Humboldt’s University and Neoliberalism

I’m thinking out loud here but that’s because I’m also a bit troubled by where we are going in higher education in particular, not to mention everything else.

Last night a bunch of my colleagues got themselves arrested at the Board of Trustees meeting to protest the lack of a public budget for the university. This is nothing really new because we’ve been protesting austerity for years now and the non-violent protesting is something that some of my colleagues have been doing for many years as well. They’ve managed to do some pretty heroic big lifts, such as pushing back a $485 million unilateral budget cut by our governor but alas, most of the efforts can best be seen as treading water. Austerity is the name of the game in the entire industrialized world and simply holding position is an effort.

The key problem isn’t austerity though. It’s neoliberalism. In case you haven’t figured it out liberalism itself isn’t exactly a progressive or left philosophy or politics. It’s a bourgeois ideology based on 19th century understandings of non-aristocratic pro-business thinking supercharged by the kind of economy that has at the root extreme outcomes. Liberalism invented the standard distribution, tolerated the trade union and saw a role for public goods and a type of meritocracy based on work, talent and access, but neoliberalism is based on very unequal distributions that benefit the corporate world by eroding tax collections, weakening the nation-state and using symbolic violence and the illusio of apparent merit to benefit the rentier class that owns the stocks, holds the bonds and sits on the museum boards and supports the political class. Neoliberalism uses quantitative means and the language of objective science to weaken and de-legitimize public goods and institutions.

In the university this means erosion of public funding and the substitution of that with tuition, philanthropy and measured of outcomes based on rational ideas of management. Rationalization means that you mis-recognize the catastrophic drop in funding as something else altogether, such as “unprepared” students, teachers who don’t embrace technology or who aren’t effective. That’s perceived as being rational and legitimate but the bottom line is it’s simple mis-recognition of the real problem, which is a downward spiral of funding.

It also means recasting the university as something different from what it actually is, and more to the point redefining faculty as something that they aren’t, or at least as casting what is only a part of what they are as the whole.

The modern university is more than student outcomes. I want to make it clear that student outcomes are important and have to be considered, but the university is not just that. It’s an enlightenment institution designed to create knowledge across disciplines independent of the state. Humboldt created the university on very infertile ground too: the Prussian authoritarian state.

Humboldt’s university was a liberal institution and as such it was widely adopted, including here in the United States where it was the inspiration for the Morrill Act. As Americans weren’t Prussians it was intended to benefit the mechanical and agricultural arts while the Prussian state was more interested in developing a cadre of educated people who could administer the state on rational, scientific grounds, it took another generation to really become a research based knowledge creating institution but from the start it was intended to be lightly regulated and independent.

The key feature of the model developed by Humboldt was not what we would call undergraduate education. The main feature was the Lehrstuhl, or the independent professional engaged in building up new knowledge in a given field. American higher education was, prior to the reforms sparked by the founding of Stamford, Chicago and Johns Hopkins, mostly seminaries and finishing schools, was undergraduate and limited professional education but the Morrill Act and these research institutions sparked something quite new, which is the dominant American research university.

I have to stop and go back to work…

Strategic Thinking

I hate using the term “strategic” as it implies a kind of top down approach to problem solving where a few brilliant people are responsible for all the planning and, eventually, the outcomes. It’s a kind of heroic thinking as well, where you lionize a few key people and then everything makes sense.

Perhaps the best example of this is the grand-daddy of so called great strategic thinkers, Winston Churchill. Yes, the man was sure strategic. He triggered a naval arms race that led to World War I, came up with the disaster that was Gallipoli, had his fingers in the cruel and thoughtless partition of Ireland on religious grounds after the equally cruel deployment of the Black and Tans and when he returned as First Lord in the Second World War immediately went to work undermining Norwegian neutrality. Was late to the game on convoys and thought that Greece and Yugoslavia, an area known for mountainous goat paths that defied invaders for centuries, was somehow a “soft underbelly” to Nazi Europe and preferable to the coastline of Normandy. Thank goodness Eisenhower and Roosevelt were able to hold the old boy back, but he’s celebrated as a great leader because he gave great speeches, so he must have had a strategy. Well, no. He was a meddler and wrong on many things.

Educational reform movements are led by contemporary figures who probably believe all the hype about Churchill, or at least they act like they do. No one has been more wrong on improving education that one Bill Gates, who parlayed the shittiest operating system he could find into a monopoly position because of good lawyering. Basically he did for computers what old man Rockefeller did for petroleum using nearly identical legal strategies. No one thought Rockefeller created oil though, and when somehow engineers figured out automobiles could run off of the byproduct of making kerosene for lamps, the lowly waste product we call, gasoline, a fortune was made even more impressive.

Rockefeller spent the rest of his life giving out shiny new dimes and then building memorials to himself that barely made a dent in his fortune. One of those memorials was the modern American research university. At least that reform worked.

Bill Gates has so far had an absolutely horrible impact on K-12 and university education, not to mention his impact on the teaching profession, but no one will say otherwise. He must be brilliant after all. He’s rich. And he has a strategy to improve education, but it never seems to do any good whatsoever.

When it comes to strategy I’m more in the Tolstoy mode. You want to improve things in schools then get the teachers involved. They’ll figure it out. Education is managed from the middle, not the top. When strategies from the top work you have figures like Horace Mann and Humboldt who start from the premise that you are educating whole human beings who are going to be enlightened, truth seeking citizens. In short you aren’t focusing on the practical, but the impractical.

Which is, in retrospect, why Winston actually was for a brief time a great strategist…

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson

The young Michelle Obama at Princeton

For those of us who work in public higher education there’s something that we need to always keep in mind. Our students are better than we think they are. That isn’t to say they don’t need the services we provide of course, but that we tend to underestimate them or act on our own bias about them directly but instituting structures that prevent them from achieving what they can.

I think this is particularly the case with much of what we are trying to implement with reform initiatives that come from the private sector, especially the reforms that the Gates Foundation is pushing forward, such as the idea that college education needs to lead to a career. It sounds reasonable of course, but it’s also quite limiting, especially when you consider that for most children in high school who come from a home where no one has been to college the idea of a career isn’t as much abstract as it is alien. I still remember when the child of a neighbor came to my CUNY campus for a Boy Scout event and he was convinced that I had to be a janitor because in his experience if you worked in a school you were either a teacher, a security guard or a janitor. Nothing else made sense to him. He ended up in prison. For him a career was not an idea he could even wrap his head around.

Education shouldn’t be about outcomes. Yes, that sounds radical on some level, but you don’t go to college to get a bunch of skills you can check off. That might be some of what you do, but mostly you go to engage yourself with people, ideas and situations that are beyond your current capacity. You go to college to not do anything particularly useful and the things you learn aren’t really useful at all until they absolutely are at the time you need them. They aren’t quantified or qualified. They are experienced and embodied. You create, as Bourdieu would say, a person with a durable habitus.

When CUNY was started in 1847 as the Free Academy the big debate was why should the sons of shopkeepers, tradesmen, and even worse, unwashed immigrants, spend any time on the liberal arts when they could be simply educated in the practical arts. That was all they needed. Only the gentlemen needed to be educated like gentlemen. The “practical” people lost that debate in 1847 but it never goes away. It comes back regularly, usually put forward by the rich, the powerful and the people who send their own children to Waldorf schools and expensive liberal arts colleges.

The young Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was a working class kid whose father was, to put it less politely than we hear more often than not, worked in a plant that dealt with the effluent of sewers, or better said, shit. Her mother was a homemaker. Her ancestors were kidnapped, enslaved and driven out of the South by Jim Crow and all that went along with that. In a world of outcomes and careers what would a typical reformer do but put her into some nice program that would lead to perhaps being less than we know her to be now. Still, she went to Princeton.

She didn’t go to Princeton to have a “career.” She went to Princeton to become a powerful, confident, fully formed human being. That’s a liberal arts education.

I often think that when the British Army had their back against the sea at Dunkirk their officers looked into the turbulent waters of the English Channel and remembered their old, worn schoolbooks in dead languages and the cry of joy of the Ten Thousand when they reached the shore in Xenophon’s Anabasis. Thálatta! The sea! They would not be defeated. Back at Downing Street, at the docks of Dover and in the halls of Parliament the sea became not a barrier, but salvation. Those who struggled with the ancient texts in hoary cold classrooms didn’t learn how to conjugate verbs or pronounce dead words. They learned how to react to something that a small child couldn’t imagine or foresee.

That’s education.


Stay Out of the Bushes

It’s probably fair to say that anything nice you say about George H.W. Bush and anything you say that isn’t nice about the man are going to both be true. He’s the guy who helped build the Southern Strategy to bring the GOP into power by exploiting white racist resentment around civil rights but he’s also the guy who brought Colin Powell and Condi Rice into prominence. But he replaced Thurgood Marshall with Clarence Thomas. Heck, before Reagan and Bush completely politicized the Supreme Court it was Republicans like Justice Warren who could be counted on to support basic human rights. Bush was, compared to the open sewer we have with the current GOP, a gentleman, but let’s remember he came to power by exploiting racism blatantly and without any regrets. He was nice to those he knew but in the abstract he’d do anything to hold on to power.

He was a Yale graduate who claimed some bullshit colonial lineage but it was all phony. His grandfather Walker was a rough and tumble business partner of Rockefeller who made his money extorting the railroads to purchase essential equipment in return for the right to ship Standard Oil. The Bushes were grafted onto the Walkers to link wealth to a veneer of noblesse oblige. Just like H.W. and W. were phony cowboys they were also phony eastern elitists. It was all for show, purchased with hard cash that got them into the Brown Brothers Harriman Bank and the United States Senate.

I have some level of emotional attraction to some of the surface qualities of Mr. Bush. Yeah. That’s what we remember. But don’t dig too deep.

Panther Partners

I’ve gotten myself involved with helping first generation college students with this program we call Panther Partners. Basically I mentor and provide support for a student who is the first person in their family to go to college. I’m technically second generation myself, but as the only one of six children to finish high school  I kind of know what they are going through. College success isn’t about intelligence or what some like to call “grit.” It’s more about feeling that it’s a good fit for yourself based on something you cannot quite articulate. It’s about seeing a reasonable trajectory for yourself that makes sense to you at the time.

Sometimes I think we abuse social science and the tools of academic assessment and management to the harm of students because we set up pseudo-scientific measures about suitability and preparation that are really much more about class, social standing and our own views about institutional prestige than what the actual needs of the students are. I think this is particularly true in how we abuse subjects like mathematics and high-fail courses like speech and chemistry to essentially weed out students. Students don’t do well because they are smart, work hard or are prepared. They do well because they fit into our own perverse standards built around artificial scarcity and class. We get the students and graduates that society wants, not the one the student needs.

Success is about knowing you belong, that your choices are valid and that you see yourself in a better future where you are valued. Not about anything else.

What’s a University?

I’ve been struggling over the years with questions around instructional technology. What took me years to understand is that I shouldn’t be thinking about technology. I should be thinking about schools.

When Wilhelm von Humboldt set in effect the proposal for the first modern university in a Prussia that was an authoritarian state dealing with the consequences of revolution throughout Europe he wasn’t thinking about content delivery. He was thinking about establishing a durable institution that could carve out some independence from the state to create new knowledge and create a place where the Enlightenment could grow and thrive. This required thinking about faculty and scholars at least as much if not more than thinking about students.

Technology can support that of course, but too much of our thinking around that is situating the technology primarily as a content delivery tool, and of course repositioning the student as a customer, not a scholar. Faculty are reduced to the things you can describe as transactional.

Not too sure if we can separate this from the rise in contingent faculty either. If you have your faculty reduced to atomized hourly employees then you have something much less than a university in the long run.

We have to get back to the university. Not too sure how technology will help with that.

Another Year…

As should be fairly obvious I don’t post here as often as I should. I mostly keep a paper journal that’s very private and not meant for anyone else other than me. I’ve been doing this since around 1978 or so and they’ve been piling up in a bookcase in the apartment.

I write with a fountain pen. It’s a Pelikan classic M200 with a black cap and a green body. I started using Pelikan pens thanks to an old friend in Berlin who swore by them as they have an internal pump and no need for cartridges. I’m currently using Waterman ink.

Writing with a fountain pen isn’t for everyone for sure but it is a pleasure and makes me very happy. Pens like this adapt to the hand and give a bit of an interesting feel compared to other types of pens.

Paper has changed, and I think that’s somewhat a result of technology. Ink and paper have a symbiotic relationship that’s not a trifling one. You can’t use paper that doesn’t go with the writing instrument and be a happy writer.

After years of working with nice, pedestrian, quad ruled composition books I’ve been forced to go the Moleskine route and use a more expensive notebook as the cheaper books aren’t dealing with the ink all that well.

Needless as it is to say this isn’t as much of a pleasure. It reminds me of Roland Barthes and Biarritz. “No progress in pleasures; nothing but mutations…”

Underway and Making Way

I am and have been for some time in the throes of a bi-continental lifestyle for about twenty years now but for the past three it has been somewhat intense with the wife and children entrenched in the heart of the EU. It isn’t tourism. It’s life. I once had this fantasy back in 1988 or so I would see the world but now I see specific small parts of Germany. It’s been interesting but I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not going to Burma any time soon.

i spent Christmas in the old Roman outpost of Xanten. From there Varus and his legions left to be obliterated in the dark forbidding forests on the other side of the Rhine. Now it is a charming “city” of 10,000 or so with a charming gothic cathedral, a regular market and a working windmill/organic bakery. It was unfortunately the place Montgomery choose to cross the Rhine but it also was visited by Napoleon who disestablished the cathedral canons. During the Thirty Years War the city walls were torn down but the towers were left. Today you can rent one for a vacation home. Under the Romans the town had running water, hot baths and toilets, amenities which didn’t come back fully after the decline and fall until after World War II.

Now I’m in the Free and Hanseatic City of Lüneburg. At one point in history it was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. J.S. Bach lived here as a boy and learned how to play the organ in one ornate church on one side of town while he learned how to play the organ in an equally ornate and even bigger church on the other side of town. All paid for by salt. Another huge church collapsed when the foundations gave way after all the salt under them was tunneled out. There are still altogether three big churches and one small Catholic one tucked away.

Bourdieu and Habitus

There has been a great deal of disappointment in my field of instructional technology as our experimental methods seem to show no difference when we apply a technological innovation. I think part of the problem is, as Howard Budin noted, education is itself a technology. We just don’t see it. Also, it is a pretty difficult thing to measure like a drug trial using quantitative methods. So I am pretty fascinated right now by this:


More to follow.

December 17, 1903

On this day in 1903 two brothers standing on a beach in North Carolina understood something better than anyone else in the world and did something that no one else had ever done before. They were a decade ahead of everyone else. Listen.

The world doesn’t change gradually. It makes leaps, sometimes from unexpected places by unexpected people at unexpected times. And, even though everything is amazing, nobody is happy…

Be happy.

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