Billionaires can't fix college: Jim Sleeper on the real crisis in higher education

tags: higher education, college, student debt

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

Nobody needed to wait for billionaire Robert Smith to relieve the student debt of this year’s graduates of historically and proudly black Morehouse College to know how heavily higher education has indebted millions of students for years now. It wasn’t always this way, and we can’t rely on a few rich people to relieve it. To understand what’s at stake for democracy as well as for individual students, the Yale historian Matthew Frye Jacobson conducted this conversation with me just before the 2015 upheavals on some American college campuses were spotlighted and condemned, as part of the long conservative crusade to rescue liberal education from liberals.

I’ve assessed that crusade often in Salon, but here I offer a critically supportive understanding of colleges riding political and economic currents that are transforming their institutions and their students.

The interview was conducted for the Historian's Eye Project. Here's the interview, on audio and in transcript.

What follows is a transcript that's been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Matthew Frye Jacobson: We don't have to go very far to find someone talking about the crisis in higher education. Are you one of the people who feels a sense of crisis, and if so, what is the nature of the crisis?

Jim Sleeper: “Crisis” is a slightly more dramatic word than the one I would use. I would call it an unsettling sea change. And the two sea changes I understand are, No. 1, the precipitous underfunding of higher education by the public is shifting its costs onto students as individual consumers. So instead of having liberal education develop citizens or humanists, it becomes a careerist, consumerist transaction: I pay and take on debt, so I’d better get a "good" job. And higher education becomes reduced to that. That to me is a sea change.

The other sea change is precipitated by the larger, structural and cultural shift that creates a shift from citizen to consumer. That’s going on in the larger society so much that students are coming to college already with that consumerist, careerist mentality. 

How would you track these changes across time, in terms of your own observations?

I think they've been going on for a longer time than people are now asserting. When I taught at Queens College from 1977 through '79, these kids were working from job to home to school. They were exhausted, and they had a very instrumental attitude toward their education. And the number who I would describe as idealist — there's a bit of that in every kid, and that's what you're reaching for, the humanist, the citizen — have always been driven by tremendous pressure. What I sense has changed is that the people running the institutions have changed their metrics, their measures, of what's good.

First of all, the faculty are more and more “free agents,” in terms of a casualization of the academy [meaning the increasing use of part-time adjuncts instead of full-time professors]. That leads to people thinking less in “communitarian” or humanist terms and more like rats-in-a-maze, consumer-market terms. You can call it “free agent,” but there's no more collegium — a college as a self-governing body of scholars that's maintaining certain traditions, partly against or in response to the outside world. That's been replaced by not just the casualization, but the atomization of faculty. I think that has intensified. People come in with ideological agendas that may not be consumerist, but they're narrower agendas. I'm a civic republican, and I think the old colleges should nourish that.

Read entire article at Salon

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