It’s graduation time again so we turn our attention to education once more. In this short interview, Ms. Vivian shares her experience as an instructor of international students in a department owned by a private corporation at a major public university in the United States of America. She describes being restricted from modifying the curriculum to suit the needs of her students. She supposes that standardization of the material is a way of creating a uniform product for delivery across multiple classrooms and institutions. It also decreases the amount of preparation time for teachers, thereby allowing the company to require instructors to attend to more classes, which allows them to hire fewer teachers. This approach completely discounts people as individual learners, discredits the creativity and integrity of instructors, ultimately disempowering students and teachers alike.
This line of thinking is also found in the standardized practice of medicine. Even though each individual has a different set of circumstances and needs, treatment protocols are becoming algorithmic and medico-legal standards of care such that deviations tailored for the individual needs of the patient, or enhanced by the knowledge, skills, and experience of the physician are discouraged.
What we are talking about here is the institutionalization, industrialization, standardization of life on planet earth. There are certainly benefits to uniform standards of performance of critical skills conferring reliability and accountability. However, when it comes to education, an open, exploring mind encourages creativity, innovation, and fulfillment. And, when it comes to healing there are many paths to becoming whole again. The growth, development, and health of individuals and society depends on actually not having uniformity and conformity.
Market forces and commercial values have insinuated themselves into life either causing, or because of, a massive cultural shift in society. Students have become “consumers”, education is now a “product”, just like patients are now “clients”, physicians are “providers”, and the practice of medicine is a part of the “service industry”. Universities, private schools, and medical institutions now spend gobs of resources on marketing and recruiting clients/consumers. Marketing in the medical profession is a relatively recent phenomenon. Direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals has only been legal since 1985. Prior to 1977 it was against the rules for doctors and hospitals to advertise. Medicine, and education were considered professions inspired by a call to duty, not a business. Even now, many older, experienced physicians find the marketing of medicine distasteful, even unprofessional. The marketing inroads in higher education involve universities routinely “branding” themselves in order to boost enrollment, particularly from out-of-state students who pay higher tuition fees. The costs of “high quality” medical care and a “good” education are ballooning disproportionately to the gain in actual value. We are all paying more for less.
In order to maximize profits medicine and education are also turning to using the internet to sell their “products and services”. Even as there are advantages and disadvantages to online learning and virtual medical consultations, as a teacher and a physician I can attest to knowing it is a huge loss to not be able to smell the patient or to see the light turn on or off in a student’s eye.
The financial incentives for corporate support of public educational institutions are apparent. Ms. Vivian describes the dazzle and glitz of the classrooms funded by Apple, Inc. Each student, as well as every teacher, is provided with an Apple computer. It’s a great way to familiarize young users with a branded product so they will become loyal customers in the future. It’s a marketing strategy with a high return on investment for the company, as if return on investment is the purpose of education. The public institution, starving for funds, due to the reluctance of Americans to pay taxes, are happy to accept the backing of these flush corporations. It looks like a win-win solution on the face of it.
The conversation is more complex that it appears at first glance. According to the American Council on Education:
Despite steadily growing student demand for higher education since the mid-1970s, state fiscal investment in higher education has been in retreat in the states since about 1980. In fact, it is headed for zero. Based on the trends since 1980, average state fiscal support for higher education will reach zero by 2059, although it could happen much sooner in some states and later in others. Public higher education is gradually being privatized……If these public institutions are no longer state supported who owns them? Who should govern them? Who should they serve? Should states be contracting for quite specified outcomes? The defunding of public higher education by the states inevitably inaugurates a new conversation about who controls them and whose interests are to be served. The states will play a diminished role in finding answers to these questions if public higher education is to survive and thrive.
Education does a public good, benefiting all members of society, including the uneducated. Similarly, a healthy individual improves the health of the herd in terms ranging from infectious diseases to mental health. Non-profit public educational and health care institutions used to be two of America’s greatest cultural assets. If you got run over by a truck you can better believe you wanted to be transported to your nearest county hospital where you would get the best trauma care available. If you wanted to learn and investigate something of genuine interest to you, without paying through your nose, or any other orifice, you wanted to enroll at your publicly funded university.
This is not to say there haven’t been valuable contributions to society born out of private-public collaborations. The problem isn’t the partnership, but rather the blurring of the boundaries. The public funds the research producing advances benefiting society. The discovery gets patented and sold to a private corporation, which then sells the product back to the public at exorbitant prices. You and I are shelling out the dough at both ends.
Private funding of research rarely comes without strings attached. Academic norms and ethics are routinely violated while the public remains silent. Universities are prioritizing research in hopes of getting that incredible new platinum plated patent, meanwhile cutting full-time teaching faculty, resorting to part-time adjuncts and graduate students to teach the students who are paying higher tuition fees than ever before. The emphasis is on driving activities that may produce the golden cow for the institution, the region, and let’s not forget the corporation too. Contrary to popular perception, the commercialization of academics does not drive local and regional economic growth. It just detracts from their mission of educating the public and changes the priorities of the institution, thereby undermining the basis for public support. It’s a vicious cycle.
Although a well-rounded liberal education with an emphasis on critical and creative thinking is ideal, many students now are simply interested in studying subjects that will ensure a financially secure job after graduating. The rising cost of tuition and shifting societal values contribute. Nevertheless, one can study money, think about money, and make money, but ultimately health is wealth and that’s where mixing money with medicine starts to get a bit slippery, and slimy. The fields of medicine, pharmacology, biotechnology, and even public health are particularly vulnerable to corporate control and influence. Between 1970 and 1995, many of the most important drug discoveries came out of publicly funded research. Advances in public health are almost exclusively produced at public institutions. Bring in industry support and suddenly reports about the impact of the sea of chemicals we are swimming in, or the health effects of climate change, or the potential complications of a new medical intervention becomes less objective, for large sums of money are involved. Even if you don’t care about the corporate takeover of your mind, you may take notice when it starts taking over your body too. (Not that the two aren’t the same.)
As a society we have to contend with some very complex ethical issues, such as genetically modified foods, global warming, clean energy, human cloning, without forgetting the classics like poverty and war. We need to rely on impartial unbiased information to come up with creative solutions that benefit everyone, not just the sponsors. We cannot let the integrity of agencies like the Federal Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and others be diminished by experts, advisory panels, and consultants (often university academics) with financial ties to corporations who will be impacted by decisions these agencies make. We must remember there are other values besides profit which we must include in our decision-making processes as we untangle these complicated and urgent issues.
What does all this have to do with prioritizing well-being? How you feel is directly related to how you think, and how you think is directly related to how you are taught to think. This is how your education determines your sense of well-being. It isn’t just that an education gets you a job, raises your standard of living, even if not your quality of life, thereby improving your health metrics. Even though a steady income surely does help, an environment where free, creative, open curiosity is encouraged cultivates a supple and resilient mind and body. It is your thinking that gives you freedom. It is your thinking that brings you happiness. It is your thinking that you offer as contribution to your community. It is your thinking that makes you an upstanding global citizen. Encouraging healthy thinking, protecting public health, and preserving public knowledge are part of the purview of public universities, and these functions should not be for profit.
If you’d like to learn more I refer you to University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education by Jennifer Washburn, and Schooling Corporate Citizens: How Accountability Reform has Damaged Civic Education and Undermined Democracy by Ronald W. Evans. Please share your thinking here too.