The corruption of the university dream machine
Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Pramila Jayapal recently introduced the “College for All Act”, which, The hill reports, “Would make community college tuition free for all and four-year public colleges tuition-free and debt-free for students from families earning up to $ 125,000 per year.” Whatever the fate of this bill, the lingering college debt crisis – largely owned by students who never complete their degrees – is a political priority for the Biden administration. (From 2009 to 2019, student loan debt more than doubled from $ 720 billion to $ 1.51 trillion. Our Jacquelyn Elias breaks it down here.)
How did we get here? One answer stems from what sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom calls “the gospel of education,” the widely held belief that the university will improve its economic prospects. Too often, it bothers them instead. What Cottom calls “Lower Ed” “absorbs all kinds of vulnerable groups that believe in it”.
In an ambitious new essay for the See again, Chad Wellmon, intellectual historian of higher education, begins with Cottom’s work and then goes back to the early years of the Cold War and the expansion of higher education modeled on what Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, called the “multiversity”. Wellmon’s goal is to delve into the ideological origins of the educational gospel. What combination of political decisions and imaginative commitments – of faith in the transformative power of the college – has produced our current stalemate? Faith in college, suggests Wellmon, will require some revision if it is not to do more harm than good.