Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher


Middlemen

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: jeffselingo.com) 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 chronicle.com 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.

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It’s the wrong mapping, essentially

The Megyn Kelly–Bill O’Reilly conversation about Friday’s unconscionable pepper spraying incident at UC Davis has now gone viral (see video here), and Kelly has, unsurprisingly, garnered the lion’s share of criticism for her meme-ready comment that pepper spray “is a food product, essentially.” (We all look forward to the inevitable segment in which Kelly gamely downs a slice of pizza doused with the stuff.)

Not to be outdone, O’Reilly counters later in the discussion with his own howler:

“I don’t think we have the right to Monday-morning quarterback the police.”

If O’Reilly’s comment lacks the patented Fox News mix of shock value and dismissiveness favored by Kelly, it more than makes up for it in the deftness of its metaphorical sleight-of-hand. Setting aside the troubling framing of public outrage at police brutality as a special right, explicitly enumerated only so that O’Reilly can, in the same breath, deny it to us—to say nothing of the vexed relationship between freedom and rights in right-wing political discourse—what makes O’Reilly’s football metaphor so pernicious is the fact that it applies the wrong metaphorical mapping to police and the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect.

O’Reilly would have us be spectators, imagining ourselves in the role of the police and unjustifiably complaining about perceived deficiencies in the execution of a task whose actual demands we cannot understand. A more apt, if still imperfect, metaphor would have us as referees, the agents with the ultimate authority to enforce the rules of fair play. Notice the very different roles played by the UC Davis students in these two metaphors: if we are Monday-morning quarterbacks, then we are invited to take on the perspective of the police and thus view the students as our opponents; if we are referees, then we are neutral arbitrators who must place the students and the police on an equal footing.

Metaphors run deep, and O’Reilly’s flawed football mapping will only further entrench the repugnant notion that student protestors are a public enemy. Perhaps, though, we can embrace the football talk for good ends: while we can’t play Monday-morning quarterback, we can examine the video replay, call penalties, and issue ejections.