UD lives in the richest, most highly educated location in the world.

The most spoiled, too. Even though many of us in the Washington DC region have plenty of money, all of the Smithsonian museums — arguably the best collection of museums in the world — are free. (Just one New York museum – the Guggenheim – costs eighteen bucks. MOMA’s twenty.)

The Smithsonians, the Guggenheims — these places, like universities, are considered public goods, worthy of government support in the form of things like direct funding, or tax-deductible donations, or other goodies. (An article in the Economist magazine worries about whether the escalating commercialization of American museums will threaten the fact that they “fall under a category of non-profit organisation that is tax-exempt and that qualifies for charitable giving.”)

The Smithsonians are mostly tax-supported (though their come-and-go exhibits aren’t), and the Guggenheims much less so, but both are non-profits; and there’s a profound, delicate, and complex understanding in this country that the non-profits among us — places like museums and universities — stand above the merely material world, have to do with higher things, represent not merely monetary but civilizational values, and therefore must be especially cherished by us all. Special exceptions must be made for them; they are worthy recipients of special forms of support.


How much of this instinct toward cherishing non-profits like universities is sentiment, and how much substance?

An important question. Yet people who defend the non-profit nature of universities tend to be merely sentimental, rather than substantive, in defending their higher, civilizational claims.

For instance, Stanley Fish, in his latest blog post, expresses fury at a recent report out of England arguing for greater privatization of universities and a greater emphasis on preparing students for a vocation. Fish rails against the report’s “relentless monetization of everything in sight… [V]alue now means return on the dollar; quality of life now means the number of cars or houses you can buy; a civilized society is a society where the material goods a society offers can be enjoyed by more people.” He continues:

The logic is the logic of privatization. Higher education is no longer conceived of as a public good — as a good the effects of which permeate society — but is rather a private benefit, and as such it should be supported by those who enjoy the benefit… [C]ivilization, as far as one can see, will have to take care of itself .

This all sounds great; but what matters is what people see. When they see Fish – who last I looked boasted of driving a Jaguar convertible, and is famous for having attracted big names to Duke University’s English department by throwing huge sums of money at them and giving them little in the way of teaching responsibilities – do they see the reasonably distanced attitude toward materialism that his pro-civilization rhetoric suggests?

What do people see? Duke, and UD‘s GW, are both fine universities; but what do people see?

When you walk into the largest, most public building at George Washington University, where UD teaches, a big tv screen greets you. On it, the latest Hollywood gossip blares. It’s inescapable. The sound fills up the lobby.

So… Say you’re a taxpayer assured by Stanley Fish and others that universities are precious conservators of civilization. But your immediate experience of this university is no different from your experience in the back of a taxicab that has a tv screen staring you in the face when you enter, blaring the latest Hollywood gossip.

If universities are going to be treated as different, they need to be careful that what they present to the world differentiates itself from the world.


The current focus on the scandal of government support for rip-off for-profit schools is drawing attention to the civilizational integrity, if you will, of the non-profits. The only argument lobbyists for the for-profits have going for them is that many non-profit universities are just as scummy as they are, and they get federal support! Why shouldn’t the for-profits?

Too true. Too true. What’s University Diaries been telling you all these years? If your non-profit university is as much of a joke as the for-profits, you should be slammed just as hard as they’re about to get slammed. If you give your president millions in compensation, graduate few students, give most of your money to athletics, hoard your endowment, stuff your boards of trustees with hedge fund managers or corrupt local merchants, put most of your courses online and make remaining on-campus courses gigantic lectures no one attends, have ghostwritten industry flacks among your researchers — If you are, in other words, a seriously anti-intellectual, seriously money-grubbing sort of jobbie, you’re doing fuck-all for civilization, and no self-respecting government should have anything to do with you.

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11 Responses to “Civilization and its Contents”

  1. francofou Says:

    Exactement, Madame.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:


  3. david foster Says:

    Seems to me that the selling of college education over at least the last couple of decades has mostly focused on the line: “Get a degree so you can get a higher-paying job”….much less on EITHER “go to college to learn stuff worth knowing ’cause it’s interesting” OR “go to college to learn stuff you will need for your career,” but rather a focus on the credential itself.

    If you are manufacturing cars, and you market your new model with the line “attracts hot babes!” then you shouldn’t feel surprised or hurt when people who show up at your dealerships are uninterested in hearing about the advanced suspension system or the cunning and innovative approach to valve timing. That’s not what they’re buying it for.

    To switch the analogy, perhaps the majority of college students are now like draftees in a peacetime army…not there because they *want* to be there or because they see any real need to be there, but because someone told them they *have* to be there. Many officers have said they prefer to work with volunteers. I’d imagine this is true of professors, too.

  4. DM Says:

    I’m getting emails from compsci colleagues in England, talking about downsizing in universities, professors being “made redundant” and so on.

  5. Robert Says:

    @ david foster

    During my last decade of teaching at Brown, more than half of the students seemed to be there — insofar as they had any reasons of their own at all — to put off “growing up” as long as possible. More that 2/3 of the ones who talked with me about graduate school had no strong interest in any subject at all, but simply did not want to leave the cozy embrace of academia and enter the world of their parents.

    Of course there were exceptions: many wonderful, intelligent young people who had already become adults by the time they got their bachelor’s degrees. But they stood out as a small minority.

    Myself, I’m somewhat inclined to think that such a system of mass higher education isn’t worth keeping alive any longer. Only the above-mentioned small minority seem to gain anything (other than a credential and some networking) from the four years at present.

  6. Roger Mexico Says:

    That last paragraph… incredible stuff.

    This has been a tough week of news, I think, for anyone who actually teaches, works, or learns in higher education. Although if you’re the sort of bureaucrat poseur so ably skewered on this blog, I’m sure it’s happy holidays from here on out.

    A quick note about the fee hikes in the UK and about something that those interested in defending academia should keep an eye on: namely, the student protests.

    These protests were both heartening and heartbreaking. These are kids, mainly 17 – 20 I’m told, organizing massive, multi-day demonstrations without the aid or backing of any major political party. They did it, basically, with blogs and twitter. They’re not only fighting against the fee hikes, which is admirable, but also against the inevitable decline that the arts, humanities, and social sciences will suffer under this plan. (As I understand it, the government will basically offset the rise in costs for science and technology-related majors, but not for the humanities, etc.).

    My favorite image from these protests — something that ought to warm the heart of even the coldest higher-ed doomsayer — is of students who fashioned make-shift riot shields from cardboard boxes. They then painted the faux-riot shields to look like great books. Check them out here (about halfway down the page):


    But then the heartbreaking and headbreaking starts. Turns out cardboard boxes and civilization are no match against some fucking stormtrooper marshmellowed in more body armor than a Panzer. A philosophy student had his skull caved in by a police truncheon; there’s a video of a protester who has cerebral palsy being plucked from his wheelchair by police and dragged down the street.

    The UK media reaction to these events is, well, disappointing. They’ve stressed all the property damage the students caused (somebody broke a window on Prince Charles’s Bentley) and have basically ignored the evident physical violence against the students, not to mention the harder to quantify violence against society that these cuts will inevitably bring about.

    …Anyway, should anyone need a reminder that equitable and affordable higher education is something worth fighting for — and that there are smart, capable students fighting for it at the moment — make sure to read up on the protests.

    Thanks for the great blog, UD.

  7. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Many thanks for the kind words, Roger Mexico, and for the description of the student protests.

  8. Roger Mexico Says:

    Sorry, most of them are 17 – 20 years in age — in case that wasn’t clear. Staging a massive protest with only twenty people in attendance would be something, though.

  9. Ahistoricalty Says:

    The choice of Fish as an exemplar of the image dissonance of the academy goes much deeper than mere economics: Fish made his career as a gadfly, and currently serves as the token humanities expert for the NYT; his fame and wealth are a direct result of his willingness to be a public “insider” critic of academia, while our responses to his hip-shot criticisms (oddly consistent with conservative attacks) are left languishing at IHE, CHE, etc.

  10. Trudy Says:

    Word! Say it like it is. I have seen so much corruption and enabling of mediocrity and laziness at state universities that it boggles the mind. And almost nobody seems to care–the majority of students least of all, sadly.

  11. Stephen Karlson Says:

    David Foster: what you’re getting at is the old “Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.”

    Trudy: stop enabling failure in your own classes, your own department, your division, and you’ll get less of it.

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