July 02, 2012

Why Stephen Toope is the new Jimmy Hoffa

Irving K. Barber Library at UBC. (Photo Courtesy of Dennis Tsang/Flickr Creative Commons)

If you're a student journalist, or a student, or a journalist, or in any way a participant in society, you need to read this article in the latest edition of n+1, which outlines how the university has overtaken the union as the second most important institution (after the corporation) in American, and I'd argue Canadian, life.

The piece is broad in it's scope, but here's the key message:

Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly — and very dimly — a system for imparting knowledge.

The editors of n+1 frame holders of university degrees as members of an enormous cartel.

For the contemporary bachelor or master or doctor of this or that ... income and social position are acquired through affiliation with a cartel. Those who want to join have to pay to play, and many never recover from the entry fee.

It examines why creditors are so happy to lend to students (you can't bankrupt out of student loans) and why the Tea Party is, at least partially, right about the Ivy League "elites."

It makes a hero out of Clarence Thomas and casts the New Yorker as a den of fools.

It even argues that a proto-university ranking system, a personal boogeyman of mine, forced the creation of the modern medical degree (with the mandatory four-year degree before you even start with any actual medicine) while simultaneously shutting women and black Americans out of the medical profession for decades.

If not earlier: the AMA owes its authority to America’s most notorious robber barons, who invented philanthropy as we know it by establishing foundations capable of long-term, organized interventions in the country’s political and cultural life. The first foundations poured money into medical schools — but only if those schools followed the example set by Johns Hopkins, which in 1893 had introduced what’s now the standard formula: students attend four years of college, then four years of medical school. Institutions that didn’t follow this model did not get donations, and they also got denounced in a 1910 report sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation. After the Carnegie survey published its “findings,” scores of medical schools — schools whose students could not afford the additional years of study now required, and nearly all of the schools that admitted blacks and women — closed.

And here's the kill-shot:

Introductory economics courses paint “rent-seekers” as gruesome creatures who amass monopoly privileges; credential-seekers, who sterilize the intellect by pouring time and money into the accumulation of permits, belong in the same circle of hell.

This essay has struck me in a way that few ever have. I'm going to collect my thoughts and report back on them, especially on how this applies to journalism education, a subject I've been thinking a lot about.

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