I knew that just like most of today’s institutions or industries, the higher education industry has been corrupted beyond repair or redemption. One need only briefly watch or listen to Dr. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto to get that. But I’d no idea the extent to which it’s been corrupted—until I stumbled across an article entitled Pass, Fail: An inside look at the retail scam known as the modern university by Ron Srigley, professor of philosophy and religious studies at Laurentian University.
According to the article, the entire process has become basically entertainment and self-esteem coddling in exchange for upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is no teaching going on. And the marketing/advertising departments have grown to match or exceed the teaching staff. Kids are being seduced into the University to spend their money in exchange for a cake walk and a slip of paper saying they’ve done their time. And that’s it. Granted, these examples are from Canada, but I’m sure it’s much the same in the US.
To give you a quick idea of just how bad it’s gotten, here’s a brief segment (emphasis mine):
“A couple of years ago, I dimmed the lights in order to show a clip of an interview. I was trying to make a point about the limits of human aspiration, a theme discussed in one of our readings, and I’d found an interview with Woody Allen in which he urged that we recognize the ultimate futility of all endeavours (a tough sell in today’s happiness market). The moment the lights went down, dozens and dozens of bluish, iPhone-illumined faces emerged from the darkness. That’s when I understood that there were several entertainment options available to students in the modern university classroom, and that lectures rank well below Twitter, Tumblr, or Snapchat.
Yet you can’t get mad at students for being distracted and inattentive, not like in the old days. “Hey, you, pay attention! This is important.” Say that today, and you won’t be met with anger or shame. You’ll hear something like “Oh, sorry sir. My bad. I didn’t mean anything.” And they don’t. They don’t mean anything. They are not dissing you. They are not even thinking about you, so it’s not rebellion. It’s just that the ground has shifted and left the instructor hanging there in empty space, like Wile E. Coyote. Just a few more moments (or years), and down we’ll all fall. These people look like students. They have arms and legs and heads. They sit in a class like students; they have books and write papers and take exams. But they are not students, and you are not a professor. And there’s the rub.
All efforts to create the illusion of academic content are acceptable so long as they are entertaining, and successful participation requires no real effort and no real accountability. Serial use of YouTube clips, Prezi presentations, films, and “student-centred learning activities” continues to be peddled for pedagogical relevance. Last term, I was driven from my office on many occasions because the movie soundtracks emanating from the seminar room next door were so loud and unrelenting that I couldn’t concentrate.
If you’d like a sense of how content-free it can get, here’s a case in point: I have heard of an instructor, one sans PhD, who assigned his students videos of himself talking about this or that subject as their class text. A digital lecture is assigned as preparation for a live lecture that will be about a digital lecture. And this not from a Hannah Arendt or an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but from a partly educated sessional instructor with a curiously inflated sense of self.
If you find this troubling, consider the new “business model” proposed for universities in 2009 by Charles Manning, the chancellor of the board of regents in Tennessee. Manning thought he could save universities a good deal of money by offering students a tuition discount if they agreed to “work online with no direct support from a faculty member.” Digital lectures for live classes with real students? Sounds expensive. How about no lectures, no students, and, best of all, no professors—just student-directed online activity at cut-rate prices? If this sounds to you like a typical Wednesday night of surfing the web, that’s because it is. How universities could persuade anyone to pay for this kind of experience, discount or not, is a mystery to me.
Great works—of science, art, literature, philosophy, and history—are the giants on whose shoulders we stand in our efforts to become giants ourselves. The fact that such works may now plausibly be replaced by narcissistic and transparently self-promoting twaddle, or indeed by nothing at all, is a sign of the nihilism of the modern academy. This is the classroom in which our sons or daughters (or you) very likely sit each day, so let’s map the contours of its nihilism a little more systematically.
Students today read very little. In 2009, the Canadian Council on Learning reported that 20 percent of all university graduates in Canada fell below Level 3 (the minimum level of proficiency) on a prose literacy scale provided by the Programme for International Student Assessment. That proportion was expected to rise.”
“So long as your class is popular and fun, you’ll be favoured by the administration and probably receive a teaching award. This, even though your students will leave your class in worse condition than they entered it, because you will have pandered to their basest inclinations while leaving their real intellectual and moral needs unmet.”
Read the full article here.