Reflecting on the Crisis in Higher Ed with Jean-Paul Sartre and Herbert Marcuse

Scholar John Gerassi recalls in one of his books a meeting that took between Jean-Paul Sartre and Herbert Marcuse in a Paris café at the height of the 60s student movements of the 1960s. As a member of the professorate for the past 15 years, I have been thinking about these two philosophers a great deal lately, and how far we have retreated from the educational goals and values of that era. Some of the pedagogical and curricular reforms of that era have been severely watered down, or in some cases abandoned altogether. This has led me to wonder if there is a connection between the crisis that many of the colleges and universities that I teach at are in, and the abandonment of the values and goals of higher education of the 1960s.

The backlash reaction to the progressive reforms of curriculum and student involvement in higher education has spawned a return to an earlier type of schoolmaster/schoolmarm style of education that degrades advanced studies in order to emphasize a “return to basics.” Many students are dismayed to find that when they enroll in college, that instead of experiencing the treasures of the life of the mind, they are bogged down in “core courses,” studying the use of the English language by “Richard Roe, and John Doe,” much as Marcuse had earlier described. Those who tire of this 1950s style of pedagogy drop out and become part of the disgracefully poor retention rates at many of our colleges.

Administrators and those who defend this outmoded model of education have come up with a novel explanation for the state of crisis they, in large measure created. It is simply one of the biggest canards in academic history—the idea that there are not enough eligible students for college. I cannot count the number of working-class college age students who, when they hear that I am a professor, tell me how badly they wanted to attend college, but they just could not afford it. Faced with this, college administrators have introduced a new modifier in their recruitment plans—the enrollment drive is no longer for students that are willing, but for “financially eligible” students. The young people left out of academic recruitment are victims of a new generation of academic tracking that leaves them as permanent outsiders looking it. Resocialized on the basis of financial scarcity to accept a lesser version of higher education, an academic sleight of hand has been perpetuated on working class students according to which vocational training is presented as synonymous with higher education.

What both Sartre and Marcuse saw with special clarity was the priority of the political within human society. Following their analyses, I want to suggest that the current crisis in higher education is not, as the standard account would have us believe, a financial one, or one brought about by “changing demographics.” Rather, I want to say it is a political crisis brought about by specific policies and a corresponding ideology. The policy shift is that of privatizing college, and the extreme pullback by states in their funding of college. Missing from many of these discussions is the once well respected view that a college education is an American birthright.

In their desperation to emerge from a hyper-competitive political economy with enough money to live, many students have given up on the idea that education should be a meaningful pursuit, one that is directly tied to the good life. They have accepted the ideology of scarcity.

A final cruel aspect of this politics involves the shifting of responsibility for the crisis from trustees and administrators, to the faculty. At many colleges, I find gifted young professors retooling already perfect syllabi in order to fit them into the guidelines of mindless assessment double-speak, wherein critical thinking actually means its opposite, obfuscation and a 1950s style rote reenactment of a technique. “Outcome assessment,” has proven to be the perfect management tool for administrators in their disciplining of the faculty. It is presented as a category that influences potential students and so it reinforces the ideology of scarcity. So, scarcity has come to define the life of faculty at most institutions, and it has been used by administrators to oppress not only untenured faculty, but senior members of the profession as well. Many are told to more or less “shape-up,” as props for endless admissions events. Again, there is the ever present, implicit threat that if one does not, that admissions will fall and they will lose their jobs. In the words of my students: “As if”!

John C. Carney is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. He can be reached at: Read other articles by John.