not obvious to the potential university graduate, the academic staff must work hard to sell' their disciplines, to advertise' the essential merits and purpose of the Humanities, in an effort to staunch the steady flow of students from the liberal arts to the Faculty of Dentistry, say. However much one deplores this harsh reality, it is the means by which a field of study survives. Even as he criticizes the government, then, for its more business-oriented view of the university, Axelrod should at the same time be asking whether faculty involved in the liberal arts are working hard to promote their specialties in the eyes of the general student body.
A casual glance at the general structure of the doctoral program and, more significantly, the hiring process for tenure-track faculty damningly suggest that the professors in question are not only indifferent to the necessity of promoting the liberal arts, but regard successful salesmen' with ill-concealed contempt. . . .
No reasonable critic of the university would deny that scholarship plays an instrumental role in academic life, and that scholars have been responsible for remarkable and valuable feats of learning, in the Humanities and other disciplines. Given Axelrod's well-grounded contention, however, that the liberal arts are in a precarious state, isn't it reasonable to scrutinize, even as one criticizes the government's funding practices, the academic's value system, i.e. his emphasis on research and dismissal of sound teaching skills? Is it not scandalous and strangely shortsighted that academics continue to measure tenure-worthiness solely by the ability to add to the professional literature-never mind that classicists alone produce some twenty thousand articles a year, and that thirty years from now the bulk of this material will be pretty much ignored by the specialists themselves?
Who is more of an asset, in this age when enrollment figures determine a department's funding? The scholar who has proven prolific, or the instructor who every year attracts a few more students to the discipline? Which figure is contributing more to the health of the liberal arts? Until Axelrod can demonstrate that the university is genuinely interested in the competent instructor, to the point that teaching ability becomes as much a path to tenure as the capacity to publish, his criticism of governmental attitudes will fall short of the mark.
Should the government subsidize tuition costs? Yes. Should corporations dictate the direction of university research and influence administrative policies? No. Should the university be evaluated according to a business model? No. But in a climate where government is cutting back on social programs; where the undergraduate population manifests little interest in the traditional liberal arts curriculum; where doctoral candidates in the Humanities and social sciences are graduating in large numbers and have no hope of landing a temporary position, let alone a tenured one; where tenured staff continue to embrace a set of values that promotes the manufacture of scholarship above the task of classroom teaching, at a time when such instruction is the sole means of attracting students back to the liberal arts; in such a climate can Axelrod legitimately claim that that the essential threat the ivory tower faces is due to the steady encroachment of market-place values upon the academic landscape? Perhaps he should take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask his fellow academics to shoulder some responsibility for the sad condition of the Humanities. The ultimate goal, surely, is that universities continue to offer a liberal arts program, that classics and philosophy and history and literary criticism are not eliminated from the curriculum altogether. Unfortunately it is hard to believe that these fields will endure, let alone flourish, when their present-day practitioners have got their priorities so desperately wrong.

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