Yes, I realise now I should have bookmarked it!
September 4, 2006 5:01 PM   Subscribe

It's a myth that the primary purpose of higher education institutions is to teach. I read this in an essay online around the beginning of 2005 and would like to find it again.

I've googled for hours using various combinations of college | higher education | university | myth | commonly held belief | misconception | teaching | staff | jobs | systems, etc., but no joy...

The author was essentially using systems thinking to argue that the primary purpose of higher education is 1) to make sure that staff keep their cushy jobs with three months of holiday a year, with no increase in workload, and 2) to increase the number of staff.

I remember the author as definitely male, probably American, and--despite the "slack" education system he suffered through--highly literate.

Does anyone else know of this article? Can you share the URL please? Fingers crossed...
posted by Pigpen to Education (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds awesome. Someone please come through!

What, praytell, is systems thinking?
posted by phrontist at 5:04 PM on September 4, 2006

Could it have been about this book?
posted by trey at 5:33 PM on September 4, 2006

My good deed for the day:

Systems thinking is an approach to analysis that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system will act differently when isolated from its environment or other parts of the system, and argues against Descartes's reductionist view. It includes viewing systems in a holistic manner, rather than through purely reductionist techniques. It promotes gaining insights into the whole by understanding the linkages and interactions between the elements that comprise the whole "system", consistent with systems philosophy. Systems Thinking recognizes that all human activity systems are open systems; therefore, they are affected by the environment in which they exist. Systems Thinking recognizes that in complex systems events are separated by distance and time; therefore, small catalytic events can cause large changes in the system. Systems thinking acknowledges that a change in one area of a system can adversely affect another area of the system; thus, it promotes organizational communication at all levels in order to avoid the silo effect.
posted by TrueVox at 5:35 PM on September 4, 2006

Sounds like it would be a good way to think about government, medicine, and education, among other things.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 6:05 PM on September 4, 2006

I don't know what specific essay you meant. You should be able to find a similar essay written by some offended ostensibly hard-working "real" person in a vast number of newspaper editorials written any September or any time any college within 500 miles increased its tuition. The sheer abundance of talk like this will make it hard to find the essay you're looking for unless you can recall the author or part of the title. Have you put "systems theory" or similar into your search terms?

College jobs aren't particularly cushy relative to other white-collar jobs. For every hour you see someone in class, there's hours of prepwork, reading, and grading, and hours spent supervising people writing various kinds of theses, and hours spent doing departmental or university-level planning and supervisory committee work, and hours and hours spent doing research, and hours spent supervising research assistants, and hours spent writing grant proposals, and hours spent reviewing submissions for various journals and funding agencies, and so on. And that's in the social sciences or humanities. For laboratory science, add being the CEO and probably the HR department as well of at least a medium-small business into the mix.

Where you get summer off, it ain't holiday; it's forced unpaid leave. Lots of colleges will, if you want, take your paychecks, lop off a fourth, and pay you that over summer, but even then you're only being paid in summer, not for summer.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:20 PM on September 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Try looking at John Taylor Gatto [Wikipedia link]. He writes about education's function from the perspective of a former teacher, now educational-theory reformer (or something).
posted by cgc373 at 7:21 PM on September 4, 2006

Yep, this sounds like John Taylor Gatto to me, too. His book The Underground History of American Education is availabe in full at his site. He's done a lot of work documenting the attitudes of early American educators; sometimes the "education is for training brainless workers" attitude is very striking:

School was looked upon from the first decade of the twentieth century as a branch of industry and a tool of governance. For a considerable time, probably provoked by a climate of official anger and contempt directed against immigrants in the greatest displacement of people in history, social managers of schooling were remarkably candid about what they were doing. In a speech he gave before businessmen prior to the First World War, Woodrow Wilson made this unabashed disclosure:

We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

By1917, the major administrative jobs in American schooling were under the control of a group referred to in the press of that day as "the Education Trust." The first meeting of this trust included representatives of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the National Education Association. The chief end, wrote Benjamin Kidd, the British evolutionist, in 1918, was to "impose on the young the ideal of subordination."

It's provocative stuff, as the reactions in this Mefi thread indicate. But I've always found his historical analysis well-documented and fairly compelling.
posted by mediareport at 7:41 PM on September 4, 2006

[quoted material from this page]
posted by mediareport at 7:42 PM on September 4, 2006

It's hard to study equatorial insects or Piers Plowman in the private sector, yet we seem to agree that it's worth doing this, so we've set up a higher education system whose basic goal is to create a self-perpetuating job market for academics in every niche. The means to that end happens to produce many useful things that the private sector is happy to pay for.

Teaching serves other roles, but tuition isn't directly the main source of income (and thus not directly the main priority) of most large institutions. It has often been observed that professors at research universities who see teaching as their main goal generally get punished for it, covertly or obviously, especially if they let it interfere with research and publication.

What is the point of teaching? To get tuition, to produce the next generation of academics, to cultivate wealthy and prestigious alumni, and to educate.

I don't think this is necessary a bad thing at all, for the record. It is what it is. I remember when I first realized that most scientists hadn't gotten Ph.Ds because of the ever-striving quest for knowledge, or to lift humanity up into broad, sunlit uplands, but rather because they were really interested in something like cloud luminescence or the movement of zooplankton, and they just wanted to get paid to study it. Disillusioning, perhaps, but it doesn't change the effect of the progress we've made so far, does it?
posted by Hildago at 8:43 PM on September 4, 2006

That doesn't sound much like John Taylor Gatto to me, actually. From what I've read, he seems to focus much more on the K-12 compulsory education system than he does on post high school education. (Though all I've read is some of An Underground History of American Education.) Gatto's main thesis, from what little I read, seemed to be that compulsory schooling is aimed at producing a compliant workforce, rather than producing people who are truly educated; this is quite different from the thesis the poster describes.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 4:00 PM on September 5, 2006

Wow, you're right, HighTechUnderpants. I totally missed the "higher" part. Sorry for that, Pigpen.
posted by mediareport at 8:25 PM on September 5, 2006

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