I’m wondering tonight about connections between the changing face of the economy and the changing face of higher education. Howard Tinberg writes, “With a student body roughly split between those who intend to transfer to four-year institutions and those who plan to go directly into the workplace, and with a faculty whose background reflects both academic training and workplace experience, the community college cannot afford to ignore the critical question, What kinds of knowledge do we want our students to leave us with? [. . .] Am I endowing my students with insights into historical methods? Or am I providing them with more generalizable skills, appropriate for the workplace?” (I don’t have the page number handy, but I finished his book, and the stuff that actually deals with the specifics of community college education is fascinating, and somewhat more engaging than the stuff that rehearses composition’s understanding of itself as a field and a practice.) The workplace skills question is something I keep coming back to, perhaps because it’s the most obvious link between education and economy, and I want to firmly fix it in place in order to allow myself to navigate other perhaps more subtle links.
This is because I believe that our so-called information economy is far more dependent on education than any previous economic system, and also because there’s a growing inversion of roles, where economic concerns have an ever-increasing stake and involvement in the day-to-day practices of higher education. I’m well aware of the dangers of mistaking correlation for causation, but I think the way the economy is changing is deeply linked to the way education is changing — and I want to believe that, as an educator, my practices might help to make a difference (however small) in helping to lessen economic inequality. Here’s how Shosha Zuboff and James Maxmin view the changing economy: “managerial capitalism and its handmaiden, transaction economics, have sown a harvest they cannot reap. They helped to set into motion the large-scale historical forces of mass literacy, extended education, mass consumption, increased health, universal communication, and unlimited information access that propelled people toward lives of greater richness, diversity, longevity, and ultimately individuality” — however, “the enterprises of managerial capitalism could go no further. Their allegiance to the confining precepts of transaction economics, their pernicious inward focus, and their intractable contempt for individual end consumers render them institutionally incapable of reaping the new wealth that arises from this changing structure of consumption” (Zuboff 286). Zuboff teaches at Harvard, and I think the Ivies are going to be the last institutions to perceive the increasing effects that economic concerns have on higher education: they’re protected by massive endowments, and class privilege creates a certain willful blindness. From my own experience at a state university that has suffered immense budget cuts, however, I might argue that state-dependent public institutions, either two-year or four-year, are going to be the ones much more attuned to how economic concerns affect them.
So now I wonder: can the history of the two-year college tell us anything about economic change?
According to the Columbia University Teachers College Community College Research Center (lots of good stuff in the works cited there), two-year institutions are about a hundred years old, but I had to do some poking around to even uncover that fact. Raymond Williams tracks the beginnings of the industrial revolution in England from the end of the eighteenth century, and I wonder how much the growing industrialization of the United States had to do with boom in two-year colleges. Are there any definitive works out there on the history of the two-year college? As John Lovas and others have pointed out, and without meaning to disparage the excellent work of scholar-practictioners who publish in Teaching English in the Two-Year College and other journals, I might observe that there seems to be a genuine dearth of research on two-year colleges: consider the wretchedly thin Wikipedia entry on the topic (of course, it’s a wiki, so there’s a great opportunity for someone with more expertise on the topic to usefully expand the entry) and the conspicuous loneliness of programs like the Community College Studies program at UCLA’s School of Education.
I have a colleague who’s on the job market this year, doing the interview rounds at MLA in Philadelphia, with dreams of the Research 1 lifestyle, of working at a big and powerful and influential graduate research institution. That’s not for me, I don’t think. No desire whatsoever for the academic rockstar thing. Research is OK, but teaching’s the reason I’m doing this PhD, and I’m pretty confident that I’d be much happier working at a teaching-focused institution than at a research-focused institution. So, yeah, the more I think about it, the more interested I am in looking for a job at a two-year college when I’m doing the rounds at MLA in Washington, DC next year.