Against pragmatism

Justifying the university means justifying what universities do, not what we want them to do

Over at University Affairs, deputy editor Léo Charbonneau, recently asked his readers for their thoughts about protecting universities against the possibility of massive cuts to higher education. He asks, “What’s the best line of argument to protect universities from the cuts to come?”

Charbonneau poses the question after reviewing an article by Paul Wells written for the alumni mag at Wells’ alma mater (see here, page 46). Wells, one of the few national columnists who thinks higher education is worth talking about, admonishes the idea that university administrators should take a pragmatic approach to protecting their funding.

Administrators like to emphasize the economic impact of higher education. Universities are special, they argue. Not only do they contribute to economic activity in the here and now (like every other large employer) but they make our workforce more productive, and contribute to job creation across the entire economy, and in the long term, in ways that no other sector can. Give them more money and we will get more economic growth as a result. ( The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada made this very argument in its pre-budget submission to parliament’s finance committee).

Such a line of argument would be great for universities if it were true, or, if it is true, if it could be proven. Unfortunately this is not really the case. As Wells writes:

The problem with that line of argument is that in a really nasty economic environment, governments on a tight budget will take that as a cue to go hunting for anything a university does that doesn’t, demonstrably, simplistically, generate the ideas that drive a new economy. Whatever they find that looks like a ‘frill’ by that definition will be in danger of getting cut. And frankly, most of what goes on at a university is hard to justify as part of a job-creation mill.

Charbonneau takes issue not with Wells’ analysis, but with Wells’ conclusions that universities “need to go back to basics and talk more … about the intrinsic value of knowledge, scholarship, beauty, contention, and an environment that urges scholars toward ambition and accomplishment.” Charbonneau finds Wells misguided, and says he doubts “whether it’s the type of argument that our current governments will buy into.”

Though Charbonneau does not come right out and say it, it seems obvious that he sides with the view that universities should adopt a pragmatic approach and tell governments what they think governments want to hear.

It should be obvious that Wells is correct on this question.

Of course current governments are not going to buy into the argument that universities are  justified by their core activities of teaching and learning. No one ever bothers to make the case to them. Instead universities act ashamed that they investigate the origins of the universe, or competing views on Milton’s Paradise Lost, and emphasize what are in actuality only incidental outcomes of higher education.

The logic of academia is internal, meaning its impact on the rest of society cannot be predicted or planned. And, if we start trying to plan it, then what made academia unique withers away. Taking the pragmatic approach does not convince governments to value higher education, it concedes the terms of debate to those who think intellectual pursuits are all about direct economic outcomes. What happens when people start looking for this return?

A more appropriate way to view universities might be something similar to how we view public spending on the arts. As a certain prairie based education writer put it earlier this week:

[T]he public is not stupid, and universities should not be so sheepish about what they do. If universities announced that they were no longer going to study ancient history, or the origins of the universe, or Shakespeare, then the public would likely be distressed.

After all, we support public funding for the arts because of the intrinsic good they are thought to confer on the community. Why not teaching and learning? Like the arts, higher education is a luxury of wealthy societies to be appreciated, not as a means to solve all our problems or to be debased on utilitarian grounds.

If schools want to justify themselves, or demonstrate their relevance, they have to show us what it is that they uniquely do.

To be sure, such reasoning puts schools at risk of being dismissed as frivolous, but it doesn’t have to. Higher education advocates should learn to own the debate and not be afraid to talk about what they actually do.