The New U | The Nation


The New U

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Duderstadt--Not! would make a fine title for Stanley Aronowitz's The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning. Like Duderstadt, Aronowitz has spent much of his career in universities, but he sees himself as situated outside the mainstream--in, but not of, the academy. The book reflects this critical distance. It is a tirade against all the changes in higher education that have been wrought in the name of efficiency.

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David L. Kirp
David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Sandbox...

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The Knowledge Factory is more dour and less pleasurable to read than Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt's Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education, which covers similar ground with greater wit and juicier stories. While Aronowitz touches all the bases--the debasement of intellectual pursuit in favor of the useful, the growing influence of big business, the disappearance of faculty autonomy, the increasing vocationalism of students and so on--the thrust and logic of his argument is hard to pin down. Clearly he's mad as hell and doesn't want to take it anymore, but just what is he mad at? Is faculty unionization, which he avocates, a strategy for reconstituting the university or just a way to preserve the privileges of tenure-ladder professors? Are students potential allies in a rebellion against career education or simply seekers after credentials? Does higher education enlighten students or domesticate them for inherently alienating jobs? Are administrators the true managers of the knowledge factory or the shills for big money?

Much of the argument proceeds by anecdote, and anecdote of dubious generalizability at that. The fact that neither Theda Skocpol nor Paul Starr was given tenure by Harvard's sociology department speaks volumes about the pathologies of that particular department but does not demonstrate that women and leftists have been kept out of elite universities en masse (Skocpol went to Michigan, Starr to Princeton--tony "exiles" indeed). That Duke's English department couldn't hold on to all the stars it recruited does not mean that prestige-hungry universities shouldn't go after star faculty. Oft-told tales about New York's City College in the thirties, when Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol were young, really don't speak to the present situation. If that was a moment when, as Aronowitz observes, working-class students could receive a liberal education, those students were few in number, and most of their peers went straight into the factory. Has the emergence of mass higher education made the world a worse place?

Although The Knowledge Factory is radical in its critique of the new "busni-versity," it turns sharply to the right when it comes to prescription. Most critics of the market ethic want to set the clock back to higher education's presumed glory days, the fifties and sixties, when money was easy to come by and liberal arts education was in fuller flower. The Knowledge Factory looks back to an earlier era, the days of the true core curriculum, as its model.

The crucial question of how universities should be run is handled in just a few pages--an odd editorial choice in a book that focuses on the damage wrought by structural changes in how higher education is governed. The barely sketched proposal to restore faculty hegemony over academic life invites the herd of cats called professors to run the show, without any reason to believe that they'd do a better job than the present crop of administrative mandarins.

The centerpiece of The Knowledge Factory is a richly detailed liberal arts curriculum--Stanley Aronowitz on one end of the log, the student on the other. In his desire to prescribe what students should learn, Aronowitz is just like scores of professors, Howard Roarks of the academy, each harboring a vision of intellectual utopia. What's urged is wonderfully old-fashioned stuff. Down with relevance. Revive the Great Books curriculum, updated to include the perspectives of more than Dead White European Males--and teach it at all levels, from inner-city community colleges to Berkeley and Brown. While Aronowitz and Allan (The Closing of the American Mind) Bloom differ about some essentials--the place of Freud and Marx in the canon, for instance--Bloom would feel at home teaching this two-year sequence of required courses, replete with detailed reading lists, laid out in Aronowitz's text. Would students want to take such courses? They would have to be persuaded, says Aronowitz. Could faculty teach them? They would have to be "re-educated" (a term whose unhappy connotations go unremarked upon).

There is a persuasive case for universal liberal education (as laid out powerfully elsewhere, for example by Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity), but it is not advanced in The Knowledge Factory. The tacit assumption is that the benefits of this kind of learning are so obvious that they can be presumed--after all, who could argue against "the goal of human completeness"? Many academics share this belief, which offers a comforting rationale for a life that entails spending only eight or ten hours a week in the classroom or even in the company of students. Yet the pressures of the marketplace point elsewhere, toward a world where "knowledge production and transmission must now justify itself in terms of its economic value." Unless mainstream America can be convinced that a liberal arts education is something of intrinsic, not simply economic, value, there will be no slowing the drive to turn higher education into just another market sector. It's not entirely farfetched to imagine that, a generation from now, shares of Yale Inc. and the Princeton Corporation will be bought and sold, just like stock in the University of Phoenix or IBM.

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