Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher


With the other shoe set to drop in Charlottesville today, the New York Times sees fit to print some warmed-over neoliberal talking points on “the future of higher education”, in the form of an op-ed by Jeff Selingo. Of universities and their growth over the past decade, Selingo writes:

Other information industries, from journalism to music to book publishing, enjoyed similar periods of success right before epic change enveloped them, seemingly overnight. We now know how those industries have been transformed by technology, resulting in the decline of the middleman – newspapers, record stores, bookstores and publishers.

Who is this man with the vexed analogies, you ask, and why is he writing David Brooks’s column? “Jeff is the leading authority on higher education worldwide” (source: and the editorial director of the Chronicle of Higher Ed. In his chosen role of deliverer of hard truths, Selingo appears credentialed up to his eyeballs.

Too bad, then, that his diagnosis of what ails higher education—indeed, his apparent conception of what higher education is—fails to stand up to even minimal scrutiny. Like so much other higher-ed commentary by outside observers, Selingo’s “information industry” analogy completely misapprehends the role of university faculty. Faculty are not record store clerks; they are contemporary musicians. Students are not consumers of knowledge; they are intellectual apprentices. The neoliberal lament is true: universities are not designed to maximize the efficiency (to say nothing of the profitability) of information transfer. But this is because information transfer is not the purpose of higher education. Information can be sent through a pipe; knowledge is attained through contact with knowledgeable people.

Students realize this, as Selingo himself noted in a blog post in May:

Face-to-face education matters even more now. Because these students see the world through screens (mobile, tablet, and laptop), I expected them to embrace the idea of online education. Just the opposite. They want to engage with a professor and with their classmates, they crave the serendipity of classroom discussions, and they want the discipline of going to class. Even the adult students I met preferred a physical classroom. Online “you’re pretty much paying to teach yourself,” a Valencia student told me.

Selingo’s information industry analogy is steeped in the pervasive and destructive logic of the conduit metaphor, whose ubiquity is matched only by the degree to which those who should know better remain ignorant of it. The conduit metaphor facilitates talk of knowledge as a product and of universities and their faculty as middlemen jacking up the price. The recent debacle at UVa has provided a useful reminder of the importance of shared governance by university faculty; among other things, shared governance offers a rebuke to the reductive characterization of faculty implicit in the conduit metaphor.

No matter to Selingo, who is rewarded with space on the NYT op-ed page for embracing the metaphor and intoning the tired litany of neoliberal remedies (more technology in the classroom, more online courses, fewer graduate programs, etc., without a word in support of, say, reinvestment by state governments) and who—surprise!—is flogging an upcoming book. Funny how our “rapidly changing world”, as Selingo puts it, never changes quite rapidly enough to endanger the careers of finger-in-the-wind pundits.


Comments are closed.