Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Economism Frame at Work: The “Assault” on Texas Higher Education

Paul Burka wrote the cover story for the October issue of Texas Monthly, “The Battle over UT” (, subscription required for full article). I’m sure this veteran political writer (or so I gather) thought that he was presenting a reasonably balanced account of Gov. Rick Perry, Jeff Sandefer and his Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the conservative assault on Texas’s flagship universities, University of Texas and Texas A&M. In actuality the article is highly biased, and in seeing why, we understand how “frames” work in political discussion.

Linguist George Lakoff explained frames in books such as Moral Politics. In framing a political statement, we may think we’re using neutral language, but may in actuality be adopting language that adheres to the key assumptions of one side of the debate. That means that anyone who wishes to argue the other side starts off at a disadvantage, because the debate has already been laid out in terms favorable to the other side—terms that make it sound like the other side is sensible and its critics are muddle-headed. If, for example, we frame the debate over immigration policy as, “Are you in favor of upholding the law of the land, or do you endorse amnesty?” then we’re doing the sort of framing that Lakoff objects to.

Burka’s article is shot through with the economism frame. He accepts as unassailable the assumptions that:
·         A college degree is a commodity
·         The goal of college is to “buy” a degree and then use it to get a good job
·         What you learn in college can be precisely quantified by standardized tests
·         It makes sense to argue that a college should be run as if it were a business
Defenders of higher education’s role in a democratic society by creating an educated, critically thinking populace automatically sound old-fashioned and out of touch as soon as you adopt this frame. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, for example, in her valuable book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, obviously has nothing worthwhile to say according to the economism formula.

Perhaps the worst example of one-sided framing comes at the end of this long article when Burka seems to accept the notion that the old-fashioned university faculty types represent an elitist view of higher education while Sandefer and his gang, who want to hold down tuition and make more on-line learning available, are the populists in this contest. Thomas Frank, in his One Market Under God (which I discuss at length in The Golden Calf), shrewdly dissects economism’s claim that it represents populism and true democracy via the marketplace, since in the free market, the consumer can purchase whatever she wants. By contrast, any form of government regulation is elitism, with other people telling you what to do. Yeah, right, says Frank, the US corporation is a wonderful example of democracy—Bill Gates assures us that we’ll have the widest possible choice of operating systems for our computers and we can pick whichever one we want. And if Bill Gates’s employees didn’t like the way he was running Microsoft, they could take a vote and get rid of him.

If you want to know the real scoop about what’s elitist and what’s populist in the American university, read Christopher Newfield’s essential book, Unmaking the Public University. His thesis would seem to be a wild conspiracy theory if he had not documented and supported it so thoroughly. On his view, in the late 1960s, the elite, wealthy white males that were used to running America the way they saw fit got into a snit. Women and minorities were increasingly rising to positions of power in an expanded and highly educated middle class. The skittish one-percenters looked around at where these people were coming from, and discovered the source of the problem—the large public university. So they decided that two things had to happen if they were to remain in control. First, the university had to be robbed of its essential funding. Second, equally important, the university as a source of knowledge had to be delegitimated in the eyes of the populace. Newfield makes a good case that the entire assault on affirmative action in the 1990s (for instance) was a part of this delegitimation process.

Burka admits that he’s personally biased because he’s a part-timer at UT-Austin, teaching one course a year on politics for low pay and no benefits and outside the tenure system. He’s the sort of faculty member that would be the only employee of UT if Sandefer had his way. Burka talks movingly about how faculty like him usually have something many tenured professors lack—real-world experience. That is supposedly the reason why Sandefer wants to hire so many of them. The fact that such profs are for the most part cheap and docile labor couldn’t possibly be the real reason conservatives love them so much. (My own personal bias is the opposite of course since in my day job, I’m a tenured professor teaching humanities in a professional school.)

The final bit of evidence that Burka has totally swallowed the economism frame is what he proposes to do about the future of the university. Suppose that you agreed with all the following:
·         The large public university is a huge public good, producing both education for the masses and essential research.
·         In today’s world the university, like everything else, is increasing expensive to maintain.
·         Raising tuition to pay for the increased costs adds unacceptable levels of debt to young people just starting their careers, and excludes many others from even getting a degree.
Now, if you agreed on all those things, a logical conclusion would be that we have to belly up to the bar and pay for a public good with more public money—that is, taxes. That would be logical unless you’d adopted the economism frame, where raising taxes is taboo. So the possibility that the real problem in Texas, despite its relatively booming economy, is inadequate public funding for its schools (K-12 even worse than higher ed) gets completely left out of Burka’s discussion.

Am I a defender of the status quo? I believe that universities need to do more to cut costs while retaining quality, must address the tuition problem more aggressively, and that faculty need to be more accountable for how they spend the taxpayer money entrusted to them. But we need open-minded discussions of how to do all that—not warmed-over economism.

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