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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2009

Lament over Money Misses the Mark

By Arnd Bohm

Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money

James Engell & Anthony Dangerfield. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2005; 304 pp; ISBN: 0-8139-2331-X, hardcover $28 us.
English literature professors should be sternly enjoined to concentrate on the areas of their training when casting about for topics on which to publish monographs. When contemplating a critique of higher education, they might be pointed in the direction of novels, such as the satires of Mary McCarthy, David Lodge, A.S. Byatt, Jane Smiley and Richard Russo, to name but a few successful ventures in the genre. This book is a disappointing instance of what happens otherwise.

Both James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield are specialists of English, with teaching experience at elite universities such as Harvard and Cornell. Both would have done better to stay within their areas of expertise. Instead, they chose to publish an article in Harvard Magazine (May/June 1998 on “The Market-Model University: Humanities in the Age of Money,” which forms the basis of Chapter 4 in Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money. The central thesis — that the humanities are at odds with the financial interests of the corporate university — sets the tone for the book.

Their starting premise will be familiar to anyone who has been following events in education over the last few decades. The origin of our woes is supposed to be the tremendous influx of money and its concomitant importance: “Money, rather than a means, is becoming the chief end of higher education.” (p. 2) Indeed, the fiscal crises since last year have made money the predominant topic at all levels in North American education, as governments seize the opportunity to distance themselves from a perennial sinkhole for dollars.

But rather than the daily grind of the bud­get, Engell and Dangerfield are concerned with the impact of something they never really define, leaving to the readers’ imagination the task of figuring out what “the age of money” might be. Throughout, statistics are anecdotal ones gleaned from secondary literature; there are no charts, tables or graphs.

The authors rely largely on examples that agree with the premise and on the sort of micro narratives (a harsher critic might say “gossip”) familiar from those occasions when faculty bemoan the current situation.

As they must, the authors concede that money has always been vital to the successful completion of the universities’ missions, but now money apparently has acquired a “new status.” Now a close relationship to money is required for any academic field that wants respect: “Every constituency of higher education now proclaims and reinforces the new status of money.” (p. 11)

While it is easy to make such assertions, and to make them seem plausible when they fall on receptive ears, verifiable evidence is mis­sing, both for the current conditions and for the past. Nor is it clear that such evidence ever could be provided, given the degree to which reputation depends on the audience as much as on the activities of the institutions.

That people have started to talk about something does not entail a clear, simple causal shift in reality or its perception. For instance, it could be that people are talking about money precisely because they no longer understand how it works and is supposed to work; money no longer seems reliable.

When it comes to the harm money supposedly causes, Engell and Dangerfield will convince primarily those who already agree with them.

Three areas are seen to be under threat. One is the university itself as an institution. The control by money drives universities to define excellence as meaning more money, both internally and as a measure against competing schools. Governance, curriculum design, hiring and overall goals are, we are told, now evaluated in monetary terms.

This view oversimplifies the activities of thousands of universities and colleges to the point of distortion, and ignores the countless decisions made for a host of other reasons.

Second, Engell and Dangerfield argue, the predominance of money leads to the neglect of traditional pedagogic goals. The new ones are nakedly utilitarian: “What passes for ideals in this environment are not erudition or reasoning ability or ethical judgment but productivity and competitiveness, or even not that.” (p. 56) The reign of money has displaced the program of a liberal education and replaced it with vocational or professional training.

Even recruitment and admission officers begin to select incoming applicants with a view to their suitability for such training. This is an old complaint, yet when defenders of liberal education need something built they rarely seek out erudition, preferring expertise.

The third component of the system harmed by money is the individual student. Indivi­duals cut off from the humanism of liberal education by the attractions of utility are rendered incapable of grasping and invoking the canon. This has been the lament of cultur­al advocates such as Bloom and Hirsch for some time. The future appears bleak: “The effect of this subtle, far-reaching deterioration is deleterious and cannot be underestimated.” (p. 106) Surely they meant “overestimated.”

According to the jeremiad, the very foundations of civil society are at risk, as virtue, ethics, personal confidence, and the power to imagine will all wither away. The emptiness of the anxiety is revealed when they themselves resort to non-canonical works as reference points, as in the case of “the poor Krell civilization, in another film, Forbidden Planet.” (p. 142)

Engell and Dangerfield are elitists in their disregard for the customs of democratized scholarship, as when they fail to document quotations, e.g., from Dryden. (p. 96) The annotated bibliography has no indication of the principles upon which it has been constructed.

Similar slipshod methods underpin their claim that “the force of change — to which the university is constantly said to need to react — actually originates in the arts and sciences.” (p. 199) Really? How do they know? At the end they have no concrete proposals for reform, beyond a confidence in the people who “believed in the calling of higher education as a faith.” (p. 231)

This appeals to some, such as the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which presented the book with the Frederic W. Ness Book Award in 2007. Readers of the Bulletin will not be so keen to recognize a study which neither uses nor mentions academic unions in dealing with the challenges of today’s universities and colleges.

Arnd Bohm is a professor of English language and literature at Carleton University and past president of the Carleton University Academic Staff Association.