Current Affairs Higher Education

scenes from America's fourth republic classroom

On Salon, Michael Lind offers a historical perspective on the dawning of America’s fourth republic.The first goes from Washington to the Civil War. The second then up to the Depression. And the third until 2004 (read the article, he explains). Basically they are all about 70 odd years long. Lind suggests each period begins with the centralization of government power and ends with a swing back partially in the other direction. Think of the difference of FDR-Johnson vs. Nixon-Bush. Lind offers an industrial-economic pattern behind these shifts that is fairly recognizable. The shift to steam power and railroads in the mid-19th century. The shift to electricity and internal combustion in the 1930s. And now? A green economy? Maybe.

Lind writes:

It remains to be seen what energy sources — nuclear? Solar? Clean
coal? — and what technologies — nanotechnology? Photonics? Biotech–
will be the basis of the next American economy. (Note: I’m talking
about the material, real-world manufacturing and utility economy, not
the illusory "information economy" beloved of globalization enthusiasts
in the 1990s, who pretended that deindustrialization by outsourcing was
a higher state of industrialism.)

Not surprisingly I am less derisive of the "information economy" than Lind. I don’t know how Lind imagines that the nanotechnologies industry will operate outside of an information economy. Yes. Somewhere there will need to be nanotechnology factories. But that’s not going to work like the automobile industry. If energy prices rise this may create some advantage for local/national production because of the costs of transporation on a global scale, but I wouldn’t really count on that, b/c the raw materials for automobiles, for example, will still need to be transported globally anyway. On the other hand, one advantage of the green economy is that it requires a necessary local element. The windmills need to be where the wind is.

Looking at this from the higher educational p.o.v., history would suggest big changes ahead. The second republic saw the appearance of land-grant institutions and a significant increase of college students from the 1880s through the turn of the century. Similarly the third republic saw an expansion of higher education from the GI Bill through the 70s. Along with the increased participation in higher ed came a significant rethinking of the entire educational system. Before the civil war, higher education was truly for the elite and most Americans had little formal schooling. The third republic created a period where most Americans received HS diplomas. Perhaps the Fourth republic will be a time when most Americans receive a tertiary (postsecondary) education.

More undergrads will also mean more postgrads. With more people getting bachelors, the degree will obviously be devalued. The overall standards will probably be lower looking just a higher education, but the general effect on the population will be to have a better educated workforce. We will have to figure out how to control higher ed costs and also will likely have to adapt our teaching methods to our new audience. The whole system may shift.

Time reports this week on plans in New Hampshire for kids to graduate after the 10th grade. Students would need to pass a test, much like they do now in NYS and most states:

the new battery of tests is expected to guarantee higher competency in
core school subjects, lower dropout rates and free up millions of
education dollars. Students may take the exams — which are modeled on
existing AP or International Baccalaureate tests — as many times as
they need to pass. Or those who want to go to a prestigious university
may stay and finish the final two years, taking a second, more
difficult set of exams senior year.

It’s a somewhat counter-intuitive model. The stronger students stay in HS longer while the schools pass the weaker students along to community colleges after their sophmore year. I think the idea though is to provide a more specialized vocational education that is difficult for high schools to offer. In turn the HS can focus more on general, college preparatory education. This kind of tracking may clash with America’s mythology about itself, but it might be more efficient. The NH plan makes the community college degree effectively a HS diploma (some number of years of schooling). Still I think we should imagine many students staying in college longer, through some graduate school. This is part of the trend too.

I am already seeing this in professional writing. I think it’s a challenge for students with a BA to compete for jobs in publishing or technical communication. For one thing, there are just a lot of people out there with master’s degrees going ofter these jobs. There are MAs and MSs in these fields now. If you double-major in comp-sci and professional writing, I could see really competiting in IT for technical writing jobs, but that’s not easy. If you start to think about your four-year curriculum as a step toward a master’s, then you begin to think of it differently.

In any case, the fourth republic will mean difficult and interesting times for higher education. Right now, about 26% of Americans over 18 have 4-yr degrees or more, about 9% have postgraduate degrees (according to US Census). If you look at people aged 25-39, this goes up to 30% (the postgrade % is about the same, but it can take time to get those degrees). Typically, people with college degrees vote more democrat (according to CNN’s exit poll, something like 78% of people with postgrad degrees voted Obama). They are more likely to agree with theories of evolution. They tend toward more tolerance for cultural differences. What will a broader population of students entering college mean for these things? I would suggest that if you think the campus is an ideological battleground now, you ain’t seen nothing yet.