Peer Review, Fall 2000

Vol. 3, 
No. 1
Peer Review

Reality Check: A Postmodern Marketspace?

As a graduate student I was, somewhat unusually for a U.S. Historian, an enthusiastic reader of post-modern theory and criticism. After an initial encounter with Michel Foucault in a methodologies course, I eagerly tried to enlist in the anti-Enlightenment SWAT team, signing up with Baudrillard, Lyotard, Derrida, and the rest. In no time I was dismembering meta-narratives, contrasting epistemes, and critiquing the political economy of the sign with the best of them.

I remember feeling both exhilarated and a bit scared to find myself in a world regulated by mechanical reproduction and the freewheeling logic of the commodity form, a world where the reader/consumer was all powerful, the "self" was a social construction, meanings were unstable, and truth claims were impossible. No matter that I belonged to a culture (academe) where teaching and learning were still "embodied" and "synchronous" experiences, the author/producer still ruled, possessive individualism was rampant, and the claim that textual meaning was "unstable" would never, ever be applied to "canonical" texts -- namely transcripts, diplomas, and recommendation letters.

Eventually, it all caught up with me -- I decided that the endless ironies of Foucauldian analysis and the disintegrative relativism of reader-response theory were, well... irrelevant to the everyday "reality" of life in higher education, a reality that, frankly, hadn't changed all that much in the last millennium. So, for several years now, I've left the French theory on the shelf.

Suddenly, though, I find myself wondering if Foucault and the gang might have been right all along: these days, even the academy seems to be succumbing to the "post-modern condition."

Anyone working in higher education has to know that certain trends are afoot, and that they have advanced far enough to determine a probable course for the future. These trends are succinctly described, for example, in a recent article by Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College, titled "The Future of Colleges: Nine Inevitable Changes" (Chronicle of Higher Education October 27, 2000). Interestingly, most of the specific changes that Levine cites are effects of one really big change, which happens to be the very same one that post-modern theory has always attempted to map -- the ever-escalating growth and circulation of commodities and information, transforming the purpose of human existence (at least in the developed world) from production to consumption.

Just as the global economy depends on consumption, rather than production, for its growth, so too will colleges and universities shift their focus "from teaching to learning." And this, Levine suggests, means that students (consumers), rather than faculties, will set the educational agenda. The traditional components of faculty work -- teaching, research, and service -- will be "unbundled," and teaching (the only salable function) will be prioritized. With their labor thus segmented, faculty will increasingly work on a contractual "fee for service" basis, maintaining no exclusive relationship with any particular institution.

It appears that the educational process will become highly individualized, with students trading "seat time" for "anytime/anywhere" electronic course delivery. The labor-intensive creation of content will become less individualized, however, in order to achieve economies of scale in the "learning marketspace." The Baccalaureate degree will no longer represent a collective experience -- it will certify a set of "learning outcomes," attainable individually through any number of media and formats. In fact, degrees, which derive their "meaning" from the institution, will be cast aside altogether, in favor of personal academic passports, which document a student's accumulation of "educational capital" from a diversified set of providers.

Reading Levine's description of this inevitable future, it struck me that that I'd seen all of this before somewhere. Was I thinking of an article in Change? Something from Educause Review, perhaps? Or was it a flashback to Jean Baudrillard's 1968, The System of Objects, which proposed that all social identities were gradually collapsing into a single identity, that of consumer? Or Jean-Francois Lyotard's 1979 opus The Post-Modern Condition? After all, didn't he predict that "the reproduction of skills" would displace "the emancipation of humanity" as the chief aim of education? Wasn't he the one who said that, if students were merely the "addressees of knowledge," then "professors are no more competent than memory bank networks in transmitting knowledge" and "it matters little whether they are officially a part of universities"?

No doubt about it, this stuff was easier to take when it was just theory, and not tomorrow's news.

Eliza Jane Reilly is the executive director of the American Conference of Academic Deans and a program manager at AAC&U.

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