Education 101: Argument in the university

Andrew Breland

“I love argument, I love debate. I don’t expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that’s not their job.”

One might assume that the above quote came from a philosopher, essayist or other nominally unemployed person trying to make a point. At the very least, no one would believe that the quote came from a successful politician whose main attributes were enduring conflict and creating substantive policy over opposition.

She was noted for her strong will, rejection of compromise on key ideological issues and her efforts to turn Britain around from the perceived failures and excesses of the liberal welfare state.

The quote comes from Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister in the 1980s. She became famous for a conservative revolution in Britain. But most significantly, Thatcher stands for a brand of politics that is almost dissolved in public rhetoric.

This brand of politics, however, can extend beyond the hallowed walls of parliament as it inserts itself into the general consciousness of every industry in the U.S.

As all of us are more than well-aware, one of the most affluent and powerful industries in the country is not what most people would call an industry at all—the university system. The American higher education system includes nearly 5,000 colleges and universities where over 20 million students are enrolled every year. Recent debates around universities center on the income value of university degrees, the cost of education and the necessity of “skills-based learning.”

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Emeritus Professor of History at Yeshiva University Ellen Schrecker. She was in town to give a talk as part of the Baker-Nord Center’s “Interpreting Capitalism” series. Professor Schrecker is most notable for her work of anti-McCarthyism, or put another way, anti-anti-Communism. But in recent years, she has focused substantially on academic freedom in the university, an issue I have long been fascinated with.

As regular readers of this column will remember, on multiple occasions I have commented on the need for competing viewpoints, viewpoint diversity and “freedom to say what you want” on several occasions throughout the last two years. While talking with her, Schrecker commented generally on the hypocrisy of academia: Encouraging new horizons of research on one hand, while punishing those who speak up against university policy on the other.

One of the most curious points she made was that education discourse in this country is severely diminished. Instead of talking about the “general good” and creativity among our college students, we have resigned ourselves to viewing college students as commodities to be traded. College, instead of an education, is a business. Professors, instead of educators, are investments.

While this is not a patently false or even unbelievable view, its perpetual ascendency in the higher education discourse signals an enormous quandary for the future of education in this country. Without a conversation including all education solutions, we arbitrarily eliminate possible life-saving and society-improving techniques.

Perhaps the utopian education is one where students and professors interact equally in a system much like that employed by Socrates. Or maybe, a system of “great books” education like those employed at some liberal arts colleges, proves in the long run to be the most successful at creating creative, empathetic students. Is that not successful? Or maybe the corporate model is the most successful. The market, after all, tends to settle on efficient productivity.

But we will never know the answer to that question, since our industry has turned away from that dialogue. Educational leaders have embraced the language of politics, have settled for complacency, and have ignored the obvious benefits of other less corporatist manners of education.

This is the practical application of the uncompromising view of politics, extending into other arenas. Though I heartily agree with most of what Thatcher did in Great Britain, the method by which she accomplished her goals set a standard that has pervaded and perverted other, less adversarial fields. Though argument and complete demolition of opposition has its place, compromise and fair-gamesmanship preclude it in most possible situations.

Professor Schrecker’s words were inviting and intriguing. And for the next couple of weeks, I will explore some of the statements and assertions she made about the need for freedom and equality in education and political stadia. Her statements probably rang true mostly due to their unique and powerful connection with our Case Western Reserve University. As she spoke, her negative generalities painted a picture of the ideal corporatist university, her dystopia. Unfortunately, CWRU fit the bill on most of her concerns.

Here’s hoping that we can recover the humanism that we have lost in this conclusion.

Andrew Breland is a double major in political science and English, planning on getting a master’s degree in political science before attending law school. He is the vice president of the Phi Alpha Delta pre-law fraternity and the treasurer of CWRU’s undergraduate mock trial team.