Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money

By Singell, Larry | Academe, January/February 2006 | Go to article overview

Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money


Singell, Larry, Academe


Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money By James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005.

Higher education is in genuine trouble. Imagine a college whose primary source of funds is sales of beer and other products, and whose professors are beholden to an outside corporate interest with an agenda that limits the pursuit of knowledge. Does this describe the modern American university? No; it describes Corpus Christi College of the University of Cambridge, which was founded in 1352 with funds from the Beer and Bakers Guild and with the requirement that its professors be priests.

In Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money, James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield recognize that there has never been a golden age in which higher education was free from the considerations of money or other interests. Nonetheless, the book chronicles how the current challenges facing U.S. universities differ from those of the past and, in particular, how a new primacy of money threatens to alter higher education for the worse. The authors offer numerous examples of how the pursuit of money as an end and not a means has altered the production of knowledge to emphasize the "practical" over the "speculative." The book makes the case for the importance of universities' maintaining the reciprocal and productive relationship between learning for its own sake and learning for utility. Thus, in the view of the authors, higher education has lost sight of its mission and must be saved.

The notion that financial considerations are playing a greater role in higher education is not new and has been thoroughly researched. The real intellectual contribution of this book is the consideration of what the authors refer to as "the entelechy of higher education" (that is, its purpose and nature), which provides a framework to assess these changes. Specifically, the authors argue that higher education is: (a) an instrumental economic good because knowledge permits its holders to perform tasks that raise individual productivity, wages, and, thereby, economic growth; (b) an instrumental social good because reasoned discussion can instill social responsibility and build communities; and (c) an instrumental civic good because scholarly debate is the model for a democratic society's procedures of verification and dispute over ideas and policy.

The authors exhaustively detail how the economic function of higher education, which has always been relatively important in U.S. universities, has become the primary goal of students, faculty, and administrators. Consequently, there is a new emphasis in universities on fields of study that offer: (a) the promise of money, in terms of improved chances of securing an occupation that promises above-average lifetime earnings; (b) the knowledge of money, in terms of business, financial, or economic matters and markets; and (c) a source of money, in terms of significant external support through research contracts, federal grants, or corporate underwriting. In consequence, the humanities are becoming marginalized because the skills these fields are uniquely suited to impart (for example, rhetoric, ethics, and logic) do not directly relate to money.

The book contends that the preeminence of the economic function in the university is problematic not only because it supplants the university's other important functions, but also because two primary goals of higher education are deformed by a purely economic interest. First, higher education seeks as a goal the ethical application of knowledge and its relationship to human conduct. …

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