From Great Universities to “Knowledge Factories”: Another American Institution in Decline

Thomas Frank, perhaps best known for What’s the Matter with Kansas?, an examination of America’s new conservatism, has an article in Salon, “The New Republic, the torture report, and the TED talks geniuses who gutted journalism.” Toward the end, he writes this:

The new press lord’s deeds are all made possible by the shrinking significance of everyone else. Compared to the patois of power, the language of journalism is but meaningless babble. Compared to once having been a friend of Zuckerberg, no form of literary genius matters any more. Compared to the puissance and majesty of the CIA, we amount to nothing. We are playthings of the powerful, churned out by the millions every year from the nation’s knowledge factories. We are zeroes to their ones, ready to rationalize monopoly or rectal hydration at a moment’s notice.

We’ve been through all of this before, though Frank doesn’t write about that. The late 19th century press barons such as William Randolph Hearst also reduced almost everyone and everything else to insignificance (that’s the rationale for his San Simeon estate–its grandeur reduced even Hollywood stars to bit players). What’s different today is that, after a century of progress toward providing real and substantial security for the majority of Americans we are returning to an age of insecurity, not moving farther from it. After building the possibilities of careers with stability in all sorts of fields (including journalism and academia, the two I want to talk about here), we are moving toward emphasis on the freelance, the contingent, the (to put it the way corporations like to) consultant. Today, we are both those who are churned out and those who do the churning–all without resistance. All of us, in the eyes of the new elite, are quickly and easily replaceable.

Frank, in applauding the mass resignation of the staff of The New Republic recently in response to changes being made by a new, rich owner with no background in journalism (Hearst, to give him his due, at least learned the business he bought rather than just “managing” it from the stratosphere–though he, too, completely revamped his first newspaper for a new age), also calls the act “’Hopeless’ because, as The New York Times noted in a story about the changes at TNR, ‘freelance writers are in abundant supply’ these days.” This, Frank goes on to say, is the real story, writing that “It has been obvious for some time that the great age of magazine journalism is coming to an end.” For there to be great writers, there needs to be at least the possibility of stability of place and of income (see Virginia Woolf on this, in “A Room of One’s Own” and “The Three Guineas”).

But Frank is too narrow. It is not only the age of great magazine journalism that is ending, so is the age of great American universities (among other things)–and for somewhat the same reason. When the factory model is imposed, articles and graduates are but widgets and the workers are much the same, identical and easily replaceable. If part of the problem with magazines today is reliance on freelance writers, the same holds true for universities–where up to three-quarters of undergraduate courses are taught by contingent (basically freelance) instructors. As Frank writes, to understand this:

we would do well to take our rapidly polarizing class system into account—the insane arrangements that allow tycoons to buy presidential campaigns while journalists and intellectuals become glorified temps.

He leaves out universities, but they are being bought and sold today, too (look at the outsized influence of the Koch brothers, who increasingly have a say in who is hired in academic programs they fund). The professors have less and less influence, to the point where the former Chancellor of the City University of New York could write that “governance of the University on all matters rests with the Board of Trustees.” The owners, to the members of the new American elite, are the only ones who count.

As Frank writes, “they are geniuses—everyone tells them so.”

65 thoughts on “From Great Universities to “Knowledge Factories”: Another American Institution in Decline

  1. Great post. Underlying so much of the decline is the shrinkage of federally funded research as a result of the huge national deficits we racked up to fight various wars abroad over the last decade. So even public entities scramble for funds from private donors and university programs are shaped by corporate donors. Faculty governance is almost non-existent.

  2. I don’t disgree with your premise. The question I want to ask is how do we reverse this situation. The rich want more and to give back nothing. I don’t know how we got this way or why we seem to accept this condition. Education to me is always the key which opens the door to a solution.

    • How do we reverse this situation? I am going to sound stupidly idealistic, here, but I think we have to start by demonstrating the joy of learning and the value that comes from it–not through scores on tests but through what people do with what they have learned. How? It will take time and work, but I believe ways can be created. We have to show that learning isn’t simply a question of meeting benchmarks but of living lives.

      • As a current Master’s student (in Canada, where the situation is much the same as the one you have described in America), I found your post very interesting.

        In my experience, however, the joy of learning is the only thing we have left in the system. Graduate students are well aware that they face dismal job prospects after finishing their degrees, and that their salaries aren’t enough to cover the basic costs of living. However, we still opt to entrench ourselves in debt, simply for a chance to participate in academic research and achieve some manner of personal satisfaction.

        It seems to me that those who can be swayed by the personal value of academic development are already supporters of academia.

        Rather than demonstrating the personal satisfaction obtained from academia, I would propose that we aim to demonstrate the economic potential of academic innovation in the marketplace. Eventually, all economic growth can inevitably be traced back to innovation. However, I regularly see academic professionals casually selling extremely valuable innovations for far less than they are worth, frequently because they feel that the personal satisfaction they obtained from doing the work is sufficient. I believe that the wealthy exploit this attitude to significant personal gain.

        I would say that it is the responsibility of the academic community to demand equitable pay for their contribution to society. The same can be said for other industries.

        As an academic, innovate. Use the money you receive as a “consultant” to turn your ideas into businesses. In this way, funds will flow from the upper classes to the lower classes. Hold on to your shares as the company grows, and the classes will slowly come back together.

        Of course, this may be too simplistic, but I do think the success of the upper class relies on the illusion that starting a successful business is very difficult, or prohibitively risky.

    • Transformation that may be required. We first need the right academics and not defend academia en masse. Only with the right academic leadership can the reversal of knowledge factories be achieved

  3. Reblogged this on Chaotic Pharmacology and commented:
    “He leaves out universities, but they are being bought and sold today, too (look at the outsized influence of the Koch brothers, who increasingly have a say in who is hired in academic programs they fund). The professors have less and less influence, to the point where the former Chancellor of the City University of New York could write that “governance of the University on all matters rests with the Board of Trustees.” The owners, to the members of the new American elite, are the only ones who count.

    As Frank writes, “they are geniuses—everyone tells them so.””

  4. Nice reflexion. Pretty much the same situation in Europe. Love the final quote, “they are geniuses, everyone tells them so”.

  5. One piece of reversing the situation is to emphasize job training in community colleges with provision for the transfer of community college credits to university degrees. Steer more students who are primarily interested in a job to high quality job training outside the academic setting. That should result in fewer students in the universities, relieving strain on facilities and faculty, and allowing for a greater university emphasis on pursuing education for the sake of knowledge, wisdom, truth and justice. Get back to the idea that universities supply society with a cadre of people trained in the ability to think well, and who are exposed to a broad spectrum of disciplines while mastering one.

  6. Reblogged this on Tim Baldwin and commented:
    Maybe it’s the way that the state of Maryland has interpreted the National Common Core Standards ( Or maybe it’s the way I have interpreted them in my own classroom. Or maybe I have been out of the university long enough that I have no idea what the current practice or belief within the discipline of Language Arts looks like in the college setting.

    I graduated with a Masters of Ar in Teaching in 2009. In 2003 I graduated with an undergraduate in theatre studies. Between 2003 and 2009, I took several English courses which completed a minor in English. Given what I know about current practices and beliefs when it comes to learning theory and the application thereof, I would say that in my experiences universities are behind the times when it comes to the way people actually learn.

    Maybe it was an exception to the norm, but I took a British Literature course in 2008. I was stressed because I knew how much I would have to read. However, I soon discovered that I did not have to read any of the material. By the second class, I simply had to skim the material while the professor lectured and summarized the text. Academic rigor in the universities at its finest! I hope not. I was not challenged academically or intellectually, though I achieved an A in the course.

    In my own class, I have at no point created a situation in which my students could ever get away with this. In a 60 minute period, I talk, give instruction, model thinking, etc. for no more than 10 to 20 minutes, depending upon what I am doing. My students in turn engage in inquiry based learning, requiring them to read, reread, analyze, discuss, and write about literature and its implications to their own lives, the world around them, and in connection to other pieces of literature they are reading.

    I use CCSS in my classroom because I have to. My students are challenged, not because of CCSS, but because I hold them to a high academic standard while hitting CCSS. As I said, I don’t know what a university English Literature or Composition class looks like right now, but I can speculate that not much has changed. The professors are probably still acting as the “sage on the stage”, expecting their students to mindlessly regurgitate his or her own interpretation of the text. That’s not learning. And it is certainly not teaching.

    My students do the majority of the thinking. My students do the majority of the problem solving, which challenges them cognitively and academically. I know in my experience that many of students that have spent 180 days with me are much better equipped to tackle complex texts than the average freshman entering their first English class.

    While I do not necessarily defend the CCSS, though I know it works when correctly applied as a guide from which an educator can veer away from when it makes sense to do so, given what he or she knows about what his or her current students need and are capably of achieving.

    I’m curious though, what is the current practice or belief in the University within the discipline of English Language Arts. Do the majority of professors truly believe that lecture is the best way of approaching a piece of literature?

    • Good question, Tim. I can’t say what most professors believe, but I think that those who lecture only do so because, frankly, it is easier. What you are describing takes much more work and more organization.

      What I was talking about was not classroom practice but approaches to literature. ELA follows a sort of dumbed-down New Criticism vision of the ‘four corners of the page’ as containing the entire universe necessary for understanding the text. That’s not particularly useful, especially as it gives “text” primacy over just about anything else–including thinking–and leads to just the sort of regurgitation you mention.

  7. Reblogged this on Baron von Renteln and commented:
    Bedauerlicherweise wird ein Monopol der zugänglichen Lernerlaubnis praktiziert indem ausschließlich das gelernt werden darf was erlaubt ist! Das selbstständige Denken wird dabei sehr stark im Menschen Recht der PISA-Bildung stark beschnitten.
    Die Wertigkeit des Menschen in sich durchläuft eine nicht zu unterschätzende Maximierung des geistigen Analphabetentums.
    Behandle einen Menschen so wie Du selbst behandelt werden möchtest bedarf im Neuen Jahr 2015 einer praktischen Wiederbelebung.
    Hierzu Aktuell ein Gedankengang seiner Heiligkeit Papst Franziskus.

  8. There are several aspects to the decline of academia that the author — not surprisngly, on his rush to look for a corporate strawman — misses. The “decline” is due to many forces 1) an antiquated view of the academci’s position. We are not “great men” that mids are coming to sit at the knee off. Good Google Fu and a desire to learn can get them an educatipn without us. 2) Increased demand, reduced utility: in the mad push of the ’80s and ’90s to get everyone a liberal arts degree, we caused massive inflation in cost for the schools and the students, while miinimizing the worh of the degree in the real world. Oh…that supply and demand thing. It’s a bitch. Because of this, the cost-benefit of a college degree outside of certain fields is, frankly, not there for most students; they’d be better served with a vocational school. 4) That reduced utility is causing a sharp drop in people interested in blowing money on college. Simply put, your product isn’t i. Demand. Worse, 5) the quality of the academic has suffered sharply due to arrogance and political posturing. There is very little diversity of thought, which leads to degraded education. This is especially obvious to he student (but, unfortunatle, not the purveyors of tired theories) — when everything is framed in terms of victimology, liberal arts educations are a waste of time for the student.

    I’ve been on both sides of the desk the last 15 years, and to anyone not desperately looking to cling to the past and ride the government funding gravy train, it’s painfully obvious that we’re aren’t providing the product they need in a time when a glut of graduates has created “certification inflation”, reduced utility to the student, and has led tp a retraction in the demand and respect for high education.

    • I will address your comments more concretely in a future blog post but I think I should start here.

      First, yes, it is possible to be an autodidact. There are plenty. But that does not mean it should be necessary or that it is even a good way to go. For most, learning on one’s own does not work well. Second, there was no “mad rush,” as you call it. Third, you are creating a false dichotomy between vocational training and the liberal arts. Pursuing one does not mean giving up the other. Fourth, there has been no “reduced utility” of a college degree–and such degrees are certainly in great demand. Fifth, the diversity of thought in our institutions of higher education is staggering. The only people who think not are those who find that their own narrow beliefs cannot stand up to scrutiny or who haven’t the guts to argue forcefully for their beliefs in an academic setting. Sixth, I have heard no one frame everything in terms of “victimology” (whatever that means). Seventh, it is the for-profit colleges who are really riding the “government funding gravy train,” not the traditional colleges and universities.

      When I post a fuller response, I will give the link here. Update: My response is here:

  9. Pingback: Why Are Universities In Decline? | Scott Rhymer

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  12. When we centralize, it’s power that’s being centralized (obviously). Decentralization is the only way forward for this issue of power disparity. To solve the problem of monolithic-corporate powers, we need a popular movement that abandons these corporations, refusing to do business with JP Morgan or Koch Industries, refusing to purchase gas from BP and Exxon, or to shop at Walmart.
    The Federal Government is supposed to keep reins on the largest of society’s corporations. It does the opposite, deregulating the largest while over-regulating the smallest. As the Federal Government has grown, corporations have seeded themselves into the back halls of DC that are too innumerable for the people to any longer keep track of (Monsanto riders, NSA spying, police militarization, all done well before the people notice).
    The same goes for Universities. As we saw with our health care, as soon as Medicare and Medicaid were put in place in the 1960’s, spending went through the roof and insurance companies moved in, establishing a bureaucratic hierarchy that slowly pulled power away from doctors and their patients – because too much money was at stake, the system became centralized. The same has happened with our Universities, as Federal student loans have become easier to access, these private, for-profit Universities have built up large bureaucracies to take advantage of all the easy money available – taking school away from the professors and students so the Board of Directors can make more money.
    If we want to fix education, stop the Federal funding. Make community colleges public extensions of high school, fully funded for whoever chooses to attend. Have these public colleges teach the Gen-Ed courses all Universities make students pay for, with lots of technical courses available to meet labor-market demands.
    If we dislocate public funding from private institutions, as needs to be done to maintain the necessary divide between the private and public sectors, we will see these private universities scrambling for ways to attract students, offering two-year degrees, lower tuition costs, and professor-driven programs that actually respond to the needs of the students.
    This isn’t an idealistic pipe-dream, it’s how things were before reams of federal funds were opened to private, for-profit institutions.

  13. Reblogged this on franceskelsey and commented:
    Awesome read. I am a huge advocate for education at every level. However, as we all know, every system in our society is money driven whether public or private. Schools, universities, and college, prisons. The breakdown in our system comes long before higher education. We have neglected to address the issues at the lower levels, daycare, elementary, and high school. As a society, we have proven we lack the ability to remain consistent in our teachings. Every year curriculums change as well as tests.

  14. Yes, and it’s been going on for 20 years, or close. Nothing new here, and it’s a sign the world needs changing. I don’t know why we talk about it instead of doing things. Even little things matter. Start with love and respect and you’ll go far. Have fun.

  15. One of the major issues corpoations AND potential employees face today is a catch-22: the employer would like to hire an experienced AND educated employee and the employee oft puts themselves in massive academic debt yet has no “real world” experience. So the job ad reads something like Minimum bachelors degree and 5 years experience in the field”. However, there ARE some employers, rare as they are, that will pay for experience and disregard the degree requirement, or vice versa. They will willingly train a college graduate or will help the non-degree holding, experienced prospect matriculate. And yes, the world of journalism has evolved at such a rapid pace that some news corporations don’t know how to effectively use the freelancers. Since the late 90s writers have a new platform: the internet. We are painfully behind the curve and the loudest mouths continue to dominate.

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