Amoeba Talks Universities In Amerika

So, apparently, a major upscale university in the Untied States has been in a bit of an uproar lately, because a faculty member ran a sex show in one of his classes. And a former university president wrote an article about this, in which he managed only to prove the truth of the adage, “A person who has made a contribution in a field of endeavor will, if he live long enough, become an obstruction in that field in direct proportion to the significance of his original contribution.”

No, I won’t cite the university, the circumstances, or the article. Websearches should turn all of them up easily enough. In Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba’s opinion, the only thing worth quoting in Mr. President’s article was the line in which he fretted for his vision of education at this particular school, “… lest parents think [the university in question] was offering, at roughly $45,000 a year, the educational equivalent of a stag party.”

And the only reason that the line is worth quoting is that it was actual news in, like, 1968. Thereby demonstrating just how out of touch Mr. President is. Perhaps deliberately so; perhaps he has an audience prepared to be told the news of the early Nixon Administration, enough of an audience to keep him well supplied with gall and Viagra. The Viagra, of course, so that he can, when no one’s looking, respond more, ah, appropriately to the sex show.

Your amoeboid correspondent long ago gave up on the idea that university education is A Great Good. (Steven Dietz, in his play Still Life With Iris, has the best and truest take on ‘Great Goods’ that I have seen … if you get a chance, take in this ‘youth’ play.) I’ve alluded to this on several occasions, but let me, if you will, and once for all, write plainly about the reasons why.

Reason no. 1. The University is a business, and always has been a business. And, Mr. Friedman, the sole purpose of a business is to make money. Therefore, the University exists to make money, and has always existed to make money. It so happens that most Universities make money to protect and grow their business, rather than to enrich one or more investors. Promoting this perception makes it easier for the University to make money, by appealing to certain audiences either to spend their own funds on it, or save the University’s coin by refraining from charging the University for their services. The bottom line remains the bottom line.

Reason no. 2. The University has three principal ways to make money.

A. Donations.
B. Grants and contracts.
C. Student payments (tuition, fees, room and board).

Public universities (used to) receive funding from the states in which they resided; I treat this funding as a form of donation, in this case from state taxpayers, who, once upon a time, deemed it a Great Good to make a University education available to students who did not chance to be born into the Rockefeller or Vanderbilt families, and therefore could not otherwise attend a University. A quick check of the news will assure you that We the People no longer consider this service to be of value; in fact, We’d far prefer it if We could charge the Universities for the privilege of educating Our children, rather than supporting them in this role. This makes the public universities, no less than the private ones, dependent on (private) donations, grants/contracts, and students.

Reason no. 3. The University has every incentive to charge students as much as the market will bear for its product, and little incentive to monitor the quality of its product.

Formerly, YFNA argues, the principal product of the University was graduates, especially graduates entering one of the professions. The University’s ability to make money depended on the readiness of these graduates to enter their professions. A student who wasn’t making the grade (or, grades) would be dismissed, because the University could not afford to keep him – the poor student would damage the University’s reputation, and the next class of students would not come. Furthermore, the professions had a strong interest in keeping graduates both properly qualified and scarce. The quality enhanced the reputations (and hence, the earning power) of the professions, and the scarcity kept compensations high.

For the last thirty years, YFNA thinks, the principal product of most Universities and University programs has been courses. Students, told by various figures of Authority that a University degree is a Great Good, demanded the ability to get a degree. Any degree. At any cost. The University, being (see Reason no. 1) a business, and pleased to find that society now gave them the option to sell courses without regard to the quality strictures of the professions (which means they could spend less per course, and thus boost margins), was more than happy to oblige. This is how we obtain students who have University degrees in Marine Biology (and the accompanying six-figure debt) who make less, upon graduation and in a good job, than the kid fresh out of high school who signs on as a trainee manager at a fast-food restaurant. This is also how we get students with bachelor’s degrees who cannot read, write, or do arithmetic. The University doesn’t care if Homer spends his entire six-year undergraduate program playing Tetris in his room with the shades drawn, so long as he pays his fees.

The ‘better’ universities (the Harvards, Yales, Northwesterns, Stanfords, etc.), YFNA reckons, offer one other major product. Adoption. Adoption into the clubs, fraternities/sororities, and other connections that afford the adoptee a chance to enter the same corridors of power and prestige as those who have achieved such status by right of birth. This is the “experience” that many Universities market, in the hope that they can convince the student that she, too, can enter the corridors of power merely by signing on the dotted line, and paying through several orifices simultaneously for the privilege.

For a number of years now, We the People have been told that the acquisition of a University degree is a Great Good. That a progressive society will have a high percentage of degree holders. Your amoeboid correspondent, rather, believes (and has believed, essentially all along) that this “good” is in fact a great evil.

It has led to the creation of a massive education industry that is concerned more with its own bottom line than with the futures of the students it “serves”.

It has generated the gross hypocrisy of today’s “student athlete” – who is no more than an underpaid mercenary serving the University’s Public Relations Department (see Reason no. 2A, supra).

It has focused attention on itself as the portal to success in life, for a fee, and has thus drawn attention away from, and permitted the destruction of, public-funded primary and secondary education. As a consequence, not only are most University students being had, they have been denied the tools (knowledge, especially knowledge of economics) that they need to figure out that they are being had!

Yes, yes, I know, I know. If every student in high school actually made informed decisions about their best paths in life, most of today’s Universities would go broke.

But isn’t that what the Tea Partiers whom We the People just voted into office want anyway?


  1. OK, it was Northwestern.

    My friend Charlie, a geographer whose post you saw (and whose birthday you once helped me celebrate on Waking Ambrose), once told me that there was something of a natural experiment conducted when a funder gave African states money to be spent on education. If I recall the story correctly (and hopefully Charlie will be along to correct me if I get it wrong,) Ghana (I think) had the best results and poured their money into elementary schools. Nigeria had the worst results, using their funds to endow some of the continents premier universities. Of course, in the U.S. we could easily fund both if we were willing to pay taxes which it seems we aren’t so very much.

  2. Mmm–this is Charlie. Glad to hear I triggered…*something*.

    too late at night to be coherent, so I will say no more. Except that I’m honored to know Doug and all of his friends, both virtual and real (whatever the terminology may be).

    • Glad you dropped by, Charlie. Sometimes it does seem like one is a voice crying in the wilderness, talking mostly to the cacti and scorpions whose replies tend to be sharp and pointed. Meanwhile, the proles … well, you read about that in 1984, right?

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