Productive Questions as Critical Thinking


1.Is there some level of frustration about the status quo that could push any of us to choose an option we would never normally embrace?

2. Would such behavior be irrational?

3. What is the source of hope that would sustain resistance to such seemingly rash behavior?

First, let me clarify what I mean by "a Trump".

I see him as incredible--- a highly risky leader whose trademark is thin understanding and flat out lying in pursuit of what he calls "winning." He represents in so many ways the antithesis of a good neighbor. He is self-absorbed in the extreme.

In other words, given my perceptions I would never vote for someone like him.  Even when I agree with a conclusion of his, I have little evidence to suggest that he would not say the opposite the next day nor that he understands the arguments he makes at any level above the visceral.

However, using the principle of charity, I have tried to find some scenario that would cause someone like me to embrace a person of his ilk as a leader.

The situation would need to seem almost hopeless to me. In other words, I would not see on the horizon any solution to what for me is an exceedingly important problem. Power relationships inside an institution I love would appear to be not only ossified, but the counterforces are poorly orgnized and bereft of practical solutions.

I think I understand and feel the sentiments of the Trump voter. I see little positive about the future of the American university.

I will need to generalize based on typical schools for there are tiny exceptions to what I am about to say. But the following are the basis for my dyspeptic view of where the university is headed:

A.  In the absence of public support for high education, universities are now governed by a business mentality that places value on low cost delivery systems and on outputs pleasing to whatever revenue sources, be they alumni, corporations, or student consumers, seem promising. In the process the quality of the "output" is a secondary consideration, if that. The public relations fibs at a modern university sound like and are justified with the same rationalizations used by any firm trying to sell its products.

B.  Universities are a confused aggregate of inconsistent objectives. Some departments and faculty are pure vocational trainers; other faculty maintain liberal education objectives aimed at fulfiling the dreams of Jeffersonian democracy.

C. Then other interest groups are pushing the university to participate in the corruptible process of big-time athletics. (See Page Smith's admirable Killing the Spirit.) A school without an athletic program that has aspirations of a winning season is an anacronism. These athletic programs channel revenues and student passions into a domain quite distinct from academic objectives, different thought they might be. While the common terminology of pariticpants designates them scholar-athletes, practice on campus shouts that they are ATHLETE/scholars. Imagine the nightly news reporting, for example, that a professor produced letters to the football coach saying that a students on the football team would be unable to compete next Saturday because a class had an important test on that day. Unimaginable!

D. Very few modern American students have developed in a culture where learning is respected. Entertainment, however, is highly valued.  When students speak of how much they enjoyed college, it would be rare feedback indeed to hear them speak rhapsodically of provocations, questions, and insights that will guide their learning long after they can barely remember a single professor's name. Their memories tend to reflect the same experiences that would emerge from a well-financed singles apartment complex. Fueling this attitude are the abundant entertainment possibilities on a modern campus that did not exist on the campuses of yesterday.

E. Universities have been devastated by the transferance of market language and thinking into curricular decisions. Departments andn faculty are expected to fund themselves or to "develop new revenue potentials." My university has seriously considered majors in marina management and equestrian management for no reasons other than there are(1) lots of marinas and(2) an employer of equestrian managers in our vicinity. When such proposals fail, if they do, the reasoning is "bottom-line issues", not the clash with historical rationales for university curricula.  

ENOUGH. I think you appreciate that I could continue. 

And I see no reform in the offing.  I could engage in the refuge of dreamers, wishful thinking. But I prefer not to do so.

If a university leader with Trumpian characteristics promised to "drain the swamp" of universities, I am ready to sign on. Extreme frustration has taken me to a place that ordinarily I would abhor.  I have no hope to provide a shield against the implications of my frustration.  I yearn for "bigly change."  Rational? What a complex question!!!! I have reasons for my attitude.  Are they compelling?  To me they are, but my vantage point is very narrow perforce. But I am having trouble imagining a projection of the future university that is more dismal than the one I see emerging from the current arranements. Just on ethical grounds, I am trying to picture how the modern university enhances the kind of literacy needed by thoughtful spouses, neighbors, citizens, professionals, consumers, patients, and friends.

1. Many place hope in the scenario that things must get very bad before large change will be considered. Should we bet on that possibility?

2. Is it possible that I am just aging and tired, or perhaps engaging in that tiresome backward glance at teh past that never was?

3. Is the idea of institutions of higher learning with a clear set of objectives a mirage? Do institutions thrive when they have conflicting internal objectives?










AuthorM Neil Browne