Patrick J. Deneen on the WalMart-ification of Higher Education

Patrick Deneen at the Chronicle Review has a persuasive case to make that the educational and economic thrust of higher education is toward bigger is better, and that mass produced standardization is being preferred over local educational cultures, with the result that “local cultures”–i.e. smaller mid-range colleges of almost every ilk, are being squeezed out of the educational system in the same way that family farms have been squeezed out by Monsanto and the local hardware store has been squeezed out by Home Depot.

Colleges and universities are like the once-ubiquitous department stores in every city—Filene’s in Boston, G. Fox in Hartford, Woodward & Lothrop in Washington—which, while enjoying distinct locations and histories, became increasingly similar. When consumers grew to value uniformity over a local market culture, those local stores were susceptible to the challenge from a truly universal competitor that could offer the same wares, produced cheaply, at low, low prices. Those stores are all now out of business. MOOCs are the Wal-Mart of higher education.

Perhaps most interesting in Deneen’s anlysis is his general sense that faculty are complicit in this process. MOOCs are the logical out come of an educational system that produces faculty interested in narrowly conceived academic specialities and with more allegiance to their disciplines than to the institutions and local cultures that support their existence.

Deneen mostly predicts that the Walmartification of higher education will continue unabated. Smaller institutions that simply try to replicate the standard model of education will inevitably be destroyed by an economy of scale. However, Daneen finds hope in the possible revival of local “artisinal” educational models that emphasize the uniqueness of a local institution in its immediate geographical setting.

Think of Providence or Belmont Abbey among Roman Catholic institutions, or St. Olaf or Baylor among Protestant ones—all rightly anticipating that nondescript and indistinguishable institutions will be easy victims of the logic of standardization. This artisanal direction requires hiring faculty who expressly share a commitment to the institutional mission and attracting students who seek a distinctive education. Consider Hillsdale College, with its traditionalist emphasis on core curriculum and Western civilization, and a growing number of institutions that combine a liberal-arts education with some training in “trades” or manual labor, such as Deep Springs College, in California. (Try to teach baling hay via MOOC.)

I think there’s something to this. I’m not sure I agree with the example of Baylor, but I do agree that institutions–or programs within larger institutions–that have a strong shared distinctive quality or cultural identity that can be communicated effectively are going to be more likely players in the future than those that try a version of me-tooism. There will always be a larger and cheaper version of what you are offering, and so playing that game is likely to mean you are inevitably swallowed by the sharks you swim with.

Nevertheless, Deneen doesn’t give much guidance for how smaller institutions might get there. Distinctive “artisanal” educational cultures can’t be built up overnight through a PR department. They usually develop over decades. In addition to the schools that Daneen mentions (Side note but I’m interested in how many of them are religious schools), I think of places like Warren Wilson College with their integration of work and standard academics, or Bennington College with its work terms and open curriculum, or EverGreen State College with its emphasis on an integrated environmentalism in an open curriculum. These were all places my son applied to for College and I think he applied precisely because they had this “artisinal” educational outlook that resisted a standardized model of education. (He will attend Bennington in 2014 after a gap year). All of these places struggle, but they might have a fighting chance of enduring precisely because they choose to be different and distinctive rather than struggling to be distinguished amongst the mass that are offering more or less the same thing.

But these places and others like them didn’t develop their “family farm” versions of higher education at the drop of the hat. It’s unclear how a local educational culture develops where one doesn’t exist. How do they begin? How are they imagined? Why do they endure? How can you get one? Any ideas?

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2 thoughts on “Patrick J. Deneen on the WalMart-ification of Higher Education

  1. Baylor, in my view, has followed the “bigger is better” model that Deneen mostly descries. In some ways literally–they are way bigger than they were several years ago. And they have followed a self-conscious policy of being research oriented. Don’t get me wrong, I think they are good at it. But from everything that I’ve seen and know about Baylor they have self-consciously set out to be a major research institution–albeit a Christian one–on the standard model of research institutions like UT-Austin, or probably a better model is Notre Dame or Georgetown. In some ways, too, they’ve distanced themselves from a “local” culture in some sense in the decision a few decades back to severe ties with the Southern Baptists. So I think Baylor will survive, but they won’t survive because they are a local artisanal educational culture. They will survive because they are good at being like the other big box stores on the block.

    I could be persuaded otherwise, but Baylor didn’t sit easily on the same shelf with Deep Springs or Saint Olafs.

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