On the Recent Executive Order on"Free Inquiry" in Higher EducationRoundup
tags: AHA, politics, higher education, Trump
James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA. Edward Liebow is executive director of the American Anthropological Association. He tweets @Liebow4.
President Donald Trump’s executive order of March 21 on “free inquiry, transparency, and accountability in colleges and universities” is a textbook example of a classic negotiating ploy—misdirection. While our attention is directed to dealing with a few sensational instances of campus disruptions (“free inquiry”), the executive order provisions that deserve close scrutiny relate to “transparency and accountability.” On the surface, each of these is an admirable desideratum. In this case, however, they are entry points to a pernicious agenda that subordinates learning to earning.
Section 4 of the executive order directs the secretary of education to establish reporting mechanisms as part of an expanded College Scorecard for program-level earnings and student loan default rates. We are all for expanding transparency in higher education, and a federal role in the provision of useful information to prospective students and other stakeholders is as appropriate as in any other area of American life. The issue is the definition of “value.” One should raise eyebrows at institutions that claim to offer students an education valuable to career pathways, but leave a substantial proportion of those students unable to repay the debt necessary to finance what little education they actually receive. But to equate earnings with value is another matter altogether, one that implies that the ministry, teaching, social work, and other forms of public service are somehow less valuable than pathways toward wealth.
The Trump administration is hardly alone in tying “accountability” to an implicit assumption that “success” means a high salary. We’ve all seen the charts and graphs depicting simplistic juxtapositions of college majors and earnings data. Incorporating this narrow definition of success into an executive order, however, vaults this amoral social ethos into public policy. The message to students and other stakeholders is bizarre at best, as it devalues the very occupations that are at once poorly compensated and yet essential to civic culture, democracy, and spiritual development.
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