Response (belated and with apologies) to commentaries by Don Brenneis (posted 4/12/00) and Ted O'Neill (posted 4/28/00)
Let me start by saying how much I appreciate the care with which my essay was read and responded to. I thank Don Brenneis for his encouraging and affirming comments, and for broadening the terms of my limited account into a wider frame of examination. It is important, as he says, to trace forms of self-representation over a longer time frame, to see where specific discursive elements appear, and in relation to what other historical dynamics. When indeed did these "stakeholders" enter the picture? There is a massive ecology of education operating both within the U.S. and across different societies and national investments. To that end, I also appreciate Brenneis pointing out the work of Readings and of Shore and Wright, and suggesting that I look closely at connections of national and global interests. We see in higher education a consolidation of interests and agencies of control such that what we used to consider institutionally separate fields of practice (corporate and academic) tend to act more and more like manifestations of one set of interests, i.e., those of the "stakeholders."
I thank Ted O'Neill for clarifying how admissions directors do stand betwixt and between, so to speak, the various agencies involved in the process of people going to college. When I first read his response, my initial reaction was guilt: am I being facile in my analysis of those whose job is not easy? I served on my college's faculty admissions committee for four years, so I have a good idea what an admissions director must deal with, and I also know something about O'Neill's job since, long before I posted this essay, I had read the 4/5/99 Newsweek article on admissions at the University of Chicago. The admissions field involves a lot of intersecting institutional functions, and some do not intersect easily. The pseudonymous Rebecca, with whom the Newsweek story began, is a mild example: when applicants' strengths lie more in their leadership skills than in their transcripts, how do you make the decision? But then again, was (for example) leadership always an important point in college admissions? When did it become so? When did that language start? Where? Why?
It is not (nor I suspect, has it ever been) entirely clear what undergraduate education is for. Contemporary liberal arts schools and larger public institutions do, as Brenneis notes, have different marketing problems and resources. They target different markets; they also have somewhat different functions. To extend the list, small liberal arts schools, large public universities, technical schools, research institutions, etc. are all part of a complex ecology of higher education which, just in the U.S., has two centuries (at least) of history. Going to college, at whatever undergraduate institution, was never exclusively about classroom instruction. Some of it was about the retrenchment and recreation of social privilege, some about religious and moral positioning, some about technical and agricultural instruction-- to name a few functions. Nor is liberal arts education all that monolithic: what now constitutes a liberal arts curriculum emerged piecemeal over time, often in contested ways, and had as much to do with who the institution was for as what was taught in it. This tiny sketch cannot do justice to a complex history of what is in some ways an institutional congeries, but it does get across the idea that there is no clear way to resolve what going to college, and therefore, college admission is about. But going to college does have at least one central function for most people who do it: it reafffirms or enhances one's class position, whether through what one actually learns, or general certification in a field, or the symbolic capital associated with a specific institution's name, or the formation of social connections, or any combination of the above. And insofar as there is any sense of coherence in the representation of what going to college is about, it is in large part generated by the metadiscursive processes pervading all fields of institutional discourse. Such processes must exist or U.S. News and World report would never have been able to pull off its remarkable feat of objectification and marketing. To come back to where I started in this response: as Brenneis notes, there is a bigger picture that needs analyzing, and as O'Neill notes, that bigger picture does create some tricky junctures for the people who keep the institutions going.