Saturday, August 16, 2014

Business Culture Forming Higher Education

“Publish or perish” is the infamous mantra of those intrepid scholars who work at research universities and many prestigious Liberal Arts & Sciences colleges dotting the map of the world. The need to demonstrate regular output is perhaps nowhere more stressed (hence, stress) than in the United States. As if the declining number of tenure positions (amid increasing reliance on adjuncts, not coincidentally) at colleges and universities in the U.S. were not enough of a challenge for the newly-minted doctors aspiring to the intellectual freedom that goes with the protection of tenure, that the young scholars are increasingly being subjected to an "assembly-line" process wherein faculty administrators treat their junior colleagues' published journal articles like chocolates on a conveyer belt puts scholarship at odds with itself and thus is utterly self-defeating from the standpoint of society gaining new knowledge.

Notre Dame’s business school, for example, requires two academic articles per year of its scholars who come up for tenure. That particular regiment teems with the oily scent of production management awkwardly being applied to a sort of ethereal assembly line that mechanistically combines ideas at regular intervals. As if subprime mortgages going into financial derivative securities (i.e., bonds), the compound ideas are themselves bundled into at least two major “salable products” per year, like clockwork. Such a rationalized, linear process hardly befits the mind of a scientist, social “scientist,” or philosopher. The process of ideational development (i.e., theory construction) can require sudden bursts of inspiration and imagination, stimulated by some good old-fashioned mind-wandering aided by the gentle push of reasoning.[1]

 Can scholarship be "produced" as though the ideas were on an assembly line?    
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Cramming a scholar’s methodology through a “meat-grinder” business model is like forcing a square peg into a round hole. Superimposing “cookie-cutter” production management tools onto scholarship can be expected to result in mediocre work that only incrementally adds to an existing paradigm. Put another way, the approach is not apt to result in another Kant or Einstein, and that's a pity considering how much computer technology could facilitate the scholarship of a great mind.

Enabling the category mistake, not just a few business schools pretend to be businesses, trimming the fecundity of true scholarship off like scrap metal in a factory. Primped-up grizzled suits (i.e., professors who play the part of “corporate executive” aided by a corporate script) pass like whispers through muffled corridors of fresh carpet to train future expert-consultants and managers with the aid of easily-memorizable power-point presentations standing in for lectures. Returning to well-ordered offices with comfortable chairs and only a few carefully stacks of papers on the desk-tops, the “scholars” write what they hope will be pleasing to the practitioners who read the “professional” journals and hire consultants.

With the deepening and widening of human knowledge being presumed readily regularizable temporally into distinct units of production, moreover, the work of a university employee ostensibly tasked with scholarship succumbs to the hegemony of business values. Those include the sheer constancy of monetized worth, as effected, for instance, by the regular output of ideas or automobiles. Moreover, monetization is held aloft as the criterion, fully capable of turning every thing (and person) into a commodity.

I suspect that people around the world, particularly in Europe, would graciously point to the hypertrophic importance that Americans attach to barren metal (i.e., money) and business mores or practices (e.g., being “professional”). In fact, this over-reach of business values in American culture may be spreading to Europe in the guise of avant-garde trends.

Months before the arrival of the turbulent twentieth century, John Watson (1850-1907), a European theologian and clergyman publishing under the pseudonym of Ian Maclaren, put his prescient observations of American culture to paper:  

“The friendly visitor to the United States, who is proud of her achievements and delighted by her brightness, stands aghast at the open and unabashed front of secularity. It seems to him as if not merely coarse and unlettered men, whose souls have never been touched, either by religion or by culture, but that all men, with a few delightful exceptions, bow the knee to this golden calf, and do it homage. Nowhere is there such constant and straightforward talk about money, nowhere is such importance attached to the amount of money which a man has acquired or possesses, nowhere is it taken so absolutely for granted that the object of a man’s work is to obtain money, and that if you offer him money enough he will be willing to do any work which is not illegal; that, in short, the motive power with almost every man is his wages. One is struck, not so much by what is said in plain words (although a dollar is a monotonous refrain in conversation), as by what is implied, and what is implied is this: that if you know the proper sum, any man can be induced to do what you want, even though his health, and his rest, and his family, and his principles, stand in the way.”[2]

More than a century later, European society would be more secular than its American counterpart. Proportionately, many more Americans attend a religious service on a weekly basis. Additionally, the explosion of mega-churches in several of the U.S. states did not translate into a corresponding “growth” in E.U. states. Even so, Watson’s description of the American obsession with income and wealth as necessary and decisive in the valuing of others and oneself resonates with what I have observed. Judging from the reactions of people from abroad, I get the sense that many Americans—especially those working in the business world—do indeed go overboard rather uniquely in reducing personal value to that which can be measured by how much money someone has in a bank account. Just as Watson intended to help rather than beat up on American society, I too want to see more balance as befits the heterogeneity of values that is at home in human nature.

1. Hence the “absent-minded professor” label.
2. Ian Maclaren, “The Shadow on American Life: An Impression of a Recent Visit,” The Outlook, 63 (September 9, 1899), pp. 116-18.