Friday 24 April 2020

As Higher Education Loses the War on Anti-Intellectualism and Greed, Aesthetics Are the Forgotten Casualty

When I was a high school senior choosing a college, one of my main criteria was aesthetics. I demanded a beautiful campus, with historic, ivy-covered buildings, with wood-framed chalkboards in the classrooms that hadn’t been replaced by ugly, modern whiteboards. I wanted formality, ideally academic robes, and the ability to live in a dormitory on a leafy, idyllic campus for all four years. I wanted to feel my place in a long line of scholars, going back to ancient Greece, soaking up knowledge from venerable library books that had served generations of learners. If Harry Potter had existed then, I would have said I wanted a university version of Hogwarts. Oxford or Cambridge clearly would have suited me best but, as an American, I sought out the most aesthetically-suitable of the New World options. Luckily, the U.S. does have a wide selection of historic colleges. But it might not have them for much longer. Higher education was already under threat in the United States before COVID-19, and it appears that the pandemic will serve as the final nail in the coffin, relegating the United States to the Third World status that its lack of an adequate social safety net has revealed it deserves.

Anti-intellectualism, manifested as a belief that your ignorance is as good as my knowledge, to paraphrase Asimov, has led to widespread denigration of the value of higher education. The Internet, potentially a way to equalise the dissemination of knowledge, has led to a devaluation of experts. “Why do I need to go to college when I have Google?” is the new excuse of the undereducated. Colleges are complicit in their own demise by offering not just individual courses online but entire online degree programs, up to and including doctoral level. Institutions saw online education as a way to increase revenue because online students don’t require campus facilities or staff, and courses can be taught by grossly underpaid adjuncts, who can be hired on a per-course basis, without the expense of benefits. A college can charge the same tuition for an online course as for the in-person version, but its costs are exponentially less.

The third fatal blow to higher education, after anti-intellectualism and online education, is the vocational attitude adopted by potential students and their parents in response to the outrageous costs of tuition and fees for a four-year undergraduate degree. A college education used to be the ticket to a white-collar job, and higher earnings than your high school-educated peers. But the 6-figure price tag of college, coupled with the lifelong indentured servitude of student loans, has driven students to think of themselves as customers, buying a degree that will lead to a job that pays enough to justify the expense of student loans. There is no intellectual curiosity, no learning for its own sake. Students go through the motions of taking classes, insistent that the money they’ve paid entitles them to passing grades in each course, and a degree, regardless of whether they have done any work or learned anything. They also require that degree to lead to a specific job. The result of this attitude is a drastic decline in the number of students majoring in the social sciences and humanities, and an increase in students choosing majors like nursing. When I went to college, I was told that what I majored in as an undergrad was largely irrelevant. The point was to receive a good liberal arts education that would imbue me with the writing, analytical, and critical thinking skills to embark on the career of my choice. Specialisation, I was told, should come in grad school. It’s impossible to imagine any high school senior being given that advice today.

This attitude of four years of college being an idyll of reading and intellectual discussions on a leafy campus harkens back to the days when higher education was the exclusive purview of the wealthy. Only those who did not need to make a living, who came from family money, had the leisure to study and learn. Indeed, no matter how intelligent you were, like poor Jude, you could not gain entry to a university in the UK unless you had the fortune to be born into the higher classes. I wasn’t; I was the child of a poor single mother, and female, both of which would have precluded my receiving any education at all in previous eras. 

So, I am not waxing nostalgic about a time when most people were excluded from university education. But there was a golden age in both Europe and the United States, after World War II, and the GI Bill, when higher education was opened to all, based on merit rather than money, sex, or class. That was a time when you could afford to go to college regardless of your background, and you could devote yourself to getting a liberal arts education rather than viewing higher education as vocational. Technical and vocational schools were for the non-college-bound, the electricians and hair dressers, a grey area between blue- and white-collar work that requires some training beyond high school. They serve as a modern replacement for apprenticeship.

Now, the pandemic has caused most colleges and universities in the United States to send students home to finish out the spring semester via online learning. Graduation ceremonies have been cancelled, and whether in-person learning will resume in the autumn is as yet undecided. Some high school seniors are choosing to take a gap year, attend school online or closer to home, or forego college altogether. Schools have been pressed to partially refund room and board money for the spring semester, and students are suing to recover a portion of their tuition, arguing that the hastily arranged online versions of their courses are not an equivalent learning experience. Federal aid has so far pumped $14 billion into schools that are haemorrhaging money, laying off staff and faculty, and facing potential closure, but it’s a drop in the proverbial bucket. Schools have requested $50 billion more,  just as an initial Band-Aid, with hundreds of billions more needed to keep them from closing if enrolment drops in the fall, as it is almost guaranteed to do.

That money will not be forthcoming from Congress so schools will close, and with their closure the traditional college experience will disappear forever. In a post-pandemic world, small colleges with quaint, picture-postcard campuses will have closed, and students will be stuck with dodgy online schools, community colleges, or big universities with ugly, modern buildings. The transfer of learning opportunities to new environments will deprive future students of the opportunity to spend four of their most formative years on the quad, learning purely for its own sake, enjoying an idyllic, transitional time between childhood and adulting, developing a moral compass, and a sense of their place in the history of learning. No online course can replicate having an engaging, intellectually-stimulating class in a historic building on a crisp autumn day, watching the leaves change outside the classroom windows. No more discussions spilling over into communal meals in the dining hall, followed by late night study sessions in the library, and deep conversations in the dormitory common rooms. These experiences are a vital part of the learning process; they cannot be replicated online nor in ugly, modern facilities.

I mourn the loss of the college campus and the traditional college experience. It's a vital part of growing up to be an intelligent, educated adult. I worry, from the perspective of historic preservation, what will happen to the campuses when so many schools close. But there isn't a damn thing I can do about it. The forces of anti-intellectualism and capitalist greed have won out over aesthetics and learning. Knowledge, as it turns out, isn't power. 

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