From the Editor: The Conveyor Belt to Nowhere

By Cat Warren

Communications theorist James W. Carey noted that the world has always seemed on the verge of imploding. “The shadow of the Apocalypse is cast across all our sophisticated imaginings.”

Carey was too sophisticated and occasionally dark of mood himself to believe that the apocalypse was merely a minor demon that could be called forth for comfort, then dismissed.

We may not quite be facing a higher education apocalypse, but we’re facing a great unraveling: crowded classrooms, problematic corporate involvement, spiking tuitions and fees—and sharply increasing public skepticism. A recent study by the public-opinion research organization Public Agenda, Squeeze Play 2010, shows a substantial decline in public confidence over just the past three years. Sixty percent of Americans think that universities and colleges operate more like businesses concerned with the bottom line than, say, like institutions dedicated to the public good. Sadly, suspicion added to funding cuts doesn’t equal rededication to public funding.

People do feel caught between a rock and a mortgage. Just as college has become more necessary in the public’s mind, it is also becoming less available. Yet the public now wants universities and colleges somehow to operate like businesses without actually being businesses. Lean and mean, but not profit machines. As New York University historian Tony Judt pointed out, “The new master narrative—the way we think of our world—has abandoned the social for the economic.”

And in the middle of this mess of pottage lies the community college—the theme of this issue—where many of the problems we’re seeing in higher education are manifest.

The community college is getting a great deal of attention for an institution that everyone says has been forgotten. President Obama featured them in his first educational keynote in July 2009: “Too often, community colleges are treated like an afterthought—if they’re thought of at all.” The Brookings Institution recently called them “America’s forgotten institutions of higher education.”

But when they’re not framed as higher ed’s forgotten, we’re reminded that the primary function of community colleges is not education but job training—for the twenty-first century, of course. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, never one to mince metaphors, called community colleges “the conveyor belt to allow people to upgrade their skills when they are going from X job to Y profession.” Emanuel was just softening up the audience for Obama’s utopian plan for community colleges. Federal funding, the president said, would “put colleges and employers together to create programs that match curricula in the classroom with the needs of the boardroom.”

Once upon a time, we didn’t so completely adapt our rhetoric and our curricula to the marketplace. We had missions and visions of universities and colleges that didn’t hum “global economy” as a creepy mantra while abandoning higher education to the business of business. Higher education had another purpose. Back then, business seemed to do just fine on its own.

“Our parents and grandparents . . . who lived the consequences of the unraveling of an earlier economic age, had a far sharper sense of what can happen to a society when private and sectional interests trump public goals and obscure the common good,” Judt wrote. “We need to recover some of that sense.”

Or the shadow grows.

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