Thomas Frank: The Higher-Ed. Dream Factory

Thomas Frank is the bestselling omni-critic who founded The Baffler magazine and edited it for years. He’s a columnist at and he wrote the book on the turning of American politics ten years ago, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Shifting focus from politics to higher education, he did it again with “Academy Fight Song,” a Baffler piece published last winter. The question, his and ours: how did higher education, in general, turn from the days of the GI Bill — and the land grant colleges long before that — to being a trap for seventeen-year-old kids who are signing away their lives into eternity with student loans? College has turned into a trap, maybe, for all of us. Will it be the undoing of the great American middle class?

Related Content

  • martinbrock

    Thomas Frank’s solution to the problem of creeping corporatism in higher education seems to be throwing the parasitic bums out of their privileged positions in the authoritarian hierarchy and replacing them with parasites more like Frank. His solution in a nutshell fires the “administrators” and puts more adjunct professors on a tenure track while raising taxes on people outside of this education establishment to make it all “free” (unaccountable) for the insiders.

    Instead of imposing debts, with no avenue of escape even in bankruptcy if their educational investment turns out to be worthless (no skin in the game for the banks and educational institutions), on students, Frank wants to impose the costs of his tenure in the corporative state on taxpayers, who might or might not be students but who remove his skin from the game just as surely.

    Nowhere in this discussion did anyone mention the elephant in the room, rapidly emerging, radically new models of higher education, powered by emerging information processing and communications technology, without any brick and mortar institutions and their centers of authority. Why no mention of Khan academy and countless competing resources? Maybe I heard one, vague reference to “online” in the discussion, but that was it.

  • Pete Crangle

    Thanks for the link and the discussion. I’ve been a Baffler reader going way back. Kudos to Mr. Frank.

    Education, health care, and the prison system are bellwethers that reflect how we think about ourselves and our common cause.The hyper-privatization of these sectors, turning them over to the market system, invites a narrowing mindset which alleviates one from the concerns of the health and well-being of the common good. Markets are concerned with profits. They can create cartels of influence and barriers. Market driven culture breeds fear, anxiety, and distraction. A mania has set in which cares very little about itself. No small wonder we have perpetual war for perpetual profit. It falls out naturally from a mindset besieged by appeals to paranoia and greed driven by the boogeyman of scarcity and the hagiography of celebrity culture.

    It would be remiss to release the education system from some degree of culpability in this matter. In my experience, the testing and grading system is used as a means of instilling anxiety and conformity through a regimen of carrots and sticks, or reward and punishment. Learning, an activity of great complexity, is reduced to knowledge acquisition and obedience. Knowledge is treated as a scarce resource reflected by the even scarcer resource of high marks; marks made in courses most students tend to forget. Is the bell curve for grades reflected in its curve of retention? What exactly do these tests and grades mean? Gateways to the next step and a wake of general amnesia? A means of demonstrating socialization?

    Since my K-12 years were spent largely as a disinterested bottom feeder, I can testify to the attempts of the educational system to seal my fate from the beginning (no, I’m not exaggerating). Moreover, knowledge acquisition within this system of learning, is highly sensitive to and dictated by artificially imposed time constraints. Our minds have been shaped by the inheritors of a Frederick Winslow Taylor world view. Unfortunately, human development in regards to teaching and learning, like human healing ability, doesn’t conform to productivity driven systems of profit. Yet another mismatch emerges between the concern of the market and the condition of the human being.

    Thanks Chris, Mary, and Mr. Frank for this discussion and bringing this topic up for discussion. — The Parrot

    • dave bernard

      Pete C: I hesitate to ask, but public school tried to seal your fate as what?

  • Potter

    This whole topic’s discussion is excellent, the guests all, including this adjunct interview. I feel enlightened and somewhat depressed from Chomsky and Frank but not blaming the messengers. It would be good to follow the history of how we got here. We have lost what I think we had: a collective consciousness of the meaning and purpose of a good education for ourselves, our children, it’s inexpressible value, including to society. How and why did this happen?