Monthly Archives: September 2009

Should Everyone go to College? (No. 1)

MortarboardThis is the first of a series of occasional posts that will deal with this question.

Open admissions, the policy of permitting students to enroll in a college or university without regard to academic qualifications, grew largely out of the turmoil of the period 1965-75 that coincided with America’s intense involvement in the Vietnam War. A college degree, it had long been known, was the major pathway to upward economic and social mobility, and anyone who wanted one, said the activists, should have access to the institution of his or her choice.

Only a handful of the nation’s 4,064 degree-granting institutions of higher education, perhaps no more than 150, have admission standards that are highly competitive. Most colleges and universities, state and private, have open admissions or nearly open admissions.

“Professor X” works part-time in the evenings as an adjunct instructor of English. He teaches two courses, Introduction to College Writing (English 101) and Introduction to College Literature (English 102), at a small private college and at a community college in the northeastern United States. He believes that the idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. In an article entitled, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” that appeared in the June 2008 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Professor X explains:

Mine are the students whose applications show indifferent grades and have blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go. They chose their college based not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on MapQuest; in their ideal academic geometry, college is located at a convenient spot between work and home…

My students take English 101 and English 102 not because they want to but because they must. Both colleges I teach at require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass these two courses…

I wonder, sometimes, at the conclusion of a course, when I fail nine out of 15 students, whether the college will send me a note either (1) informing me of a serious bottleneck in the march toward commencement and demanding that I pass more students, or (2) commending me on my fiscal ingenuity—my high failure rate forces students to pay for classes two or three times over. What actually happens is that nothing happens…

There seems, as is often the case in colleges, to be a huge gulf between academia and reality. No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass…No one has drawn up the flowchart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment…

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish…[But] I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

You can read Professor X’s entire essay here.

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Student Learning Outcomes: Another Silver Bullet?

mortarboard_

Everything that can be
counted does not necessarily
count; everything that counts
cannot necessarily be counted.

-Albert Einstein

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When I was in the tenth grade in high school, during the Cold War era, my civics class was having a teacher-moderated discussion about the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. The question, from what I can remember, was whether the U.S. should increase its number of nuclear warheads. I was silent during the discussion, as is customary for an introvert like me, so when the teacher called on me to express my opinion, I said what was on my mind at that moment – I said the issue was moot since once either side began a nuclear war, so many nuclear explosions would occur that life as we know it on this planet would be over. Well, that comment sank faster than a proverbial lead balloon. No one wanted to contemplate the real consequences of what they were talking about, and I had just burst their bubble. So, the teacher ruled my comment irrelevant and continued the discussion as if I had never said a word.

You would think I would have learned the real lesson from that class period – that one should never point out to others that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. But I am also stubborn by nature, and so I will say in the remainder of this essay what many people in the education industry probably don’t want to hear, much less agree with.

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It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.

-Albert Einstein

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The latest buzzword in academia, at both the secondary and post-secondary levels, is “Student Learning Outcomes”, or SLOs for short. Proponents claim that they improve student performance, but like most “reforms” that come and go in the education industry, there is no evidence to support this assertion. As Thomas C. Hunt has written in an essay entitled “Education Reforms: Lessons from History” and published in Phi Delta Kappan (September, 2005):

The history of American education is replete with examples of supposed panaceas. Taking the shape of “reforms,” these well-meaning efforts — often worthy in themselves — have dotted the educational landscape since the time of Horace Mann in the 1830s and 1840s. For example, the common school itself would remove all crime and poverty from American society. Mann described it as the “greatest invention ever made by man.” The devotional reading of the Bible in schools would result in a virtuous America. Texts such as the McGuffey readers would unfailingly instill the “right character” in the students. The public school of the early 20th century would make good, loyal Americans out of the children of the immigrants who were then arriving in large numbers. In the mid-20th century, the “Life Adjustment” curriculum would prepare all American youths for satisfying lives as individuals, family members, and citizens. The infusion of funds into the science and math curricula by the National Defense Education Act would help the U.S. “catch up” with the Soviets in the post-Sputnik era, instill needed academic rigor in the secondary school curriculum, and fittingly challenge our “gifted” students.

Potential panaceas grew in number as the 20th century progressed. We were greeted with open education, which would educate the young “naturally.” Schools would play a central role in the War on Poverty. Accountability, especially in the guise of performance contracting, would make the schools accountable to their constituents. Behavioral objectives would serve as an infallible means of achieving the goals of effective teaching and learning. Such pedagogical movements as modular scheduling would provide the proper organizational pattern for the curriculum. Site-based management would remove the educational problems created by large size.

Mr. Hunt cautions that “only when we see history as a ceaseless, uninterrupted flow that influences the present and are willing to learn from it will we avoid being victimized by the latest ‘silver bullet.'” For example, in terms of secondary schools in the United States, the public education profession has been guided for nearly a century by the belief that the difficult task of teaching a wide range of students to use their minds well isn’t really necessary; this implies that most students are better served by being taught to use their hands rather than their heads. This long-standing and deeply seated anti-intellectualism in public education, from its turn-of-the-century origins to the “life-adjustment” movement of the 1940s and 1950s and the neo-progressivism of the 1960s and early 1970s, has been well documented by David Cohen in The Shopping Mall High School (1985), by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Lawrence Cremin in The Transformation of the School (1964) and Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), and by Diane Ravitch in The Troubled Crusade (1983) and Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000). Such history brings today’s “standards movement” into much sharper focus. It’s one thing for state and federal policymakers to impose demanding new academic standards on public schools; it’s another to realize that public school systems were never organized to deliver a serious academic education to more than a fraction of their students. Most school leaders didn’t think they should teach serious academics universally, nor did they have enough highly-trained teachers to do the job. I will come back to anti-intellectualism in a few moments.

Another impetus for SLOs could be the additional revenue for the publishing industry that sells stuff about it (the training handbooks alone run 50-70 pages) and for the testing agencies that sell the standardized exit exams. And even if the assessments are flawed and meaningless, at least they produce what the government likes best: numbers.

Politicians and administrators often make another claim about SLOs, namely, that they are driven by issues of cost and affordability – “the public will be asking more critically than in the past, ‘What are we getting for our money?'” However, in my years of teaching at the college level, I cannot remember one time that any student or parent asked, “Can you demonstrate learning outcomes?” or “What am I getting for my money?” Exactly who is the “public” in all these discussions about the “public” wants to know?  Furthermore, proponents of SLOs don’t realize that higher education does not merely equate to acquiring new information. It involves growth, critical thinking, values definition, and applying what you learn, among other things. By saying that what we provide in higher education is equal to reading a stack of books is insulting. Higher education is just as much, if not more, about the experience as it is about earning a degree.

But there are important negative consequences of SLOs. Let me quote David Clemens, professor of English at Monterey Peninsula Community College here in California:

That SLOs are about “student learning” is the first, and biggest, lie. There is no objective evidence that SLOs have any positive effect on learning at all, although there is evidence that they negatively affect learning because they encourage dumbing down and teaching to the test….

A few years ago, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, (WASC), adopted SLOs as a totalizing basis for accreditation and in a single stroke made fundamental changes in the definition of what we do and the way we do it.

For years we had been assured that “Assessment rubrics and student learning outcomes are just data collection and will never be used for teacher evaluation.” In fact, expected outcomes and assessment schemes are perfectly suited for use on teacher evaluation forms and already have been. But anyone who actually teaches knows that the most important factor in education is the student. The greatest effects on student learning are the individual student’s knowledge of subject, self motivation, language proficiency, disposition, parental support, social skills, talent, physical and mental health, preparation, cultural background, religious beliefs, political persuasion, commitment, desire, determination, level of cognitive growth, age, and work ethic. Student learning outcomes are silent on all these factors.

Yet as of last year [2007], SLOs are already a component of teacher evaluation. WASC Accreditation Standard III: Resources [part 1c] reads:

“Faculty and others directly responsible for student progress toward achieving stated student learning outcomes have, as a component of their evaluation, effectiveness in producing those learning outcomes.”

…Because student attainment of stated SLOs will affect teacher evaluation, SLOs actually create downward pressure on curricular standards. If I am to be judged by my students’ achievement on outcomes tests and SLO guarantees, I will spend my class time on the most testable and achievable SLOs so as to insure “student success” on the exit test. The next step involves the current buzzword: “alignment.” Certainly, if the English 1A SLOs at one college are producing a higher metric of “student success” than other schools, the logic of SLOs is to identify such “best practices” and create statewide alignment of them. Voila! One hundred nine schools, one curriculum, one set of outcomes, one exit test, and one set of textbooks.

Another common but egregious lie is that learning outcomes do not compromise academic freedom. On the contrary, SLOs are the greatest danger to academic freedom in my professional lifetime. The fact that WASC’s definition of SLOs mentions “attitudes” I find chilling. The heart of academic freedom is the conviction that both education and community suffer when teachers are forced to embrace a single viewpoint. To the contrary, our highest courts have held that society benefits when students are exposed to various academically legitimate yet contradictory ideas.

One of the key strategies of coercion employed by SLO zealots is that it’s all one big conversation and in the end we all agree. This is another lie intended to produce the appearance of consensus. I believe that it is vital to dispel this illusion. The word from U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to WASC is “SLOs or we will kill you and replace you with a federal bureaucracy.” [emphasis added]

The last paragraph is most provocative. Could the real reason politicians are pushing SLOs is because they want to just look like they’re doing something to improve student performance? From their point of view, it’s better to hold the teachers accountable (read: blame the teachers) than the students and their families, since there are more voters among the latter and the latter don’t want responsibility for student performance, anyway. Of course, there are also other forces at work here, including the ever-present financial motive for anyone who has something to gain from a new education fad. Obviously, the accreditors have families to support, so they have got to get with the program if they want to keep their jobs.

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The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means of education.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

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So, if incompetent teachers are not to blame, why is student performance so poor in high schools and colleges?  Paul Trout, who taught English at Montana State University at Bozeman, suggested in 1997 – over ten years ago – that student anti-intellectualism and the consequent corporatization of education is to blame:

Increasingly, career-minded students see college – or at least required courses – as an imposition between high school and the good life, an obstacle to be gotten over as soon as possible, just like high school was….

To attract and reassure such students, colleges and universities are wont to talk about them as being consumers of higher education. This notion implies, of course, that the desires of the customer reign supreme (“consumer sovereignty”), that the customer should be easily and completely satisfied, and that the customer should try to get as much as possible while paying as little as possible. When this consumer model is applied to higher education, it has disastrous effects on academic standards and student motivation.

The consumer model implies, for instance, that university “services” – among them, courses – should be shaped to satisfy student tastes, and that students can use or waste these services as they see fit. When students think of themselves as consumers, they study only when it is convenient (like shopping), expect satisfaction with little effort, want knowledge served up in “easily digestible, bite-sized chunks,” and assume that academic success, including graduation, is guaranteed. After all, failure – or consumer dissatisfaction – is “ruled out upon payment of one’s tuition”.

When taken to its logical conclusion, as many students do, the consumer model implies that students buy grades by paying for them through learning. Students who subscribe to this notion try to be consumers by paying – that is learning – as little as possible. A few carry it even further, and believe that whenever they learn something they have actually lost in the exchange.

Needless to say, instructors who try to teach students more than the students have bargained for are going to run into trouble…

The situation has only gotten worse in the last twelve years. Much worse.

[If you happen to be one of my students, and you’re offended by what Trout wrote, then chances are you aren’t one of the students he’s complaining about. Besides, I doubt an anti-intellectual student would bother reading my blog – after all, it won’t be on the test.]

The Varieties of Anti-Intellectualism

In May of 2001, Massimo Pigliucci, who is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York-Lehman College in Brooklyn, New York, published a very enlightening essay entitled, “The Many Faces of Anti-Intellectualism”. Since I am interested in this topic, and since Dr. Pigliucci has given permission to freely repost his essay on the Intenet, it appears below in its entirety.

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Universities should not subsidize intellectual curiosity. This oxymoronic statement was uttered by none other than then candidate for the governorship of California Ronald Reagan in the late 1960s. The astounding thing is not that somebody like Reagan would actually say something so outrageously stupid, but that this helped him winning the election and ushering a new era of official anti-intellectualism in America. This is continuing to this day, witness the fact that the current president, George W. Bush, has run a campaign as the (Yale-educated!) champion of the everyday man against the “pointed-head” intellectualism of rival Al Gore.

Anti-intellectualism has always been a powerful undercurrent in American culture, and it will probably play a major role in our society for a long time to come. Regardless of how depressing such thoughts might be, the first rule to win a war is to know thy enemy; which is why I’d like to discuss the major types of anti-intellectualism and how they threaten the very existence of a liberal society.
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Note by Prof. Olsen: The word liberal here means “tending in favor of freedom and democracy”. Liberalism is the belief in the importance of individual freedom and has been recognized as an important value by many philosophers throughout history. For example, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote praising “the idea of a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed.” Modern liberalism has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment, beginning with John Locke (1632-1704) who wrote “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” In fact, the American Declaration of Independence proclaims the liberal ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

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Richard Hofstadter, in a classic book on anti-intellectualism, first described the phenomenon in its entirety, and what I succinctly propose here is an elaboration on his main categories and on the more recent work of D. Rigney. The first kind of anti-intellectualism can be termed “anti-rationalism.” This is the idea that rational thinking is both cold (as in lacking sensitivity) and amoral (which is apparently a bad thing, in some people’s mind not sufficiently distinct from im-moral). The perception that scientists and philosophers — the very paragons of rationalism — are cold and insensitive is as widespread as it is false. If you know any individual belonging to these professions, you surely realize that they can get as emotional as the guy next door. The idea that rationality and emotions, science and poetry, cannot mix is simply unfounded. As Richard Dawkins has pointed out in Unweaving the Rainbow, science simply expands your ability to experience awe and wonder, it does not constrain it. As for a-morality, this view is best summarized in the words of John Cotton (back in 1642): “The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan you bee.” I honestly never understood why God would not appreciate humor and culture. Then again, there is that story of Eve and Adam stealing the fruit of the tree of knowledge…

Spectators adoring football players.

One can be anti-intellectual also by rejecting intellectualism because it is elitist. Anti-elitism is very peculiar to the American psyche, and it is virtually unknown in the rest of the universe. Most other people recognize that in matters of the intellect, as in any other human activity, there are people who do it better and others who are not quite as good. That does not — and should not — imply anything about the intrinsic worth (or lack thereof) of such people. Astonishingly, Americans don’t have any problem with elitism per se: just watch the adoring crowds at a basketball game and the recursive tendency to set up athletes as “role models” for our youth. The underlying assumption seems to be that everybody can become an Olympic athlete, but that the way to science and letters is only reserved to the lucky few. Ironically, the truth is quite the opposite: while the chances of making it in professional sports are almost nil, a country with a large system of public education and some of the best schools in the world can give the gift of intellectual pursuit to millions of people.

Suppose you are a mathematician and you are attending a cocktail party. Somebody approaches you for small talk and asks: what do you do? Chances are you’d rather answer that you are a traveling salesman than that you spend your time contemplating problems in set theory. This is because you are afraid of a third form of anti-intellectualism, unreflective instrumentalism. This is the idea that if something is not of immediate practical value it’s not worth pursuing. Hence, most of science and all of philosophy should be thrown out the window. The root of this attack on the pursuit of knowledge is to be found in capitalism at its worse. Andrew Carnegie, for example, once quipped that classical studies are a waste of “precious years trying to extract education from an ignorant past.” But the very idea of a liberal — not politically, but as opposed to practical — education is that it is far better to train somebody to think critically than to give her specific skills that will be out of date in a few years. Yet, captains of industry are not interested in your mental welfare; what they want is a bunch of mindless robots who are especially adept at carrying out whatever tasks will turn the highest profit for the stockholders. In this sense, intellectualism is a very subversive enterprise, which explains its persecution by rogues of the caliber of McCarthy and Reagan.
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Note by Prof. Olsen: The term “liberal education” was first used in classical Greek and Roman times. In fact, the major historical originator of liberal education is the ancient Greek rhetorician Isocrates (436-338 B.C.E.), who wrote in Antidosis [sections 261-265]:
 

For I believe that the teachers who are skilled in disputation and those who are occupied with astronomy and geometry and studies of that sort do not injure but, on the contrary, benefit their pupils, not so much as they profess, but more than others give them credit for….it seems to me both that those who hold that this training is of no use in practical life are right and that those who speak in praise of it have truth on their side….For while we are occupied with the subtlety and exactness of astronomy and geometry and are forced to apply our minds to difficult problems, and are, in addition, being habituated to speak and apply ourselves to what is said and shown to us, and not to let our wits go wool-gathering, we gain the power, after being exercised and sharpened on these disciplines, of grasping and learning more easily and more quickly those subjects which are of more importance and of greater value.

Education was not available for the many people in ancient Greek and Roman societies who were held in slavery, but only for those who were politically free and economically independent. Thus, the word liberal reflected the fact that people who were educated started out free (liber in Latin means “free man”). As the Renaissance humanist Petrus Paulus Vergerius wrote in The Character and Studies Befitting a Free-Born Youth around 1400, “We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man; those studies by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom; that education which calls forth, trains and develops those highest gifts of body and of mind which ennoble men, and which are rightly judged to rank next in dignity to virtue only.”

The Greeks and Romans recognized that education arms a person to confront the influence of others critically. Such a person is less easily manipulated and deceived. Still today, in order to form a more perfect union, we need citizens who are informed, discerning, and morally courageous. In a democratic republic with universal suffrage, the ideal – difficult as it may be to realize – is a liberal education for all citizens. Thus, a liberal education can be defined as one that furnishes an individual with the capacities to be a free and responsible citizen. It is the pursuit of human excellence, not the pursuit of excellent salaries and excellent forms of polish and sophistication. As Vergerius observed, “For to a vulgar temper gain and pleasure are the one aim of existence; to a lofty nature, moral worth and fame.”

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I recently had the pleasure and honor of attending a lecture by Kurt Vonnegut. He asked the audience to remember one thing from his visit: start calling your TV “the tantrum” and for God’s sake, turn it off and start talking to each other. Or reading. The idea that intellectual pursuits are a lot of work and that it is far easier and more pleasurable to watch TV is the fourth kind of anti-intellectualism, unreflective hedonism. While I do not suggest to kill your TV, as some radical friends of mine would want you to do, do try to read a good book. I bet that the experience will be much more pleasurable than you thought. A novel by Vonnegut might be a good place to start.

Political cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1875 contrasts a reedy scholar with a bovine boxer, epitomizing the popular view of reading and study as antithetical to sport and athleticism.

We have met the enemy, and it is us, as Pogo concluded in the famous comic strip. The most pernicious kind of anti-intellectualism comes from other intellectuals. In recent years a movement called post-modernism (or deconstructionism) has made headway in humanities departments throughout the US and has been given a sympathetic hearing by major media outlets. The idea is that knowledge is relative because it is a cultural construct. So, you are equally fine if you believe in evolution or creation, because these are both narratives “constructed” by pockets of our culture. Of course, if everything is relative and no theory has any particular claim to truth or reality, then why should anybody believe deconstructionists? Postmodernism has actually been imported in this country from France, and as philosopher Ted Honderich has remarked, one can think of it as “picking up an idea and running with it, possibly into a nearby brick wall or over a local cliff.”

What do we do about all this? Once again, the only available road is the long and tortuous path to education. But it should help knowing what we are dealing with before engaging in battle. Contrary to what a postmodernist might say, Napoleon really did lose at Waterloo, and it was because of poor intelligence on what the other side was doing.

References:

  • Isocrates.  Isocrates with an English Translation in three volumes, by George Norlin, Ph.D., LL.D.  (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press;  London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1980).

The Corporatization of Higher Education

MortarboardYou think the corporatization (a.k.a. business model or consumer model) of education is a myth cooked up by “elite” intellectuals in order to justify the resurrection of tenure in academia?  Well, something can’t end that hasn’t started.  Daniel J. Ennis, professor of English at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina, opines that the end of the business model is at hand. In fact, he misses it! He writes, in part:

It has been months since somebody told me that “a university must run like a business.”

I’m alarmed to think that the era of the Business Simile is over.

I think I speak for many liberal arts types when I say how scary it is to lose that surety, that hard mooring in the results-oriented world, that comforting discipline of being told from across the conference-room table that the market imperatives must be paid heed, that we in the academy merely deliver a product to our clients, and that the efficiencies of the private sector can and must be brought to bear on the out-of-touch ivory tower. See, I liked that. There was a bracing firmness in such announcements. On the one hand, it fed my craving for intellectual loftiness — to be on the receiving end of such pronouncements allowed me to position myself as a defender of the faith, as true educator unsullied by a preoccupation with filthy lucre. On the other hand, I was secretly reassured when I heard that the important decisions — how to find the money, how to spend the money — were in the hands of realistic, highly-qualified, private-sector types who knew how the world worked. I wanted them on that wall. I needed them on that wall….

So I confess that I liked being told that the university must be run like a business. After all, it left me time to think abstractly about big ideas (and picturesquely, I might add, leather-bound books at hand, maybe wearing a scarf). It allowed me to scoff at the bean counters even as I consumed the revenue they wrung from the institution. I came to depend on the kindness of those strangers who understood accounting and statistics, core competencies and market niches. Who better to protect me from the real world than the agents of the real world?

Dennis muses that the current economic meltdown has undercut the business model (or business simile, as he refers to it) in education:

But now the “university like a business” simile has been undercut by, well, the real world. Some of the most prominent companies in the United States are starting to resemble universities. They receive massive government aid, suffer from significant new government oversight, cling to inefficient fiscal models, and are buffeted by a howling public who sees tax dollars being thrown down the hole without concomitant results…

As long as “business” represented competence and “university” represented inefficiency, then the Business Simile was able to win many an argument. But similes die, and they die when their referents stop making sense. Hardly anybody says “in like Flynn” anymore because very few people remember who Errol Flynn was, much less that he was associated with skillful swordplay and copulation. Who says “like clockwork” anymore? Only those who remember what clockwork was, or those who use the simile as a nostalgic gesture.

I hope Professor Ennis is right. His essay is well worth reading at Inside Higher Ed.