Spellings seeks to turn university education into a market good
In a 2006 report produced by Margaret Spellings during her time as Secretary of Education, her stance on higher education became clear: it's just another market good. Throughout the report, a university education is deemed a means by which students can better their economic standing and produce 'intellectual capital.' While preparing students for the world outside the University is important, Spellings diminishes the need for academic and intellectual investigation in the arts and sciences. Rather than promoting well rounded education, Spellings' report outlines a way to turn our students' minds into just another commodity in the free market.
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As secretary, Spellings put together one of the most high-profile commissions on higher education in American history. In 2006, the commission issued the Spellings Report, or as it is formally known, “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education.”
That document sought to transform the purpose and structure of American higher education to, in the report’s words, ensure “future economic growth.”
At the heart of the report is the desire to transform universities so that they serve solely the needs of the market. Students need credentials and skills to get ahead and employers want programs and research that meet their needs. Thus, the report seeks a higher education system “that creates new knowledge, contributes to economic prosperity and global competitiveness, and empowers citizens.”
It becomes clear, however, that only the central phrase matters. There is nothing in the report that recognizes the need for basic noncommercial research in the arts and sciences or that states why intellectual inquiry is good on its own terms. And citizenship barely registers in the rest of the document.While the report seeks to promote “social mobility,” it does not seek to offer more students access to the knowledge offered by a college education but to develop what the report calls “intellectual capital.” This is made clear by what the report states to be the “value of higher education” – to feed the “new knowledge-driven economy.”
In fact, the civic and other benefits of higher education are presented as a byproduct and not a purpose. In the section “Findings Regarding the Value of Higher Education,” at the end of a long list concerning “the transformation of the world economy” and the relationship between degrees and salaries, the report acknowledges as an afterthought that higher education “produces broader social gains.” Yet the report clearly places the civic and cultural purposes of higher education as secondary to the economic: “Colleges and universities are major economic engines, while also serving as civic and cultural centers.”
In the section titled “Findings Regarding Learning,” the meaning of citizenship is linked to people “who are able to lead and compete in the 21st-century global marketplace,” not who care and think deeply about the public welfare because they have received a serious general education in the arts and sciences. According to the report, the purpose of learning is not to gain wisdom, ethics or insight, but to develop intellectual capital, or, stated more clearly, to reduce one’s mind into a profit-generating entity that improves one’s own salary while serving the needs of American business.The shift to treating higher education as a consumer good also reflects a broader decline in our faith in the authority of the university. Faculty members themselves lost faith that they have something to teach young people. Over time, core curricula gave way to electives, as exemplified by Brown University’s 1969 New Curriculum, which removed all general requirements in order to empower students to find their own way to the truth. Brown’s approach at least was intellectual, but across America, colleges and universities sought to appeal to consumer tastes. They offered the programs that students wanted along with the pools, climbing walls and other that they desired. It is not surprising that business is today the largest undergraduate major in America.
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