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The Price of Admission

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Newfield subtitles his account as a “forty-year assault on the middle class”; this amorphous entity itself is more and more a “multiracial” one, comprising immigrants from hundreds of nations and their increasingly intermarried and blended families. The class stratification of this global, entrepreneurial elite, as it settles in the US and seeks inclusion within (or parallels to) admissions programs designed for historically disadvantaged American groups, complicates Newfield’s colleagues’ delineations. Also, the rapid increase in tutors, intensive and pricy SAT preparation, and counselors-for-hire gaming the entry process (as often as neo-con reactionaries) challenges Newfield’s model.

As an observer of the admissions frenzy (and a now a parent of two teens) I suggest that this escalating competition is driven by a corporate-funded tutorial industry—and a desire to attain an affordable, respected degree. In an increasingly multicultural state, most residents outside the affluent or those courted for rare talents face this “brute selectivity”.  Newfield relegates most of his few mentions of Asian American students, who far outnumber at UC their parity in the state population, to a couple of footnotes; he also does not include Indian or Middle Eastern American students in his study.  More consideration of how such “minority” but often markedly “overrepresented” populations effect his findings might have enriched their relevance, for many students seeking technical and business degrees come from these backgrounds, which throw off his assumptions based on a rear-guard action by managers from a conspiratorial “white” cabal. They certainly prove to be capitalists, but they draw from allies worldwide, often with degrees earned here.

Universities can’t be capitalist. They need to balance their books, but they need to teach from books, and produce more books, that challenge profit as the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Furthermore, the affirmative action programs in which I taught at UCLA in the late ‘80s often enrolled those from upper-middle class suburbs, rather than those from inner-city or rural high schools from where few students entered the UC system, and from which far fewer graduated. A few Asians qualified based on the national origin of their families; most were denied this “bridge program” as based on university-mandated categories relating to “race” more than class. Today, perhaps more than a quarter-century ago, the majority of those applying to UC, I’m guessing, come from weaker-income families. These parents suffer job instability, often regardless of what “ethnicity” or combinations thereof they checked off on an application.

Newfield criticizes the lack of parity as to faculty and diversity. Meritocracy and equality contend. He admits that integration succeeds better at more selective schools. He notes how less elite workplaces integrated as whites “retreat upmarket”, yet he overlooks how those ambitious or motivated students from among non-white populations also follow this migration to more lucrative careers.  At my less prestigious institution, I observe how far more students from “non-traditional” backgrounds seek careers in business, high-tech, management, or in the professions. They rarely enter an unstable, underpaid, overworked occupation reliant on adjunct classes and multiple campuses, amidst “the declining status and working conditions of large sections of college teaching”. 

Regardless of the complexion or gender of those behind the lectern or in the seats, the public university system relies upon quality. Newfield warns of Michigan’s “privatization” and reliance on philanthropy as a harbinger of what happens (as the UC system now proposes) when out-of-state (or international) students paying higher tuition gain a greater share of admissions. When global markets and not state access determine who enters a flagship institution, its reputation as a state-wide system established for local advancement may concomitantly decline.

This message reminds us, as taxpayers, parents, neighbors, colleagues, and coworkers of those enrolled and graduated from the land-grant and state-funded universities, of their importance. If professors questioned the complicity of the US corporate system in angering those who attacked on 9/11, then, after all, these professors were doing their job: to encourage criticism, and to foment debate. Newfield applauds the professoriate for its resistance to revenge, flag-waving, and jingoism. “They refused right judgment and clear action. Or to put another way, they taught.”  Unpopular opinions wilt when unprotected at work, at home, off campus; this makes their shelter on campus all the more urgent.

All the same (here Newfield argues against a former UCLA classmate of mine), I think that he downplays the liberal tendency in the humanities and social sciences to dominate a department by hiring and promotion and course content. What Stanley Fish calls “impaired liberalism” emerges as a challenge to the academic freedom afforded students as well as professors. That is, pressure persists within classrooms for those with less power to accept the positions advocated by those with tenure, who enjoy a protection denied, suppressed, or less likely to be appealed to by the term-paper or dissertation writer, the T.A., the adjunct.

Taxpayers must fund the universities which may and which should question our own ways of making a living, of conducting wars, of denying climate change. Yet I see no contradiction in demanding accountability from institutions founded to serve those from my state, paid for by those of us from our state. Those of us outside the public universities must assure their perpetuation—-for all who seek to learn and to assert facts as distinguished from opinions and cant. This may be a more nuanced position than Newfield and his colleagues may understand. I sympathize as do many humanists with liberal concepts, yet my own eclectic thinking compels me to question arguments arrayed by my peers, students, colleagues, and mentors. That too is part of the higher education I earned in part at UCLA.

Certainly Newfield’s call for remedies restoring the liberal arts and social sciences to their once-respected ranks should be heard. It may be idealistic by definition, but as an interested bystander in the professoriate’s less exalted echelon, I concur that this makes it no less necessary. The problem embeds itself in the institution, funded by a government with whom it often argues.

Universities can’t be capitalist. They need to balance their books, but they need to teach from books, and produce more books, that challenge profit as the price of everything and the value of nothing. Teaching, Newfield concludes, remains “labor-intensive, craft-based creation” which is noncapitalist. “Since capitalism will continue to insist on bottom-line measures of their output, universities will at those times need to be frankly noncapitalist”.  We should be able to afford this ideal of a lively campus, not so much as an ivory tower, but as an open arena for battles even against us, who pay for admission.

Born in Los Angeles but should have been born in my parental Ireland. Find me at:"Blogtrotter".

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