Last week President Obama (He Who Must Not Be Criticized From the Left) proposed throwing some chump change at higher education–12 billion or so to community colleges, much of it intended for such great ideas as more spending on facilities, online education, assessment tools, and a standardized national curriculum–excepting where potential employers want to dictate course content.

Woo-hoo. Over a decade from now, more than 1,000 institutions, educating half of all the students in the country–tens of millions of people!–will eventually divvy up a third as much cash as The One slings to a bank or automaker in a single day. As long as they spend it the way ROTC cheerleader and Margaret Spellings clone Arne Duncan tells them.

Not to go all Paul Krugman on the prez, but it’s hard to know which is more irritating–the galling cheapskatery, the wretched ideas for spending the money–more standardization! more managerial control! a teacher-proof curriculum!–or his cynical, self-congratulatory contempt for the education of citizens outside the professional managerial class (“the workers,” for whom “job training” is all that’s required.)

Candidate Obama promised to make community colleges “completely free to most Americans.” That was a far cry from what an actual intellectual and activist like Adolph Reed has been proposing for a decade–free higher ed, period–but it would have helped.

What he now promises–a slim billion annually, to promote Arne Duncan-style “reform”–will do more harm than good.

It’s not that community colleges don’t need reform. Commonly displaying single-digit graduation rates–attainment of two-year degrees averages about 25% after four years–your typical community college basically sucks.

Don’t get me wrong. I probably wouldn’t be in this profession if I hadn’t been inspired and transformed by my experience of teaching in community colleges and similar institutions in the CUNY system.

What’s more, plenty of four-year schools suck in the same way–the University of Louisville, where I first got tenure, purported to be a Carnegie Research-1 institution, largely on the basis of work in the medical school, but had a six-year graduation rate hovering around 30%. (And the only members of the faculty I ever met who cared about that statistic were among the group in the ed school chased out by a thuggish dean later indicted for embezzling his federal grants.)

Bankers are from Tiffany’s, Educators are from Wal-mart

Louisville fails for the same reason many community colleges fail: they put cheap, permanently temporary teachers (students, retirees, moonlighters, folks willing to work for status) in the front lines of first-year courses, and then–desperate to armor-plate the curriculum against the uneven preparation of the faculty–convert the tenure stream into supervisors of the temps.  The bribe for the tenured overclass includes being freed to teach only the fraction of students who get through the obstacle course of the first year or two.

But this suckiness is what Obama and Duncan like about community colleges and enterprise universities like the U of L.  Not the low graduation rates–they’ll pull at their chins thoughtfully and agree with you there.

What they like–no, love–is the organization of community colleges, the top-down control of curriculum, the tenured management and the disposable teachers. That’s perfect! Community colleges regularly fire union officials and anyone else who gets in their way.

With management firmly in control of curriculum and governance, there’s no pathetic and irritating faculty to raise their hands and whine while local employers are trying to place their education orders with the college administration: “Gimme about fifty x-ray technicians! naw, make it seventy-five–we got about ten jobs and wanna make sure we can replace any with union sentiments. And hurry it up, will ya? I gotta fly to Hilton Head this afternoon for dinner and a round of golf in the morning. Oh, you only make a hundred grand? Heck, I can offer you five times that if you can get my people to work for the crap wages you pay your faculty!”

The fact that the best research shows that a perma-temp faculty and several decades of total managerial dominance are causing low graduation rates won’t stop the prez and his basketball buddy, because control is their goal. However unjust and racist the consequences, they are fundamentally anti-democratic in their aspiration to fulfill the Clinton-Gore dream of quality-managing the public sphere.

(Follow the link to see what I mean by “unjust and racist,” but essentially: when you drive the wages for teaching down to the point where it’s a luxury good providing status–“I teach at the U” is a variation on the theme of “I live on Wisteria Lane” or “I drive the 600-class”–only the already well-off can afford the luxury of spending time on teaching.  You pretty much inevitably perpetuate the beliefs, interests, racial composition and gendered division of labor of the class providing the teachers. Including that class’s disproportionate whiteness and their belief that the folks they’re teaching–“workers”– are a pretty unworthy bunch.)

Despite increasingly threadbare efforts to wrap himself in the legacy of FDR, in any reasonable world-historical perspective Obama is our Herbert Hoover: a pro-business “moderate” eager to keep good relations with organized labor while minimizing labor’s impact on public policy.

To put it another way, he’s essentially a fixer for the status quo ante Bush II.

In his wildest dreams, the prez just wants to get back to the crappy “good economy” of the Clinton years. Those were the years that inspired my favorite first-year student writing assignment, on the question of “for whom is a ‘good economy’ good?” (Hint: the cast of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise has done okay, but their servants–not so much.)

The Right Pressure Point, Wrong Strategy

The fact is that neither Obama nor his ballplaying buddy think community colleges are really sources of higher education at all–to their minds, they’re job training centers.

But even from this perspective, the community colleges offer a major opportunity to stimulate the economy.  Higher education is a pressure point where we can  apply real, FDR-style solutions, as I’ve pointed out before: full employment for educators and taking students out of the workforce would create millions of jobs. Essentially overnight. And community colleges offer the largest opportunities in that respect, with the most part-time faculty and the students working the longest hours.

In the unlikely event our two ballplaying cronies do legislate pro-rata faculty pay and provide not just free tuition but living support for students at community colleges–even if their aim is the cynical one, of economic stimulation–all the evidence suggests they’ll have another, unintended effect: education.






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