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This April, during an ELI online conference on massive open online courses, I had an interesting exchange on Twitter with fellow educational technologist Edward O’Neill. (It was through my professional Twitter account rather than my philosophical one.) The exchange began when one of the conference presenters claimed that “the core purpose of the university, what it gets paid for,” is to provide certification for credit.

That equation – that “the core purpose” and “what it gets paid for” were assumed to be the same thing – raised my hackles. I responded in two tweets: “Since when is ‘the core purpose’ of something the same as ‘what it gets paid for’? Core mission of a university is to educate people. BUSINESS MODEL of a university is to certify for pay. Don’t confuse the two.”

The conversation that ensued was provocative and edifying, and probably best cited here in the form of the dialogue it was:

EO: Industries change.
AL: Often for the worse. Especially when something that was not previously regarded as an “industry” becomes so.
EO: Isn’t the reason for not calling education an “industry” ideological? Who charges money, renders services & isn’t an “industry”? The film industry has changed. So has publishing. They’ve disaggregated. Lower barriers* to entry. Is that “for the worse”?
AL: You’re right, it’s an industry now; that’s the problem. It once had a higher mission & it’d be nice to hold on to some of that.
EO: Industries can’t have higher missions? One cannot have a high purpose, provide a service, and be concerned with efficiency?
AL: One can, but it’s often forgotten – as when people like the #elifocus speaker assume what makes the money must be the mission.
EO: I was not that speaker. I don’t conflate “mission” and “revenue streams.” Isn’t assuming they’re antithetical also a mistake?
AL: Speaker conflated; I know you weren’t him. They don’t have to be antithetical,but very important to keep distinction in mind.
EO: The thing I have trouble understanding is the assumption that anything to do with money contaminates any other value.

It’s that last thought, about money and other values, that I found most interesting in the conversation and that I’m writing about here. I didn’t reply to it then, because it deserves a reply significantly longer than 140 characters, and one better thought out than a spur-of-the-moment tweet. So I am taking it up here and now.

Does money contaminate any other value? No. But it certainly seems to contaminate some of them. And among them, I submit, are the goals of the traditional university.

The pursuit of money is certainly quite compatible with much of what the university has become in this day and age: a centre for vocational training, in which young people pay vast sums of money in order to have the skills that will allow them to prosper as adults. This is a highly profitable activity, and will likely remain so for a while. Not only profitable, it is hugely beneficial to those young people when the skills that they learn are those, like engineering and medicine, that will allow them to pay back their debt swiftly and go on to live out their maturity in wealth and fortune. All of that matters greatly, and our society would be worse off without it. I don’t want to pretend otherwise.

But something is still missing from this picture. What about the values that a university was supposed to represent just a few short generations ago? What about appreciating one’s history and heritage? Becoming an informed, critical and thoughtful citizen of one’s state? Developing wonder at the nature of reality, the question of why there is something rather than nothing? Thinking about what is most meaningful and valuable in life?

Or, from the flip side of the coin, what about the values cultivated by the eager radicals of the previous generation? What about understanding the structures of power in society and the way they marginalize? Learning the ways in which the world’s organization is based on a history of colonization and imperial violence? Becoming empowered to articulate one’s experience of oppression?

It is these humanistic values – the values of the old and new humanities – that do not make a profit. They never did – private universities subsidized them through endowments, public universities through government funding – and they never will. In the 1960s and before, colleges and universities paid for the older values without hesitation even though they were unprofitable, because they understood that these things, the old goals of humanistic inquiry, were good in themselves irrespective of money.

But things have changed a lot and are changing more, most of it in my lifetime, and most of it having to do with money. The scholarship I received as an undergrad at McGill in the ’90s was quite modest, but it subsidized my entire tuition and fees. Under those conditions it made great sense to pursue four years’ worth of humanistic enquiry, or the related social-scientific enquiry that I in fact pursued.

Today, of course, North American tuitions are grotesque, in the tens of thousands. Colleges and universities charge those high tuitions because they can – because they realize that in the big-money fields like computer science and management, it is worth it for students to pay them. They have become an industry with a business model, and one that is highly profitable even when they are nominally nonprofits.

But in this environment, fewer and fewer people are willing to pay those crippling tuitions in order to explore and realize humanistic values, whether of the traditional or postmodern kinds. Nor should they! To enter massive student debt, the contemporary form of indentured servitude, is bad enough when it at least helps ensure a comfortable living in adulthood. It is even more destructive to indenture oneself for these things that are valuable for their own sake. This is why the outrageous spike in university prices is doubly harmful: it not only makes it difficult for young people to secure the means of their existence, it also deprives them of the questions and ideas and values that allow them to make sense of that existence in a deeper sense. But according to the business model, according to the universities’ pursuit of monetary value and profit, it is entirely appropriate. In an era where young people justifiably fear for their future livelihoods, the market can bear the tuition spikes, and so money-minded universities continue to do so.

Perhaps more damaging still, the logic of markets and money comes similarly to corrupt even governments – the very institutions that make markets and money possible, and have the capacity to tame their excesses. Increasingly, governments view their own activity as nothing more than the pursuit of money for their citizens (or worse, their taxpayers), and go themselves on the attack against the humanities. “If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to private school,” North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory said in a radio interview in January. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if it’s not going to get someone a job.” McCrory is far from atypical. Like university administrations, his job is to be a guardian of the values that don’t make a profit. But he doesn’t do it. Instead he pursues only money and values related to money, and everything unrelated to money suffers.

So to return to the original question from O’Neill’s tweet: why would we assume that money contaminates other values? Simple. Because in the context at issue – contemporary academia – that is exactly what the evidence shows.

* I originally quoted this tweet verbatim when it said “carries” to entry. O’Neill confirmed that he meant “barriers” and I have changed it accordingly.