I usually reserve my time on the First Fridays to discuss news in the market of higher education (if one believes that there is a market). It is not like there is no news this month. The publishing giant Pearson announced a mega deal where it acquired higher education provider Embanet-Compass for $650 million. Embanet partners with traditional colleges and universities to deliver online coursework, and this acquisition signals changes not only in publishing but in who provides higher education. Years ago this acquisition would have been seen as a publisher encroaching on the academy’s territory. Publishers were cautious to not offend their customers. Now it seems like a logical addition to the portfolio (just what is content when we live in a quick world)? The largest for-profit university, the Apollo Group, announced that it would close over half of its centers and cut 800 jobs in an effort to trim $300 million of operating expenses. Could this represent a retrenchment or is it a way for the once agile innovators to reinvent themselves?
But this month, I want to focus on a turn of the tongue which has been annoying me to no end, and hints at an apathy that seems to be becoming endemic to our modern culture. I hear it all over. It is most common in sports when athletes, rather than make an excuse, give a trite and meaningless tautology.
“It is what it is.”
What does that mean? Is it a recognition of what the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called essence when one got beyond existence (hence the beginnings of existentialism)? Or is it merely resignation? One tacitly acknowledges that nothing can be done and now we have to live with it.
I think I am annoyed most by this colloquialism because it seems such a part of how Americans now define themselves. The magic of college is a challenge to deeper analysis. In the most elegant and satisfying intellectual journeys, one finds that what we think “it is” often is not. There is “more than meets the eye.” Academics get accused of living in Ivory Towers (I never understood that one either. I understand that the original term Ivory Tower was biblical and used in the Song of Solomon and later in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary to signify noble purity—but we shall get to this later). But is seems that from thought comes invention and from invention comes design and from design comes utility.
When we think of the great changes in our lives, people were trying to figure out what “it is.” When we thought about refrigeration, it was how to make a giant evaporating machine (mostly using chemicals). When Steve Jobs thought about how to keep all the great music of the world in his pocket and when Google hopes to record every idea human beings ever thought, they challenge what is. When we wondered how to produce light without fire, we tested how electricity worked when passed through a wire (it was heat first then light). And when Einstein wondered whether light was a wave or a particle, he discovered that it was not what it was. That magic changed the way we viewed the universe in the most elegant of statements.
Einstein imagined things that were not what it is. He imagined what it would be like on a ship moving close to the speed of light. It was in these musings that he came to practical new knowledge. What if he gave up at it is what it is?
The converse is also true (and perhaps more so now than ever in a hyped up world). Sometimes things are less than they appear to be. Thoughtfulness gives us the ability to give weight to our experience. Some data are more convincing and compelling than others.
So as the world changes and universities change, what is the role of these very expensive universities? First, that while we eventually get to simple elegant explanations, that these explanations almost always come from complexity and from a proper grounding in complex arguments. What makes simple solutions elegant is that they come from an appreciation of complexity, not a fear of it. Additionally, universities help us engage in true polemics— not the gross exaggerations of MSNBC versus FOX, but the real dignified disagreements of honest people searching for the truth. The academy has always been a community of scholars, and scholarly work demands an earnest discipline and an acceptance that I might be wrong. Finally, universities should help people evaluate evidence. As I prepare this blog, I hunted diligently for the derivation of “Ivory Tower.” I am usually loathe to cite Wikipedia, because as a scholar, I don’t trust when people vote for truth. So how can we in a digitized age where nearly every idea ever written can be accessed find reliable evidence to convince one another? I believe that in the next iteration, universities will again be arbitrators of fact because ultimately we demand objectivity and replication and subscribe to the notion that it is a lofty goal to protect against subjectivity by remaining disconnected from practical concerns.
People will be surprised that I, as a proponent of market solutions to improve higher education, do not want to become the farm team for employers who hire our graduates, but a place where people see the magic of ideas. When one understands the message of a composer, how a cubist plays with perception, or how to get us out of the gravitational pull of our large planet and land us on another moving object, one understands far more than we can assess and it is in this mass of knowledge that we begin to appreciate the human experience. If we lose this feeling for higher truths and higher ideals, then we resign ourselves to reside in a world where it is what it is, not in a world of what might be.