A Match Made in Hell

Corporate America tends to create a variety of English that’s nigh-indecipherable to outsiders. Business speak. They’re notorious for it. They’ll tell you, with a straight face, that “We’ve pivoted to become a mobile-first, UXaaS company delivering paleo delight straight to consumers in half hour installments.” And presumably there are folks out there in a cubicle farm who could interpret that bit of esoterica for us. American academics do the same thing. They generate bloated jargony English as well, just of a slightly different flavor. They’ll talk about “socially-constructed subjectivities circumscribed by racial formations” or something along those lines. Once again with a straight face. Once again in a diction presumably interpretable by at least some miserable bastards out there.

These two biomes cross-pollinate each other sometimes, and it’s interesting to note the sites where they do. The ways that academia infiltrates the business world are pretty well documented at this point. Anyone who’s ever attended an HR-mandated diversity workshop or a sensitivity training seminar can attest to said colonization. There are the moral status-signalling games that entice companies to hire wheelchair-bound transgendered IT workers, too, and increasingly byzantine rules concerning workplace sexual harassment. Sometimes even a CEO will get retired for insufficient enthusiasm towards homo marriage. And all that’s in part the educational system’s doing. The seeds for those dysfunctions were sowed by the college faculties of yesteryear.

The ways in which the business world infiltrates the academy are somewhat less remarked upon, at least outside the academy. But they’re there. Universities over the past few decades have become themselves managed more and more like for-profit corporations, and easy federal loans ensured that there was big money to be made by doing so. Some universities refer to their students as clients in internal e-mails, even customers. Fast food chains establish lucrative partnerships with campus food services. And, of course, business speak euphemisms start cropping up in faculty meetings.

One of the hottest buzzphrases in circulation right now is “student retention.” It’s a major action item. Administrators across the country are doing their best to make sure that their undergraduates stick around for at least four years. A lot of strategies for student retention revolve around building “academic self-confidence,” which may include any number of things. It may include padding the first year of college with remedial courses that last century would’ve embarrassed high schools to offer. Classes that cover basic English, math, even “study and time-management skills” help incoming freshpeople “transition” to life on campus. It also may include emphasizing “compentencies over rote learning” (which, being translated, means emphasizing showing your work rather than getting the right answer or grading papers based on expressiveness rather than content or correctness). Academic self-confidence initiatives can even include telling classroom faculty to be more lenient on absences and late-work, to “meet students where they are,” busy social calendars and all.

Other strategies for student retention involve outfitting dormitories with the freshest amenities, maintaining a winning sports team or two, basically maximizing the wow factor of the college experience, that sort of stuff.

From a business perspective, student retention makes perfect sense. The more semesters a given undergraduate sticks around, the more tuition checks you can cash, whether it’s that students parents signing off on them or daddy government. And if you have to lower standards a bit and idiot proof the campus by toning down the amount of actual learning pupils have to endure in the classroom or by passing students that show up for the lecture once in a blue moon, well… what the hell, right? Money is money. So much the better, in fact, because the lower the standards the wider the pool of potential college recruits you can draw from. Little Johnny is going to need us to hold his hand as he re-learns his ABCs? No problem. We have a spot for him in our fine institute of higher learning, provided he’s a paying customer.

From a business perspective, it’s not really an issue that increasing college attendance, hiking tuition rates, and lowering the bar on required performance devalues the degree. From a business perspective, it doesn’t matter that you’re dumping graduates with these degrees on an already depressed economy, an economy that seems rather sluggish in getting around to that promised “recovery.” From a business perspective, it doesn’t even matter that you’re saddling your students (many of whom you knew from the get go couldn’t hack a college education) with tens of thousands of dollars in undischargeable debt before you hand them that devalued degree and dump them onto that depressed economy. None of that is bad for your bottom line in the short term.

It does seem, however, that some of this might be a little questionable from the perspective of the college professoriate. Those folks are overwhelmingly liberal and progressive and enlightened. After all, the left generates a lot of high-flown rhetoric about standing up for the little guy, about championing his interests over the prerogatives of fat cat capitalism. But in practice our progressive colleagues don’t do much to oppose the economic exploitation of the student body. They aid and abet, in fact. There is an eerie compatibility between the drive of liberal educators to “democratize” higher education and the drive of behind-the-scenes financial interests to fleece every last mother’s son for portions of their paychecks into perpetuity. The former want to throw open the gates to one and all. The latter is more than happy to collect admission. So while professor types tend to talk a big game about raging against the machine, they are all the while they’re oiling its treads.

The fact of the matter is that the resentment that animates contemporary egalitarians and the greed that animates the corporate world aren’t opposed much at all. Despite appearances and despite the protest marches that college kids on their parents’ dime occasionally skip finals to attend. You see this every time Wal-Mart sells a Banksy print or some shithole factory in Indonesia pumps out another round of Guy Fawkes masks. Less trivially, you can see it in how, say, feminism promises emancipation and fulfillment and independence but actually just exacerbates the empty, soulless consumerism of American life. “Lean in, ladies! You can grab some Panera on the way home after you pick up your kids from daycare.” Perhaps that’s why the corporate world and the world of the pristine progressive campus cross polinate so readily and produce such grotesque hybrids. It’s an incestuous liaison between envy and avarice.

And I suppose all this means is that those of us of a conservative or reactionary or a traditionalist bent can’t trust either of these enemies to run each other through, despite their ostensible opposition to one another. Neither one of them will finish our jobs for us, even by accident. Nothing to do, then, but to speak the truth in plain words and go to war with them both.

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  1. Nice essay about hubris and envy.

    But . . .

    There seems to be a general feeling that companies owe the public something other than providing goods and services. Why this has developed I’m not sure but I see this atitude in many self-identifying conservatives and traditionalists. Maybe, people who are good writers and thinkers have not taken a business 101 course?

    There’s a group of Seasteading advocates who want governments to compete just like corporations. If you don’t like your monopolistic government you can literally float to another more amiable one. Far out, I know, but they are not fools and are apparently quite serious. Worth a look.


    1. I’m not categorically anti-business any more than I am categorically anti-education. But I tend to the think the scale at and the manner in which they’re both currently conducted brings out the worst in us. And I think self-identified conservatives, especially of the establishment variety, expect the free market to do far more good in the world than it’s capable of.

      I always appreciate your comments, though. They’re worth attending to even when they’re a countervailing opinion to my own.

      1. Thanks. In the old days there were somewhat cynical movies like How To Succeed In Business Without Trying. Business was never without greed problems (caveat emptor) but not thought of as a source of collapse. I guess we are at a point where other personal and social resources have ceased to exist or are in such a terrible state they cannot be called upon.

        Tally ho.

  2. Both aspects of this thesis reflect nicely, I think, what TheLastPsychiatrist observes in advertising and marketing (for both consumer goods and education): that the modern marketing machine that drives both corporations prey on the anxiety that modernity leaves us with. We’re isolated and atomized, and then they ask in silky smooth tones, “Are you sure you’re smart enough? Fashionable enough? X enough? Well, if your answer is ‘I’m not sure…’ (and how could it NOT be!?) then pull out that credit card and in four easy payments (that will never, EVER actually end), we will give you a shiny piece of paper that you can try to jam into that oddly shaped divot in your soul into which nothing else has quite fit. We promise: this degree/car/iGadget is SURE to be the thing that works!”

    Our job in the reaction is to build something that lasts – things of real quality and value – that our loved ones can turn to in those moments of existential weakness and say “This is what I’m living for – take your adverts and stuff it.”

    You are what you do.

  3. “Higher Education benefits everyone”
    –The Education Industrial Complex

  4. SanguineEmpiricist December 20, 2014 at 1:21 am

    I do not think the reflected “time management” part is indicative of failing schools or anything for that matter. This is a general error in thinking made by essentially every one this side the New Right.

    Time management is more important than intelligence(actually) because executive functioning is more important than intelligence. Teaching people better time management if it actually works “at the point of performance”[1] is a massive societal benefit.

    Adderall, Vyvansse, Dexedrine, actually fix the underlying issues related to this, and if schools have increased their total student body they must contain these people.

    ADHD is a straightforward manifestation of this, that is lack of time management. Alongside a host of other acute executive dysfunctions are related all to a cluster of important things, such as organization, time preferences, time myopia, impulsiveness/violence , and being able to conduct property relations across time.

    You also mean emphasizing rote learning vs competencies. Rote Learning emphasizes those with extremely good memories/non-verbal memories*, and that’s fine and all but that is one of the easiest things that can be supplemented with ecologically and unfairly penalizes those who do not do well on rote-learning tasks but would be fine ecologically. Notebooks/References are ‘extended memories’ that cannot be used in such settings and don’t really make sense to not allow them.

    From Jonathon Baron

    “There are two general ways of finding any object: recall from our own memory, and the use of external aids, such as other people, written sources, and computers. External aids can help us overcome the limitations of our own memories, including time and effort requires to get information into them. As I write this book, for example, I rely extensively on a file cabinet full of reprints of articles & my own library… Moreover, libraries, computers, and file cabinets make us truly more effective thinkers. ” -Thinking and Deciding 4th edition.

    Otherwise good article as usual.

    [1] – In Barkley’s language/Barkley 2012 “Executive Functions, What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved” (A magisterial book. Unbelievable his eliteness)

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