One of the challenges of being me is my propensity to express complex interrelations as reductive binaries and catchy coinages. Over time, I have compiled a list of some my oh-so clever observations regarding higher education. In total, these comprise a pretty good summary of my views of and attitudes toward various aspects of higher ed--all of them highly subject to debate. This piece is a first in a series of blog posts in which I discuss these terms and conceptions.
Academic Eschatology: A subgenre of books, articles, and studies that indulges in elucidating the shortcomings of current education, particularly higher education. Examples would include Clueless in Academe, Crisis on Campus, Academically Adrift, We're Losing Our Minds, and "Disrupting College." The emergence of this literature, most of it empirically based, at this moment in history is not accidental and may merely be a localized example of the rather apocalyptic zeitgeist or could be an entirely separate but real warning of a real threat to education. Academic Eschatology is also known as "Teoaawki," which is an acronym for "the end of academia as we know it."
Academic eschatology refers to the category of books and articles (academic and otherwise) marking the alleged "end times" of higher education and its institutions in their current configuration. Some works of academic eschatology (AE) welcome these radical shifts, but most view the future with wariness and even trepidation. In addition,some AE authors are reform minded--hoping to convert challenge into opportunity--while others offer mostly doom and gloom.
Such warnings about the systemic weakness of the American academy and its consequences have long been with us (The Education of Henry Adams, The Higher Learning in America, The Goose-Step: A Study of American Higher Education, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, The Closing of the American Mind, etc.), but the present-day hyper-proliferation of these publications and its sometimes hysterical response seems historically remarkable and more than suggests their popularity among their typical intended audience: academicians. Therefore, one cannot but conclude, that academics are peculiarly keen to read about threats to academia, perhaps out of fear or morbidity or, more positively, a desire to mitigate or adapt to the threat.
Which leaves an interesting question... Is the rise of AE the result of or a separate development from the prevalence of "end of times" narratives in the period after 9/11, through the Great Recession, and to the present day? Certainly, a correlation exists between these two trends, but is there causation? What could be the relationship between pronouncements on "the end of the world as we know it" (TEOTWAWKI) and "the end of academia as we know it (TEOAAWKI)?
I do not feel the need nor am I particularly qualified to rehearse the titles of end-times narratives in popular media--books, television programs, movies, blogs, and the like--but here is a small and rather arbitrary sample of some better or maybe just better known AE books from the last decade or so. The titles speak for themselves.
Clueless in Academe
Our Underachieving Colleges
We're Losing Our Minds
College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be
The latest and potentially the current hottest? Aspiring Adults Adrift is a follow up to Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josip Roska. In both studies, our indefatigable social scientists seek to answer the obvious but rarely articulated question, "just what value does a college add." Sadly, the answer appears to be "not much"--and Aspiring Adults Adrift makes the case that even in early adulthood there is little evidence young people have gained much from attending college. And yes, there are those who take issue with Arum and Roska's methodology, particularly their reliance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment as a measure of student progress in the first book or their general disregard of the effect of the Great Recession in the second, but no one can ignore for long the data trend they document. Broadly, college does little to prepare students for the adult world of work they will enter (or, in too many cases, pine to enter) upon graduation.
While the fascination with end times is certainly pronounced in the zeitgeist, the view that higher ed is in serious trouble or is due for transformational disruption is a pervasive--and perhaps persuasive--sub-theme. This sub-theme resounds both inside and outside the academy and has become a favorite and gleeful refrain among a certain flavor of politician and journalist, resulting in wide diffusion. Academicians ignore such criticism at great risk. moreover, hostile politicians, cynical journalists, and rabid opportunists threatening from the outside offers enough peril and demands steady vigilance and frequent rebuttal, but any internal weakness is the responsibility of higher ed professionals. As with global climate change, many may deny the cogent concerns and the mounting evidence, but denial solves no problems. Nor does overreaction. We academics excel at deliberation, and now seems--with this topic--the optimal time to exploit that talent.