¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 Why a paradigm shift? Because what lies ahead requires more than simply changing a few things about the way an organization functions. Rather, it requires changing its fundamental orientation toward its goals and the ways that it strives to reach them. That reorientation is not just a matter of reiterating the values of the organization in the statements and slogans that so often cause those who work there to roll their eyes. It demands instead creating a culture within the organization that manifests those values in everything that it does. And in the case of the transformation I am attempting to describe here, it requires refusing the dominance of the privatized, economized rationality that has gotten us into the situation we currently find ourselves in. The metrics and the budgetary constraints will always push the institution away from its public orientation, away from generosity, and toward the kind of economistic comparison with the corporate sector that the university can never win. But it’s a comparison that we should never want to win. We should want to defy the profit-oriented logics of maximum efficiency, of maximum utility, of delivering value. This is not to say that we can simply refuse efficiency, utility, and value altogether, as if we live in a different world from the trustees and legislatures that ultimately control the funding of—and therefore the ability to function of—our institutions. It is, however, to say that we need to start transforming the thinking within our institutions in ways that will enable us to argue in new terms, on our own terms, for the real non-market, public service function of our institutions with those outside them. When called upon to defend the value we provide to students and employers, we should do so, but in so doing, we must also always return focus to the far more important value we provide in building strong communities. This transformation in institutional thinking, this change in orientation, in vocabulary, in evidence, from a focus on value to a focus on values, demands a paradigm shift.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The notion of the paradigm shift derives from Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 monograph, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn intended his term to illuminate something about the unfolding of the history of science—namely, that it has not proceeded through smooth, linear “progress” but instead through a series of crises and radical transformations—but the concept very quickly came to be applied to a wide range of cultural changes as well. Kuhn found himself a bit baffled by this widespread adoption, noting in a postscript to the 1969 reissue that the concept of the paradigm seemed to have “assumed a life of its own,” entering common American usage in ways he didn’t entirely expect (186). Perhaps as a result of this migration outside the concept’s original field of reference, some of the particulars behind the notion of the paradigm shift have become a bit fuzzy. Paradigm shifts in cultural thinking do happen, certainly, but how they happen—and whether they can be made to happen—remains less clear.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Kuhn originally meant for the notion of the paradigm to serve as a synonym of sorts for the exemplar, the ideal example that can be used to explain or represent a more general concept or field. It came, however, to describe something closer to an ideology, a framework that structures and determines the possibilities for knowledge in general. In Kuhn’s model for scientific progress, “normal science,” which is largely focused on problem solving, operates under a shared paradigm, a commonly accepted model for the work underway. As Ian Hacking notes in his introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “All is well until the methods legitimated by the paradigm cannot cope with a cluster of anomalies; crisis results and persists until a new achievement redirects research and serves as a new paradigm” (xxiii). It sounds, in this description, positively orderly, but the process of establishing that new paradigm requires a revolution, a dramatic upheaval in the very basis of knowledge that displaces the old paradigm and replaces it with the new. The transition may afterward come to seem inevitable, and the textbooks may report a linear process in the development of knowledge, but the shift in thinking required of those caught in the transition is anything but simple. In the gap between the recognition of the anomalies and the emergence of the new achievement is “a period of pronounced professional insecurity” in which normal science ceases to function normally (Kuhn 68); afterward, those who have failed to make the transition to the new paradigm may be “simply read out of the profession, which thereafter ignores their work” (19). In part this happens because the old and new paradigms may mean radically different things by the same concepts, rendering them incommensurable and leaving their adherents unable to communicate with one another.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 If Chris Newfield is correct in his assertion that a paradigm shift is necessary in order to free the university from the downward spiral that privatization has created and return it to a focus on public service, Kuhn might help us begin to understand a bit about why. The university as a whole has in recent years been laboring under two competing paradigms: an older one, largely operative within the academic community, in which the university serves as a producer and disseminator of knowledge; and a more recent one, widely subscribed to in the surrounding culture, in which the university serves as a producer and disseminator of market-oriented credentials. That is to say, while the university has proceeded over the last several decades as if it were in a period of doing, in Kuhn’s sense, “normal science,” a paradigm shift has already taken place all around us. This cultural transformation began during the Reagan Revolution and has only grown in force, through the Contract with America, the Tea Party, and other political movements focused on replacing the public good with private enterprise. With that political revolution has come the dramatic shift described above in popular beliefs about the education of citizens, once considered a primary obligation of society but now taken to be an individual responsibility. The paradigm that has become dominant is that of the market, within which the ideal structure is understood to be the corporation, which functions first and foremost to return value to investors, and the ideal value is understood to be competition. McMillan Cottom argues that this ideological transformation has led directly to the rise of the for-profit higher education industry and the massive student debt on which it relies: “This shift away from understanding higher education as something that was important and good for society as a whole made the politics of financializing college tuition a sensible public choice” (133). But the same thing has happened within public universities, whose strong impetus toward privatization has resulted, as Newfield explores, ine a transformation that has not improved institutions’ efficiency and agility as promised but instead trapped them in a downward cycle of disinvestment and debt creation. Even worse, perhaps, the undeterrable belief in competition as the arbiter of the good under this market paradigm has resulted in institutions of higher education being pitted against one another rather than understanding themselves as working in solidarity for a shared social good.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 Higher education’s current crisis, then, stems from two key factors: on the one hand, the incommensurability of its dominant paradigm with that of the surrounding culture, and on the other, the fact that both paradigms are both failing, if in different ways. The older paradigm holds up as its exemplar the Elite Research University, a model of influence and prestige that relies on infinite resources in order to carve out a space in which the unfettered exploration of ideas can flourish, if only for a privileged few. The newer paradigm similarly holds up high-tech, disruptive forms of enterprise education as exemplars, ranging from for-profit colleges to online instruction and credentialing, models for the massive, frictionless, seemingly cost-free production of a highly skilled workforce. Neither of these paradigms can work today to create the necessary conditions for the kinds of universal education that could be provided by a university, focused on the public good, whose values that exceed the economic. If those of us who work within higher education or who are genuinely concerned about its future accessibility are to create the paradigm shift necessary to make its public value visible, we first have to recognize that our paradigm has failed us. But we also need to find ways to make visible the damage that’s been done by the paradigm that’s taken over the culture around us.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 The paradigm shift that I am arguing for thus cannot and should not be mistaken for disruption. Disruption in today’s most-hyped sense is most closely associated with the work of Clayton Christensen, who coined the term “disruptive innovation” in order to describe the ways that new upstarts with new models can rapidly take over older, often inefficient, industries and markets. As an example, one might think of the effects that Uber has had on existing taxi services: looking strictly at the consumer side of the transaction, it’s easy to see that in many areas it’s become far more possible to get a ride, at a relatively affordable price, than ever before. On the other hand, Uber has brought with it a host of problems, including an underpaid, under-regulated workforce (leading both to abuses of that workforce by the company and risks to passenger safety) and an app that tracks user behavior in intrusive and undisclosed ways. Disruption, in other words, does not provide an alternative to the market so much as an evasion of that market’s existing rules, which may set the stage for new efficiencies but may just as easily lay the groundwork for a host of new abuses. And disruption in higher education has thus far gone entirely wrong. Just as one example, the massively open online courses, or MOOCs, that were set to stand the old high-cost, in-person university on its head, delivering quality education around the world, 24/7, for little to no cost: well, they didn’t. They turned out to be expensive to produce, for one thing, and to have questionable educational outcomes, especially for students who were educationally under-served in the first place. As a result, Sebastian Thrun, founder of one of the highest-profile MOOC companies, admitted as the hype began to wane that they had “a lousy product.” As Audrey Watters has argued time and again, such has been the story with most efforts at “ed-tech” disruption: what winds up being disrupted, more often than not, is the students (see “Myth and Millennialism” and “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump,” among many such potential sources).
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 What I am arguing for is thus not a disruption but a revolution in our thinking, one specifically focused on demanding the good that higher education can create: a good that is more public than private, a good that is not primarily focused on the production of economic value but instead on producing a more important range of social values. Institutions of higher education today find themselves at a most precarious crossroads; no longer content with defunding universities or slashing research support, lawmakers have begun proposing a series of increasingly intrusive measures that promise to undermine the principles under which American higher education has long operated. These measures have included, at least briefly, tax reform proposals that would reclassify graduate student tuition waivers as taxable income, a move that would have rendered postgraduate education financially out of reach for all but the most wealthy. They have also included a higher education reauthorization that proposed dramatic changes to financial aid programs and increased pressure toward career outcome-based accountability. But lawmakers have also launched a series of interventions into personnel matters on campus, whether creating requirements for greater “ideological diversity” in hiring or demanding punitive measures against faculty members and departments perceived as taking inappropriate political positions in public. These attempts to undermine academic freedom are not driven by the desire to remove political content from campus but instead to impose the right political content: speech and instruction that promote private enterprise and the social status quo at the expense of all other social goods.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 We cannot fend off this and other such attacks on the very foundations of higher education in the United States by clinging to the paradigms that have landed our institutions, and our broader culture, in this mess. In fact, the damage done by these paradigms—the damage done by our institutions’ focus on prestige, and the damage done by our culture’s focus on the market—manifests itself most intensely at the level of our collective self-understanding. Kuhn’s model describes that ways that the failure of a scientific paradigm, as it becomes beset by anomalies for which the paradigm cannot account, throws the community that relies on that paradigm into crisis. This crisis is not just abstractly epistemological; it is a more fundamental crisis in self-understanding. A paradigm is not just a model shared by a community, but that which makes the community a community in the first place, and as a result, “when a paradigm is threatened by crisis, the community itself is in disarray” (Hacking xxv). Recovering from this crisis requires the discovery of and commitment to a new paradigm—and that requires thoughtful experimentation and a willingness to look at the problem from a radically different angle.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 4 Michael Crow has worked very consciously at Arizona State University to produce a new exemplar for what he deems the New American University, and in so doing he has enabled the university to vastly expand access and to create innovative ways of thinking about institutional and curricular structure. And yet this model, with its heavy focus on public-private partnerships, seems a bit limited in the ways that it can transform public thinking about, and public investment in, the university. It’s a model in which the public good seems equated with service to the new economy. And it’s a model in which market-based competition reigns. This new paradigm makes some of the strengths of the Elite Research University available to many more students with far more socio-economically diverse backgrounds, thus undermining the sense in which “prestige is attained through the maintenance of scarcity” (Crow and Dabars 30). However, in its heavy focus on entrepreneurialism and in its relentless assessment of excellence through national standings, growth in research funding, numbers of Nobel laureates, and the like, the New American University winds up merging aspects of the Elite Research University’s prestige with market-focused quality indicators, leaving the institution entirely dependent upon a paradigm that drives inexorably toward privatization.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 If we are in fact ready to recognize that the university is in a profound crisis of the type that Kuhn describes—one in which “normal science” is decreasingly possible, in which the community itself is in disarray—we need not to look for solutions within our existing models, but rather to begin developing new models for understanding how what we do works. That is, we need alternatives both to the Elite Research University paradigm and to the market-driven quality paradigm. Rather than reconceiving the university itself as a new form of semi-public, semi-corporate enterprise capable of producing a more egalitarian Harvard, we need to begin from an entirely different standpoint. Our dominant narratives about the rise to pre-eminence of the American system of higher education place that system’s birth in 1876, with the merger of the Oxbridge-style undergraduate college and the German-derived graduate/research institution in the founding of Johns Hopkins University. An entirely different view of that system might become possible if we were instead to begin our narrative with a different birthplace: the 1862 Morrill Act, which established the land-grant system of state agricultural and mechanical colleges, charged with promoting “the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life” (7 U.S. Code § 304). That is to say: an entirely different focus for today’s universities might emerge if we understand their founding mission not to have been educating those destined for conventional forms of leadership, but rather educating those who might help their communities grow from the grass-roots up. There are, of course, a host of other voluntary communities and educational cooperatives that have similarly addressed the needs that arise from people’s actual lives rather than from the desire to oversee and manage those lives at scale. These alternative models include the public “Conversations” held by Margaret Fuller in early nineteenth-century Boston, designed to support women in learning despite their exclusion from conventional institutions of higher education (Zwarg). They also include the lyceum movement, which brought educational programming to communities across the country in the years leading up to the Civil War, as well as the twentieth-century labor colleges and folk schools that supported union organizers and others working toward social justice within their communities (Bradbury; Horton and Freire). Models such as these might lead us to suspect that what we need may be less an innovation in the delivery system for higher education today than a new conception of the community that we are building both within our institutions and between those institutions and the public they should serve.
[And in the case of the transformation I am attempting to describe here, it requires refusing the dominance of the privatized, economized rationality that has gotten us into the situation we currently find ourselves in. The metrics and the budgetary constraints will always push the institution away from its public orientation, away from generosity, and toward the kind of economistic comparison with the corporate sector that the university can never win. But it’s a comparison that we should never want to win. ]
Yes. Just yes.