What We Lose When We Treat Education Like an Industrial Sector

To the Editor:

Is the principal aim of higher education to help us live better, or is it to provide a padded yoke for the workforce so that students may be trained and productively driven down pre-existing vocational rows? The latter, says the industrial model of education. This outlook is evidenced, as Diane Ravitch and many other critics have observed, in the business model that drives for-profit colleges and universities, recent closures of humanities programs, the adjunctification of higher education, and the implicit economics of much (though certainly not all) online education.

On the industrial model, educating whole persons for lifelong growth is replaced by education as just another industrial sector, on a par with any other sector. Education’s job is to manufacture skilled labor for the market in a way that is maximally efficient. Knowledge on this model is a market commodity, teachers and professors are delivery vehicles for knowledge content, and students are either consumers/customers or manufactured products. Educational institutions on the industrial model are marketplaces for delivering and acquiring content, and tuition is the fair price for accessing that content. Even when tacit and unexpressed, all or most of this is presumed to be obvious and uncontroversial by the faithful. Critics of industrial education are thus dismissed and broad-brushed as obsolete protectionists.

A college or university may train more students with fewer or lower-paid professors, and an industrial sector may produce more clothes, cars, or animal protein to meet market demands with lower overhead costs. These products can then be purchased at a relatively low price and used, or put to work to produce more things. The industrial imagination stops here, with efficient production and affordable consumption. This is arguably useful when taken as an isolated objective, but what else have we unintentionally made through these means, to which industrial thinking is oblivious? Have we made narrower lives? Have we at times left each other embittered and disabled? Have we anesthetized moral and ecological sensitivity? Have we, in John Dewey’s words, made life more “congested, hurried, confused and extravagant”?

It would be a tragedy that trivializes all of our successes if U.S. educational politics and policy continues down a path in which colleges and universities — or industries, for that matter! — gain economic efficiency and increase productivity by frustrating human growth, imagination, and fulfillment.

Steven Fesmire
Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies
Green Mountain College

Return to Top