One View of Ways Higher Ed Might Address Economic Inequality

Cathy Davidson, President Obama’s appointee to the National Humanities Council and Distinguished Professor and Director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has a lot to say about higher ed’s reproduction of a meritocracy — a social and economic structure that she argues in a recent post to her blog HASTAC “so clearly exacerbates rather than improves income inequality (in admission policies), its own salary hierarchies (from presidents to adjuncts), and in its hiring practices of future, tenure-track academics.”

In the post “If Academe Is Part of the Problem of Inequality and Oligarchy, What Is the Solution? #FuturesEd,” she asks:

“If academe is fueling the global oligarchy (and the socio-demographics say we mostly are), then what are we doing to ensure that future leaders take responsibility for problem solving, humaneness, community, ethics, and not the abundant possibilities for exploitation?¬† How can we restructure the liberal arts requirements of our universities, for example, not for workforce readiness but for responsible, ethical, engaged life readiness for those who will be, the socio-demographics underscore, leaders in all realms, including likely in community, social entrepreneurship, and even the global struggles for human rights in its various forms.”

Good questions; here’s Davidson’s suggestions about how to start the change process:

  1. Rethink the liberal arts as a start-up curriculum for resilient, responsible, ethical, committed global citizens.
  2. Start with critical thinking and build upon it to make a creative contribution.
  3. Make a change, today, in your classroom.
  4. Support adjunct faculty and livable workplace conditions for all.
  5. Make alliances with other change-makers and, together, celebrate your victories.

It is Davidson’s view that higher ed contributes to income inequality by educating in such a way that graduates perpetuate inequality rather than working to decrease it — and they do so as a consequence of their education, she claims, because they have come to value some of the very principles that create and sustain inequality (what she calls “meritocracy”). This situation threatens democracy (Davidson describes the threat as “democracy becomes increasingly a platitude,” rather than a practice of engaged and active citizenry).

Not everyone agrees with Davidson. Check out the recent post, “Wary about Wisdom,” by Swathmore College history professor Timothy Burke for a counterpoint.

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