Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Culture of Higher Ed

It is representative of higher education in general that the college where I work was originally a seminary. (The seminary was built on farm land, and prior to that it was forest.) I think about this a lot, not only because a few of the academic buildings show vestiges of their original purpose, but because some traditions of the church appear in academic life. Many perceive, half-seriously, that a vow of poverty is taken when selecting work in higher education instead of business. Academic culture is much more community-minded than other occupations. It also promises to elevate its disciples if they are willing.

I do not question whether institutions of higher education are, overall, a good thing for society, but there is something blindly aristocratic in an insistence that a culture should continue even when income does not meet expenditures -- a situation I fear many institutions currently face. This makes the existence of academic libraries, with printed materials now a luxury, more impressive than ever. Libraries, which were able to form as an unplanned side effect of a free publishing market, now contain larger assemblages of physical books than many of our students have ever seen before and might ever see again.

I mention all of this partly because of recent news stories about how higher education is in flux. Free courses are available online; plenty of entrepreneurs publicly call a traditional college degree unnecessary; the ever-rising cost of college, and the resulting debt-load for many students, is either out of reach or seriously criticized by many middle-class citizens. Not to be fatalistic, but in this climate it is not unreasonable to suggest that the college where I now work might go the way of the seminary before it, and that the campus will be converted to something else in the coming decades. Who knows what -- a medical village? Testing and certification grounds? -- but presumably there would be a corresponding shift in the culture.

Is it fitting that the best thing I can think to do is continue to come to work each day?

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