By: Katerina Zissouli, Ph.D.
There is a lot to be said regarding the commodification of higher education in the United States of America. In fact, the systematic, methodical obliteration of the liberal arts can serve as a testament of this commodification. It goes without saying that at this juncture, definitions would not serve any purpose whatsoever. That is to say, certain definitions are in danger of becoming absurd, of losing their meaning. However, such definitions may be necessary in light of so many misinterpretations. For instance, the liberal arts in higher education are presented in a way that renders them “distinct from professional and technical subjects” (dictionary.com). The problem comes in when certain groups of people with hidden agendas misunderstand or intentionally misinterpret the meaning behind liberal arts education. That is to say, confusing liberal arts education with the political meaning of the term “liberal” essentially harms higher education and by association students who enroll in colleges and universities across the country. In other words, the conservative view of liberal arts education as liberal education, that is to say encompassing leftist ideas is not only wrong, but also harmful for our young people and the future of this country. Unbeknownst to some, liberal arts education has nothing to do with Communist indoctrination. Yet it appears that nowadays eliminating the liberal arts and commodifying higher education is of the utmost importance on many campuses across the country. To that effect, Michael Berube talks about “The naysayers of the Liberal Arts and Sciences [who] eagerly await the commodification of higher education not because such institutions do not work, but because, for the most part, they do” (280). Berube goes on to say, “In fact, in the US there are a number of institutions that are considered financial ‘powerhouses’. Earning a degree in such institutions not only enhances, but also guarantees the future wages of their graduates” (280). In addition, if we consider the fact that higher education institutions, “Employ millions of faculty and staff across the country in what are some of the most stable workplaces in America: Penn State is not packing up and heading for Mexico or India anytime soon, and neither are Harvard, Johns Hopkins, or the University of Pittsburgh” (Berube 280). It is not difficult to infer the importance of such institutions to the country’s economy. Furthermore, these institutions support and sustain local economies as the towns that surround such campuses flourish “not despite things like tenure but because of them” (Berube 280). In other words, higher education institutions have been financially successful because they were able to hold commodification at bay (Berube 280).
Yet many groups of people who find liberal arts education dangerous, do not hesitate to view it as a business. To that effect, the projected message that young people receive regarding liberal arts education is that of time wasted in frivolous pursuits that are a luxury in a world where the bottom line is more important than values, morals, and ethics. In fact, quite often young people are told that liberal arts degrees are a joke, as the top priority among college students today is high paying jobs. In other words, “Money becomes the ‘exclusive denominator’, defining ‘prestige, excellence, competence, commitment to the public good’” (Engell & Dangerfield 69). That is to say, the message young people receive today through various main stream and social media outlets clearly states that if a college degree does not come with a high salary label, is not worth studying! Nevertheless, it is common knowledge that successful people (entrepreneurs, visionaries), people who changed the world as we know it, had a liberal arts education!
In this instance, however, we are looking at a more pressing problem that has to do with higher education in general and not just liberal arts education: the model of education as a business. In his seminal text, The Postmodern Condition, Jean-Francois Lyotard foretold over twenty years ago that those who supply knowledge and those who consume it are connected in a way that makes the relationship liable. The increasing liability of this relationship would replicate the relationship between commodity producers and commodity consumers. In other words, the power of such relationship lies between the product and its value (5). To that effect, higher education institutions either have begun or are in the process of selling knowledge at a price. According to Lyotard, the “use-value” of knowledge for its own sake is no more, for it must be produced and consumed in order to be “valorized in a new production.” In other words, an exchange of sorts must take place (5). As a result, we have come at a crossroads where the commodification of higher education has become reality.
Probing further, we discover that capitalism, according to Gilles Deleuze, “is not at all territorial, even in its beginnings: its power of deterritorialization consists in taking as its object, not the earth, but ‘materialized labor’, the commodity. From these standpoints, it could be said that capitalism develops an economic order that could do without the State. And in fact capitalism is not short on war cries against the State, not only in the name of the market, but by virtue of its superior deterritorialization” (236-237). Alarm bells are set off, according to Umberto Eco, regarding a number of situations around the world, not because reason is being attacked. Rather severing the connection between reason and truth, renders “bad reasons harmless” in the large scheme of things (126). As Eco warns us, “Crisis sells well” (126). Higher education, we are told, is in crisis. By severing the connection between reason and truth, politicians, business folks, and administrators have decided that this crisis must be addressed and fixed. As a result, and not by choice, higher education is deterritorialized. Frederic Jameson, in fact, claims, “The inherent nature of the product becomes insignificant… while the goal of production no longer lies in any specific market… or social and individual need, but rather in its transformation into that element which by definition has no content or territory and indeed no use-value as such, namely money… [and] takes its flight to other profitable ventures” (153). In the context of higher education, Jameson’s idea (borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari), is of great significance, as it endorses the drive to commodify higher education. Clearly, transforming knowledge into commodities and selling it for a profit is appealing to the various aforementioned constituencies.
However, before it is too late, those involved in higher education must examine the relationship between knowledge and ignorance very carefully. For instance, Lyotard explains that the binary opposition knowledge/ignorance is not at play here. Rather, it is about the distinction between “payment knowledge” and “investment knowledge” (6). Moreover, according to Lyotard, “Knowledge and power are two sides of the same question: who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what needs to be decided” (9)? All this inevitably leads us to consider “disruptive innovation,” as it applies to higher education. In a nutshell, disruptive innovations is “innovation-driven worth.” Yet, this “theory is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success” especially when it is applied to higher education (Christensen, Raynor & McDonald 44). Consequently, this theory, more often than not, has been misused and/or misinterpreted. Most people think that it has to do with any disruption in a business (Christensen, Raynor & McDonald 44). In accordance with the original model of disruptive innovation, however, “Different types of innovation require different strategic approaches” (Christensen, Raynor & McDonald 46). In other words, this approach does not work for every industry or business, never mind higher education. To that effect, David Noble explains, “At the expense of the original integrity of the educational process, instruction here has been transformed into a set of deliverable commodities, and the end [result] of education has become not self-knowledge but the making of money” (26). It is not difficult to figure out how this is possible. Technology has made all this easy: this model is delivered via online modalities. In other words, it is the drive to shift attention from the experience and interaction between students and faculty in the educational process, to the production and inventorying of an assortment of fragmented “course materials,” such as syllabi, lectures, lessons, and exams (“content”) has already taken place in a number of institutions across the country (Noble 26).
Hence, higher education institutions, their faculty, and students become producers and consumers of commodities. In this light, professors inevitably become “commodity producers and deliverers, subject to the familiar regime of commodity production in any other industry, and students become consumers of yet more commodities” (Noble 26).
In this light, the shift in the relationship of the student and faculty, which takes the form of a financial transaction, is apparent. However, even though it appears as if education is involved in this transaction, clearly it is not. Rather, students receive “an assemblage of pieces without the whole” (Noble 26).
Certainly, there are several implications to this model. For instance, this type of “educational” interaction does not only affect faculty, it also affects students (obviously). In fact, Noble states that this type of “education” has been given a name: EMOs (education maintenance organizations), which is the equivalent to HMOs (health maintenance organizations). In other words, Wall Street folks decided that since there is no additional moneys to be made in health care, education is next (26). This unfortunately brings us to funding and higher education. And indeed, it is a sad story (for more information, see Jenny Abamu, The Pew Charitable Trust, “Federal and state funding of higher education,” June 11, 2015, http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2015/06/federal-and-state-funding-of-higher-education). For instance, recent budget reductions indicate that by 2016, the higher education budget was reduced to $59-billion dollars. Currently, there is a proposed $9-billion-dollar reduction in higher education spending, which would eliminate teacher training programs and higher education financial assistance. In addition, various federal programs, used to provide services for disadvantaged students are to be cut by $192-million dollars (Federal TRIO, GEAR UP that fund Upward Bound, and other such programs). Federal work-study programs are also slated to be cut (Abamu). The implications of federal and state funding cuts are obvious. Public colleges and universities are funded by state and federal governments because they provide a valuable service to citizens and “local economies” (Merry).
All this and more, “Prompted the push for these institutions to make their own money, and this is the reason many decided to switch to a business model” (Merry). We have come to the point, in fact, where “the goal of higher education is no longer to create, transmit, or apply knowledge,” but to turn a profit (Engell & Dangerfield 1)!
The consequences of commodifying higher education are disastrous and will be even more so in the future. That is to say, students who are not academically prepared or cannot afford an ivy league education would be negatively affected by the cuts. As the divide between wealthy and disadvantaged students increases, so will the worth of a higher education degree.
This brings us to the commodification of knowledge. Certainly, in the age of technology, commodifying higher education is not impossible. But we must ask the following questions:
Is commodified knowledge really knowledge? And is the commodification of knowledge morally and socially correct (Wright)?
How can we convince a money-hungry society that happiness, self-fulfillment, truth, even perhaps enlightenment do not come with a price-tag? How can we insist that commodifying knowledge would be detrimental to human existence? How can we teach our young people that work ethic, morals, and values cannot be bought or exchanged? At this point, there are more questions than answers when it comes to commodification of higher education. However, one thing is certain: the consequences of this are going to be severe as it is going to affect the overall health of the global economy in the near future.
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Berube, Michael. What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher
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