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The University as a Sacred Space

By Robert Engvall

Transforming Higher Education: Economy, Democracy, and the University. Stephen J. Rosow and Thomas Kriger, eds. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2010.

When judging a book by its title, one might look at Stephen J. Rosow and Thomas Kriger’s work and suffer a moment of déjà vu. Are we really going to consider another book about transforming higher education? After all, “transformation” may be cynically seen as only a slightly loftier synonym for “reformation,” and we have probably all read enough books on educational reform. What makes this book worthy of our attention may be its approach as a reasonable response to those many books and articles. This response counters a popular opinion often accepted as fact: the notion that the primary mission of education, and higher education in particular, is to be more responsive to the needs of consumers and more focused on the worker traits desired by corporate America.

The bulk of Transforming Higher Education is spent validating the editors’ premise that the corporatization of the university structure and practice is jeopardizing the democratic mission historically at the center of the American higher education system. As William Scheuerman and Thomas Kriger note in chapter 4, “The notion that the academy is a sacred place runs throughout . . . this book.” Whether one also holds the academy as a sacred place or views corporatization as the inevitable result of a changing economic landscape and changing public perceptions in a “consumer society,” the book provides excellent stimulus for thought. People predisposed to the former viewpoint may be more inclined to pick up this book, yet both camps might benefit from the mostly engaging chapters grouped into three sections: “Historical-Theoretical Interventions,” “Contesting the Neo-Liberal University,” and “Envisioning Different Higher Education.” The editors (rightly) suggest that “corporatization of higher education” has become the ideological framework for the public debate about the role and future of the university and higher education in general. They argue that the contemporary university has largely adapted an administrative culture in which the corporate model of flexible labor and “on-time delivery” has supplanted higher learning’s traditional mission.

Chapter 1, by R. Jeffrey Lustig, opens broadly and strongly with the following proclamation: “The American university is a battered figure on the public domain, half relic of the past, half orphan of the present, celebrated on the dais while denigrated in the boardroom. . . . It also remains a special realm for cultivation of the mind, the last selfgoverning community in the country and a critical public sphere.” Lustig passionately defends a public commitment to liberal arts values and lambastes corporatization as a means to transform the university from a place that trains citizens and cultivates minds to a place whose mission is cost effectiveness. His chapter ends by imploring us to revive our commitment to higher education as part of a larger civic mission to create educated citizens who can better realize the ideals of a democratic society.

Sidney Plotkin, in chapter 2, expands on Lustig’s theme through an engaging assessment of Thorstein Veblen’s The Higher Learning in America. Plotkin ably buttresses Veblen’s work in defense of higher education, suggesting that we view the university as an exceptional institution having a “chief responsibility . . . to preserve and defend the intrinsic value of free inquiry.” Neither Lustig nor Plotkin dismisses the viewpoint of those who see the primary purpose of higher education as preparing students for a vocation, yet both authors view colleges and universities as places that must pursue wide intellectual concerns, even those not obviously relevant to everyone.

After these first two chapters, the book turns to slightly narrower topics like globalization, interdisciplinarity, and informatics, but it never loses touch with the overarching theme of the autonomy of the larger university and its collective and individual disciplines. The book closes with its most narrowly focused chapter, David Solomonoff’s essay on improvements to technology that have made information and research available for broader distribution, a means of empowerment beyond the university. This last chapter, while no doubt valuable, seems a bit out of place given the more broadly philosophical underpinnings of the other chapters, and it moves the work, I surmise, from a purely “educational” concern to a more “practical” and “real-world” conclusion. For me, at least, that chapter does not provide a strong final argument that higher education is “too important” to be left to corporate America. The book begins with a bang, but I fear that it ends with a whimper: “Open source technologies can empower workers, promise to revolutionize manufacturing to help isolated and impoverished communities, to speed the prototyping of new inventions, and create new kinds of art.” Perhaps this is a valid point, but the reader is left to wonder how we started so grandly proclaiming the strength of the traditional values of higher education and seeking to shelter those values from constant attack, only to end so narrowly.

All in all, Transforming Higher Education begins to inspire readers, particularly faculty members, to keep fighting to protect higher education from those who would vocationalize it and lose sight of the real purpose of colleges and universities in a democratic society. When on that point, the book is highly effective. While it ultimately veers away from that focus, it nevertheless offers needed encouragement for a readership battered by years of being told they needed to be “reformed.”

Robert Engvall is professor of justice studies at Roger Williams University. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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