Concluding _Lower Ed_: the epilogue

With this post we conclude our reading of Tressie McMillan Cottom‘s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (publisher; Amazon). Here we’ll discuss the book’s epilogue.

As usual I’ll begin with a short summary, followed by questions.  As a quick reminder, you can find all posts in this reading right here.

One note: humor site Cracked actually addressed for-profits.


Here professor Cottom summarizes and synthesizes the book’s argument.  She situates her points in the historical context of privatization and employers outsourcing training (180).  With financialization added to the mix we end up with “high debt, loan defaults, regret, broken public trust, low wages, and little to no mobility from Lower Ed to Higher Ed.” (181)


Lower ed participates in and contributes to the modern economy.  Their rapid growth is “an indicator of social and economic inequalities and, at the same time, are perpetuators of those inequalities.”  They form a negative insurance program.  (181) . “They are profiting from inequality.” (187) . Lower ed also focuses on lower income black women, treating them differently than other demographics (186-7).

For-profits offer credentials, but those “are riskier than most traditional degrees.”  That’s because traditional higher ed generally doesn’t welcome lower ed’s transfer credits, “trap[ping] those with for-profit credits or credentials in an educational ghetto.” (181-2) . “Credentialing in the new economy has to date taken from the have-nots to give to the haves.” (186)

The epilogue concludes with recommendations for ways to respond to the for-profit sector, primarily policy changes driven by social movements.  Cottom cites Black Lives Matter as an example of a movement addressing education, along with the more narrowly focused Strike Debt and the Rolling Jubilee.  Fight for 15, a movement aimed at boosting minimum wages to $15 US, addresses the job insecurity that leads many people to for-profits (183-5).  Free public college tuition would help, but leaves the economic underpinnings untouched (186).


  1. Do you see political traction for these suggested movements to address the for-profit education sector?
  2. For-profits declined sharply under the Obama administration.  Do you think they’ll regroup under Trump?
  3. Looking back on the whole book, how has this added to your understanding of for-profit higher education?

With this we have finished our reading of Lower Ed.  Thank you for reading with us!

Later this week will be a blog post asking about the next reading.

Our reading so far: the plan; introduction; chapter 1; chapter 2; chapter 3; chapter 4; chapter 5; chapter 6.

(thanks to Ceredwyn for the Cracked link; photo by WDjoPhotography)

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Maybe social media is good for us after all

During last year’s American election many people became convinced that using social media warped users’ understanding.  Getting news from Twitter or Facebook helped slide us into comfortable bubbles, or heightened hateful rhetoric, or opened us wide to fake news, or maybe a mixture of all of these.

But perhaps the conventional wisdom is wrong.  Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab just released a new study looking at news consumers’ habits, and found the opposite: that the more social media one consumes, the greater the number and diversity of news sources one follows.  “[S]ocial media use is consistently associated with more, and more diverse, news diets“.

How did Richard Fletcher and Rasmus Kleis come to this unpopular conclusion?  They analyzed data from a Reuters/Oxford YouGov survey of users from several nations (Britain, the United States, Germany) looking for connections between users’ descriptions of their sources and social media usage.  “Social media” here seems to mean “Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter”.  The study then built a quick and unremarkable model of the political leanings generally expressed by professional journalism outlets – i.e., Fox News and Sky News tends to the right, while NPR and the Guardian lean to the left.

The authors checked for the number of sources users, well, used.  Fletcher and Nielsen found the more people touched social media, deliberately or accidentally, the greater the number of sources they encountered.

Sources used by different populations

“Incidentally exposed” are people who use social media for non-news purposes, but come across news that way.

News diversity: the study argues that people normally love their bubbles.  “Few people, when left to their own devices, opt for a politically diverse news diet.”  Yet using certain new devices changes that habit:

In the U.S., just 20 percent of those who do not use social media consume news from online brands with left-leaning and right-leaning audiences… However, the figure rises to 37 percent for those incidentally exposed to news on social media, as they see news links posted by people with different views and different patterns of news consumption. 44 percent of those who use social media for news end up using sources from both the left and the right — more than double the number for non-users.

“more than double” the number of people exposed themselves to politically diverse news.  That’s a huge claim for the beneficial results of social media exposure.

The study concludes on an uncomfortable (for many) final note, concerning and gingerly praising social media giants.  Harold Jarche draws our attention to it:

These findings underline that the services offered by powerful platform companies like Facebook and Google, despite what critics fear, may in fact currently contribute to more diverse news diets, rather than narrow filter bubbles. Whether they will still do so after the next algorithm update only they know.

Facebook and Google are helping us become better news consumers?

Obviously there is plenty to challenge in this study.  The YouGov survey may have selected out for social media partisans, who sought to portray their practice in a positive light, and the “accidentally exposed” may have wanted to make themselves look better.  Self-reporting always poses risks.  Being an online survey, it underrepresents the offline population.  Politics is more complex than a two-dimensional line.  There can be large differences between how different social media platforms present news and politics – think of Twitter versus Pinterest, or YouTube versus Instagram.  I’m curious about the difference between usage of rich media (video and audio) versus less computationally and cognitively intensive media (text).  Moreover, the authors don’t address online abuse.

And yet what they describe makes sense to anyone who’s spent time in social media.  Setting aside their source data for the moment, it’s clear that it’s quite easy to follow, read, or subscribe to diverse news and commentary sources through Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere, YouTube, etc.  Some of us do this deliberately, including myself, or Librarian Angie:

Most readers should also be able to confirm to accidental exposure experience.  How many of you have followed someone on Facebook because of shared interest in folk music, say, and then were surprised to see them share a pro-Trump or anti-Stein meme?  I’m no longer surprised to read political content from people I track for professional reasons: librarians, technologists, university presidents, organization leaders, faculty members, scientists, etc. sharing their political thoughts or online discoveries.  In a different domain, people I follow because they live near me in Vermont will sometimes emit political opinions which I don’t always anticipate – very much like offline daily life for politically minded extroverts like myself.

I pair this study with a March publication from Stanford and Brown researchers.  Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow, and Jesse M. Shapiro looked into connections between demographics and political polarization (pdf).  They found that the oldest populations, the ones least likely to use social media, and the most reliant on older media (especially television), were the most polarized demographic of all.  “We find that the increase in polarization is largest among the groups least likely to use the internet and social media”.

Polarization for those aged 75+ grows by 0.38 index points between 1996 and 2012, and polarization for those aged 65+ grows by 0.32 index points over the same period. Polarization among those aged 18–39 increased by 0.05 index points between 1996 and 2012.

So it’s not social media that’s to blame for our political divides.  I interpret this as making room for tv “news” driving polarization – hardly a surprising idea for anyone who spends five minutes watching either MSNBC or Fox News.  Even if I’m wrong, Boxell et al provide more evidence for social media being neutral, if not benign.

I’m also reminded of Jesse Walker’s 2011 criticism of Eli Pariser’s filter bubble model.  People online like to argue with each other, of course, which means engaging with opposing points of view.  We read the enemy to defy them, and seek out opponents to wrestle.  “Republican and Democratic blogs scour one another for posts they can link and mock; rumbles break out in the comment threads.”  And our political identities are just one segment of our broader identities, which are complex, and can lead us through cyberspace to a variety of sources and communities which might oppose one another.  While we can bubble up (Jesse prefers the verb “cocoon”), we can also make connections beyond the borders of a single meniscus.

This obviously has major implications for digital, information, and media literacy.  To pick one example, our evolving notions of when we support information authorities versus individual judgement shift drastically depending on our view of social media.  If social media makes us obnoxious, less well informed, and cocooned away from important segments of the world, then perhaps we should advocate for a return to 20th-century-style information authorities to improve the situation.  On the other hand, if we use social media in ways that expand our knowledge and improve our political engagement, it’s time to focus efforts on helping individual users use the tools more effectively.

In short, in mid-2017 there seem to be two mutually opposed interpretations of social media’s role in news consumption and society.  Either social media degrades and worsens democratic participation, or it improves our civic life.   Deciding between them seems crucial for anyone interested in digital literacy – or, for that matter, with public life in general.

You may now react to this post through social media via your fiercely guarded bubbles or cocoon-crossing information paths.

(thanks to Jesse Walker)

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American health care reform under the Republicans: three scenarios

Once again I detour into politics.  It’s for a good reason, I assure you.

piggy bank_401kcalculator dot orgToday the United States Senate Republicans have issued their own health care reform proposal, the ‘‘Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017’’.  Finally shared in public after weeks of secrecy, it undoes chunks of the Affordable Care Act, allowing senior medical charges to rise more sharply, removing the insurance purchase mandate, ending the employer mandate, eventually reducing support for Medicaid, ending the tax increases on the wealthy, etc.  It’s pretty similar to the House bill.

If it or some closely related version becomes law, as seems likely, a good number of Americans will be furious.  Some number will see their health care coverage reduced, leading to a potential humanitarian disaster.

For my business, for my family, this is bad news.

But I’m going to hold back on outrage in this post.  I’ll also refrain from Congressional analysis.  Instead I’d like to contemplate the unfolding legislation while wearing my futurist hat.  How might this Republican move to rewrite health care funding play out over the next one to five years?

Much depends on how Americans as a whole respond.  Each scenario that follows is based on a different type of aggregate attitude, from resignation to creativity to rebellion.  I’m drawing on recent American politics, along with insights from other countries.

I: Kleptocracy? Meh.

We could resign ourselves to a worsened state of affairs.

Outrage could sputter.  The Republicans control the House, Senate, and White House, not to mention a majority of state governorships,  after all, and are capable of solid party discipline.  They could simply see the law into implementation without major obstacles.  Media coverage might put a lid on things – after all, this is complex, non-sexy stuff that tv “news” struggles to understand, much less represent.  The Republicans could do a good job of selling the new health care law, possibly using their established playbook: “BetterCare” won’t interfere with the patient-doctor relationship; deserving and good people will be spared problems; this is just a technical tweak; Obamacare was terrible; etc.

Maybe Democrats split over those wanting to protect Obamacare (call it the Clinton wing) versus others seeking single payer or Medicare for all (the Warren/Sanders faction).  That schism prevents them from organizing effectively.

Plutocracy signThere’s an awful lot of money involved, too, from Big Pharma to medical insurance to the AMA.  That money historically has the capability to get things done, including influencing not only legislators but media coverage.

Americans have come to terms with this state of affairs, accepting a kind of plutocracy or oligarchy.  It took decades for the old Gilded Age to fall under new management.  We could easily be in an earlier state of that developmental arc now.

Outside the US, the Panama Papers revealed a widespread pattern of corruption by government officials and other leaders.  This revelation powered many political responses, but a good number of the politicians survived or returned to power.  Humans, in turns out, can live under the rule of big money quite easily, or without effective demur.  Americans could follow suit.

What might this look like in five years?  By 2022 fewer Americans have health care than did in 2017.  A good number have some coverage, but at lower quality.  Most just got on with their lives, working hard, getting by.  Only wonks and history nerds talk about Obamacare.

In 2022 a large number of us think the medically un(der)covered deserve their status, because those people aren’t willing to work hard, or are stupid, or of a lesser race, or are probably immigrants, or criminals.  When Medicare fundings declines, there are few protests in the media or government.

Abortions will be less available (legally), and family planning is what wealthier people do, as a sign of character.

II: Medical System D

Instead of going along, we could build a parallel health care funding and provision system. Continue reading

Posted in politics, scenarios | Tagged | 11 Comments

Population trends for higher education beyond the United States

How will changing demographics transform higher education?  Demographics are a vital tool in the futurists’ toolbox, and are also crucial for understanding just about everything in education, including not just higher ed but K-12, informal education, vocational training, and more.

Case in point: how populations are changing around the world in terms of their connection to colleges and universities.  The HESA blog (see below) had a fine post on this topic earlier this year, which I’d like to raid here.

Usher’s one-sentence summary: “overall, youth numbers are shifting from richer and middle-income countries to poorer ones.”  That is, traditional college-age populations in Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, etc. are either declining or hitting a plateau.    The planetary growth in young people is coming instead from Asia and Africa:

Figure 1: Number of People Aged 20-24, by Continent, 2000 to 2030

“Figure 1: Number of People Aged 20-24, by Continent, 2000 to 2030”

By “Asia” the growth is really in central and west Asia, not China any longer:

Figure 4: Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in Southern & Western Asia, 2000 to 2030

“Figure 4: Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in Southern & Western Asia, 2000 to 2030”

Africa is where the serious growth it, at least in relative terms:

Figure 5: Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in Africa, 2000 to 2030

“Figure 5: Number of People Aged 20-24, Selected Countries in Africa, 2000 to 2030”

What does this mean for nations that depend with increasing intensity on students from abroad?  Usher offers two views, beginning with concern: “Ceteris paribus, this is bad news for international student flows because on average, the potential client base is going to be coming from poorer countries.”

Then he offers a more positive take, emphasizing that democraphics is the ground, yet there’s a lot of room to move there:

[K]eep in mind two things: first, international education is by and large the preserve of the top five percent of the income strata anyway, so national average income may not be that big a deal.  Second, while the size of the base populations may be changing, what really matters for total numbers is the fraction of the total population which chooses to study abroad.  China is a good example here: as our data shows, the youth population is falling drastically but international student numbers are up because an increasing proportion of students are choosing to study abroad.

Vital stuff, and very useful for university leaders and education analysts.

What’s missing from this analysis, or where would I disagree?  It’s not the focus of this piece, but adult learning matters a great deal.  As I’ve said over the years, higher ed systems in the US and other aging nations would do well to expand their “non-traditional” learner base.  Perhaps we’ll see two-tiered campuses, with traditional-age students being increasingly from Africa and west-central Asia, and older students being the locals.

Usher posted this in February, and possibly composed it before reactions to Trump’s immigration policies were available, but I’d add the chance that international student flows to the United States will drop as a result of those policies and how people interpret them.

I link this in part to rising income inequality within the United States.  Recall Usher’s observation that “international education is by and large the preserve of the top five percent of the income strata anyway”.  That’s one reason for American colleges to recruit abroad: not only to win more students, and also to get some non-white ones, but especially to attract those from wealthy families who can pay full tuition.  Think about how that will impact the makeup of American student bodies over time.

Also from the American content, remember administrative bloat?  Attracting more international students will increase the bloat, as some of those administrators are the ones tasked with recruiting and supporting those learners.

This is also where online learning comes in, with the dream of attracting students from around the world, without the burden of physical relocation.

And this is where higher education marketing and outreach will have to grow.

The Higher Education Strategy Associates’ blog is one of my favorite research sources.  Alex Usher has a deep grasp of educational data, and a very canny awareness of academic strategy and politics.  He focuses the blog on Canada, which is useful (to me, and to anyone looking at transnational education), but also considers global higher ed.  The blog’s on a summer hiatus, but I recommend digging into the archives and catching up when Usher returns to us, his fans.

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Several dark stories and trends for higher education this week

Over the past week I enjoyed numerous conversations with faculty and staff from more than one hundred colleges, universities, museums, and libraries, a good number from countries other than the US.  I also: facilitated several discussions, both online and in person; led a half-day workshop on automation and creativity; chatted with a Virtually Connecting group; gave three presentations, including one keynote.


Image from my first slide. To set the mood.

By the end, I was suffused with a sense of… mingled outrage, frustration, and doom.  Despite my enthusiasm for educational possibilities and delight at learning from colleagues and friends, I nevertheless felt like a wrathful fire and brimstone preacher, one part Jonathan Edwards and one part Solomon Kane.

I didn’t feel much like Cassandra, since people were sometimes actually listening to me, and even followed up with me after each event, but I did have the sense of saying things people either didn’t know (hey, a good thing for a speaker) but really should, or that they just didn’t want to face.

Longtime readers – heck, casual readers – know that I’ve been long been pointing to trends that will have or are already having a negative impact on American higher education.  I’m not a full-time doomsayer, since I also present on positive, neutral, or simply strange trends as well.  But this season is giving me a stronger scary vibe than I’ve felt since 2008.

Here are some recent stories to help explain why.

ITEM: a US Circuit Court ruled that a university could ax a tenured professor, because said university was merging with another campus, and the prof’s position was now redundant.

Why does this matter?  As enrollments decline and financial pressures mount, mergers are one strategic option that appeals to some institution.  One financial and administrative reason is to reduce costs – and that includes faculty members.

ITEM: institutional inequality continues to grow.  As Jeff Selingo reports,

Combined, the 20 wealthiest private universities in the United States hold about $250 billion in assets. That accounts for a staggering 70 percent of the all the wealth of private colleges and universities, according to a new study by Moody’s Investors Services.

Twenty universities: that’s around 0.4% of the total number of American colleges and universities.  We’ve left the 1% proportion behind, and are heading to the 1% of the 1%.  The difference between that elite and everyone else is growing, too:

That wealth is likely only to grow as the richest colleges raise money at a faster clip than anyone else. Among colleges that collected more than $100 million in donations in 2016, fundraising has jumped by 22 percent over the last four years. Among those that raised less than $10 million, donations went up just 4 percent.

And notice the contrast with a far larger chunk of academia:

Nearly one third of small colleges operated with a budget deficit last year, according to Moody’s, up from 20 percent three years ago…

Many small colleges are caught in a death spiral that gets worse with each passing year. About 40 percent of colleges enroll 1,000 or fewer students. Since 2010, those institutions have been shedding the most enrollment, a decline of 5 percent.

My shorthand for this is “Hogwarts versus community colleges”.  That’s too optimistic, it turns out.  Jeff pairs the superrich with those in a death spiral.  See what I mean about gloom?

ITEM: flagship public universities are continuing their transformation into something like national, private institutions.  A new Jack Kent Cooke Foundation study finds (pdf) that these campuses are shifting away from their home state population, in pursuit of out of state dollars and ranking:

Many public flagship universities today are prioritizing affluent out-of-state students, who are charged higher tuition, over the moderate- and low-income state residents who they were created to serve…

We can see this in first-year class enrollment:

enrollment out of state public re universities_Cooke

Why is this happening?  Dear reader, you already know: declining state appropriations for public higher education, especially after the 2008 financial crisis.

State support and tuition 2003-2015 Cooke

Note that tuition rise.  It doubled.  While most American families saw their incomes stagnate or decline.

Thus we’re seeing the rise of what the Cooke report dubs out-of-state state institutions.

Amazingly, at 24 public flagship universities out-of-state students represent at least 40% of freshman enrollment. At 11 public flagships, out-of-state students account for more than half of all freshmen. These so-called “state” universities are misnamed and are increasingly not at all representative of their states. (emphases added)

Here’s a side effect that connects with increasing economic inequality overall: “social mobility is a declining priority for flagship universities in an increasing number of states…”  In an age when higher education is obsessed with crafting and refining mission statements, our influential and wide-ranging public institutions are moving directly away from a key feature of their original purpose for being.

Let’s combine these stories.  Inter-institutional inequality and family income inequality are connecting synergistically with each other, reinforcing a widening class divide.  A handful of institutions are accelerating from the rest, with some state institutions turning national and private in their wake.  Meanwhile, other colleges and universities are straining to cut their way to survival.

These are dark trends.  What opposed them?  Is there a counterforce?

(thanks to Jeff Selingo for the links)

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Reading _Lower Ed_: Credentials, Jobs, and the New Economy

We continue our reading of Tressie McMillan Cottom‘s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (publisher; Amazon). Here we’ll discuss Chapter 6, “Credentials, Jobs, and the New Economy.”

I’ll begin with a short summary, followed by questions.  As a quick reminder, you can find all posts in this reading right here.

Chapter 6, “Credentials, Jobs, and the New Economy.”

Lower Ed being heldHere Cottom continues to explore reasons why people would enroll in for-profit colleges, focusing on the context of a new labor market.

The author returns to her earlier theme: that for-profits target poor people, shown, for example, by the connection between government assistance programs and for-profits (157-8).  Poverty’s constraints on decision-making and choices further nudge people into lower ed (163).  The labor market’s demand that individuals, rather than companies, provide education further encourages such enrollment: “the expectation now is that workers will increase their human capital at personal expense to ‘move up’ the professional ladder” by developing their own “negative insurance program[s]” (168, 174).

Ultimately, such educational choices aren’t really choices at all, given the options (170).  The world of higher education

assumes that there is a rational educational choice that can be made.  Given the character of the new economy, one that by definition is risky and highly variable, for millions of people that simply isn’t true. (173)

In this context, for-profits ultimately fail people.  “At best, Lowed Ed marginally serves a few individuals…” (177)

Job placement data and regulatory compliance seems to argue in favor of for-profits, as they share federal data about jobs and degrees.  However, there is room to fudge or creatively represent that data (164-5; 166-7).  Moreover, better data or more firmly established provenance seems likely to have had no impact on enrollment decisions (170).

Throughout this chapter Cottom compares for-profits to community colleges.  Both can address similar populations, at times offering related outcomes (rapid credentialing for jobs), and both coming in for job placement rate criticism.  However, regulation seems to be tighter on for-profits, which are also powered by Wall Street investment (165-6, for example).

This chapter concludes with considerations not just of recent history, but of possible futures.  Cottom thinks for-profits met a need, and unless that need changes, some other entity will step in to meet it:

If for-profit colleges like ITT are no longer around, then another form of short-term on-demand credentials will respond to consumer demand by extracting profit from student loans and education savings accounts.  That’s the best-case scenario. [emphases added] (172)

Inequality is likely to continue, with academia playing a major role:

The proposed future of higher education looks a lot like the start of the Wall Street era of for-profit college expansion: occupational credentials in narrow fields, paid for through public financing schemes that start with exemplars of high-status white men in high-pay jobs and offer little hope for anyone else. (177)


  1. Professor Cottom brings coding boot camps into play (175).  Do you see them as part of the for-profit world, or are they another kind of thing?
  2. Would a non-profit college or university’s online learning offerings better help the people for-profits have preyed on?
  3. Can non-profits expand in general, on-line or off-, to better serve poor Americans?

Next Monday, June 26, we move on to the book’s epilogue.

Our reading so far: the plan; introduction; chapter 1; chapter 2; chapter 3; chapter 4; chapter 5.


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Building an American caste system, part 1: rural folk

Sometimes my personal and research worlds collide.  Thursday night I was thinking about a good, recent article on the continued suckage of rural broadband and starting to write about it.  My readers know that this is a very immediate problem for my work and family.

At the same time I was getting feedback on my conference keynote from Thursday morning.  In this speech I dwelled on the impact of economic inequality on American culture and education.  Some people responded that this was interesting, but didn’t impact them, because they were shielded by very wealthy institutions.  Others agreed, yet appreciated the talk, as it connected them with the present content (several used the word “reality”).  Still others celebrated the talk, really wanting me to talk more about economic class – but they only approached me in private, not public.

Meanwhile, I was taking notes in another tab about another grim idea that’s been occupying my brain in dark hours.  The idea is that America is developing a caste system, within which education plays a powerful and constitutive role.  These three came together in a kind of brainstorm.

Robert Putnam described recent socioeconomic developments as building up into something like a caste system. Eric Schmidt (a Google leader, for a while the Google leader) wrote about the possibility of “a digital caste system”.  The last Obama administration education secretary used this language to describe American higher education:

When it comes to student access, we need to acknowledge the ways in which we are becoming a caste system of colleges and universities – in which wealthier high school students get personalized college counseling, rigorous coursework like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, and disproportionate admittance to the nation’s top universities, while, all too often, poorer students get shortchanged on these things. (emphases added)

…That is an embarrassment. It is a death sentence for our historic promise of social mobility.


Some of that caste metaphor insight appears as well in several of our book club readings, which have emphasized a deepening of class differences in/with/through education, like Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price, Madeline Ashby’s Company Town, Ernst Cline’s Ready Player One, Paulo Bacigalupi’s, The Water Knife, and Robert Putnam’s aforementioned Our Kids.  Other recent books I’ve been reading contribute to this theme as well, like Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton’s Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, Scott Gelber’s The University and the People, and Christopher Newfield’s recent Johns Hopkins books, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class and The Great Mistake.  The Big Sort looms large on my Kindle… looking back on this paragraph, I see a very recent and growing bibliography about  class differences widening into a new social order.

Caste has also come up on the Future Trends Forum.  Sara Goldrick-Rab spoke to it in March:

Gardner Campbell referred to adjuncts as an emergent faculty caste.

Or as one person put it more darkly on Twitter:

So why are some of us thinking of caste as a metaphor to illuminate the present day?  Economic inequality, while rising, isn’t automatically caste, obviously.  Moreover, caste requires a complex system of hereditary roles, internalized position, religious support, clearly understood hierarchy, controls over romance and reproduction, policing, and maybe race/ethnicity.  America doesn’t have any of these, do we?

…and yet we could be heading in that direction right now, in the United States.  Not perfectly, no, but we’re very creative people.   Americans are working on realizing many of the above features, starting with reducing intergenerational economic mobility – you might remember this old idea under the hoary nickname “The American Dream.”   Controls over romance and reproduction?  We’re already seeing economic forms of assortative mating settling in.  Policing daily life by class?  The velvet rope economy brings caste out quite clearly, from medical care to air travel and resorts.

But using caste as a metaphor quickly brings to mind many differences between the reference and the thing itself.  America isn’t becoming a copy of India or Edo Japan, of course.  Our emerging caste model isn’t openly acknowledged and celebrated (yet).  We don’t have a religious structure backing it (setting aside the prosperity gospel for now), although instead of religion we might now have a stabilizing mix of media and neoliberalism.  The same goes for internalizing one’s caste position, a lack of explicit social norms, but a set of quietly emerging ones.  (Maybe we’ll generate a new term to replace “caste” in order to flag its 21st-century American specificity.  Perhaps “iCaste,” or “American Dream 2.0.”)

In short caste here is a conceptual tool, not a literal comparison.  It’s one I’d like to use to derive some visions of possible cultural evolution.  Consider it a futuring tool or prompt.

So I’ll explore this futures idea over a series of posts.  I’ll come back to the general idea, and dive into possible new castes.

Today’s caste: rural folk.

Hypothesis: America’s rural population is emerging as a distinct identity, restricted to certain roles. Continue reading

Posted in future of education, politics | 13 Comments