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A Call to Arms at the Academy



Leonard Cassuto delivers the English Dept.’s Sixth Inaugural Lecture
Photo by Tom Stoelker

In a lecture steeped in historical research, Leonard Cassuto, Ph.D., professor of English, dove into the current debate on American higher education on Sept. 18, describing “a battle for control of the idea of the university.”

Cassuto, who writes a monthly column for the Chronicle of Higher Education, delivered the Department of English’s Sixth Inaugural Lecture. He is at work on a book called The Graduate School Mess, to be published by Harvard University Press.

His talk called on members of the academy to “own your academic responsibility” and to rally behind a singular sense of purpose—lest the debate be defined for them by policymakers who are veering toward a business and corporate model.

“We can’t be at war with society; society feeds us. Moreover, we’re part of this society,” said Cassuto. “The general public is angry at us right now.  They also don’t understand us very well.”

As tuition costs rise, the American middle class is understandably stressed, he said. At the same time, policymakers are introducing business metrics and metaphors, such as “return on investment,” into education, reflecting a shift from what was once viewed as a collective investment in society as a whole (the idea that an educated population is good for everyone) to a view of higher education as a purely individual financial decision.

As government pulls back from funding higher education, individuals have to pay for it—and they have come to view college education as a consumer good. Higher education may not produce products that are easily identified and valued, Cassuto said, but it still remains difficult to argue against the view of education being a product.

“In Europe (where education is paid for by tax dollars) the transaction is indirect.  People pay their taxes, and the taxes pay for higher education,” said Cassuto, “but given the setup in the United States, consumers expect something for their investment,” he said. “Students and their families are in a financial collaboration with the university, and they need to feel collaborated with, and not just as customers.”

Cassuto described a historical education system that was literally and figuratively rooted in faith. For example, Princeton’s founders initially set out to train clergy and then extended the scope beyond the church, establishing a system of mutual caretaking: Society takes care of the university, the university educates “society’s children,” and the children give knowledge back to society. He noted that the tradition of taking care of society’s children has been distorted—with competition among institutions for students even spawning dormitories that resemble spas.

Cassuto outlined how, historically, perceptions of certain political movements can be shaped by language and rhetoric.  Environmentalism, for example,  involves the imposition of a modern caretaking metaphor over a business metaphor.

“[This] is exactly what academia needs to do,” Said Cassuto.   “Higher education needs to define its relation between the university and the community,” he said.  ”And there is no consensus on what that is right now.”

“We academics, administrators, and, yes, graduate students too, need to articulate it or it will be articulated for us.”


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