Big business, big government, and big education

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Andrew Breitbart, the right’s bombastic publisher and polemical provocateur, continues to preside over a growing media empire. On July 4th, he launched “Big Peace”, the latest addition to his Breitbart.com network, including Big Government, Big Journalism, and Big Hollywood. And “Big Education,” promised in February, cannot come soon enough.

The realm of higher education prides itself on the formation of our young men and women, and it savors its hard-earned reputation for intellectually engaging curriculum and thoughtful, wide-ranging discourse.

At least, that’s what’s peddled-to parents eager to be shown that their extraordinary financial investment is worth the cost and that the campus is worthy of entrusting the souls of their children to in their absence — in loco parentis – are want to believe.

As with the alarmingly decrepit state of our nation’s physical infrastructure, that of our intellectual infrastructure is far worse. Over the past half-century we have contributed, both actively and passively, toward the corruption of its principles.

To say nothing of the mental devastation characteristic of the average campus — students who enter failing basic English, Princeton freshmen scoring better than seniors on citizenship exams — the fundamental reason for and understanding of the existence of the University has become corrupted and misunderstood.

Brett McKay’s delightful Art of Manliness recently published an ode to Man, fully formed. Taken as a broad standard, this was once also understood as the purpose of an education:

Wanted, a man who, no stunted ascetic, is full of life and fire, but whose passions are trained to heed a strong will, the servant of a tender conscience; who has learned to love all beauty, whether of nature or of art, to hate all vileness, and to respect others as himself.

Our present level of debate over education is itself a signal of how far our sights have fallen. The left seeks to use the classroom for ideological progressivism, the right seeks to supplant that ideology with little shared understanding of what should come next, and the only shared measure of an effective education is, “Will It Get Me a Job?”

And meanwhile, college administrators benefit from the public’s mental conception of an ivory covered campus that is decades behind reality.

For the reality is that higher learning is Big Business.

The dirty secret driving nearly every consequential decision behind the ivory curtain is that education simply doesn’t matter. As an idea, it’s a convenient pretext for the accumulation of prestige, along with the capital that flows from that prestige.

Research, though, is the future. Why? Because researchers offer a scalable means to increase institutional power and influence in a way that professors do not. As a result, government and education have become bound together.

Many mid-level to major universities employ at least one lobbyist in their state capital and Washington, DC in order to seek favors and funding. They’re there to make sure earmarks are earmarked, and relationships are cemented.

The New York Times shed light last week on the most recent example of how government and colleges are collaborating. As a result of a new ban on corporate earmarks, legislators are now using colleges’ tax-exempt charity status to funnel earmarked grants to colleges, who will then pass along most of those grants to their corporate partners:

In Pennsylvania, General Electric is likely to get as much as 80 percent of a $2 million earmark proposed by Pennsylvania State University for research on clean-burning GE locomotives. … GE executives made a series of political contributions to Representative Kathy Dahlkemper, Democrat of Pennsylvania, days after she submitted the earmark request.

Now imagine this action replicated across the nation’s state and state-related colleges on the state and federal level, and you’ll begin to understand how deeply intertwined the interests of “education” have become with government.

Big Education, by nature, has become too big to fail, and “college access” has become the priority for politicians on both sides of the aisle, despite the reality that 40 percent of students who enter college leave before graduating (with many succeeding regardless).

Those who have witnessed, in horror, the rise of the modern academic complex, the Big Box College, have work before them. As the foundations that buttress an education system premised upon cash and influence rather than inquiry and Truth, it will be up to a new elite to step in when the pillars of our present system begin to fall.

This will require not so much a new set of arguments as it will a new conception of how to achieve a fully formed, robust Man and Woman. This will require a deep understanding of its past and a tenderness to the complexities and contradictions that made it so cherish a fruit of Western Civilization.

Shall the new University be of the culture or apart from it? (Will its curriculum be “relevant” or “irrelevant”?) Shall the campus be governed by civil authority or internal authorities? (Will students own up to their Dean or their Magistrate?) Shall it primarily benefit the individual or society? (Will its focus be education or research and outreach?)

These are just three of the central questions that will require real human bonds and real thought among those who would dismantle Big Education.

And we must grapple with our own selves, eschewing that “stunted ascetic”, firmly resolving to be men and women “full of life and fire.”

Thomas A. Shakely can be reached at tom@tomshakely.com.