Education under Siege: The Conservative, Liberal and Radical Debate over Schooling

By Stanley Aronowitz; Henry Giroux | Go to book overview

EIGHT

Neo-Conservative Ideology and the Crisis in Higher Education

PART ONE

THE IRONY OF the current crisis in higher education is that even as successive administrations in the 1970s and 1980s have reduced aid to colleges and universities, the importance of these institutions has grown in all spheres of society. In the 1920s post-secondary education was reserved for two quite disparate groups: those destined to rule America’s giant corporations or the state and those belonging to all social classes able to climb into the professions. For the vast majority, working class and old middle class alike, higher education was just not an option. Most factory jobs could be learned by on-the-job training, usually in a few weeks or in the skilled trades by a prolonged apprenticeship, most of which could only be justified on economic or bureaucratic grounds, not on criteria derived from the requirements of the work itself. Shopkeepers acquired business acumen by imbibing tradition, or in more complex enterprises hired a small coterie of experts, mostly attorneys and accountants, to handle such issues as tax matters, bankruptcies and mergers and consulted bankers and loan companies on investment decisions.

However, as Randall Collins has persuasively argued, we have entered a “credentialized society” 1 in the past thirty years. The degree or certificate may not train labor better to perform paid work; indeed, even in the professions such as medicine, engineering and the law, most knowledge is acquired by performing tasks at the workplace. However, credentials have become a rite of passage, a prerequisite for civil service exams, a sign that a certain process of formation has taken place. In Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, completion of a prescribed post-secondary course signifies cultural capital. 2 The “new” class of professionals and subprofessionals, most of whom are engaged in some form of wage

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