Against the cult of growth, and against those against that cult

August 16, 2022

This piece makes an increasingly common argument about how higher end needs to disenthrall itself from the spell of “growth” ideology. In some ways it’s part of a larger critique of growth coming out of some sectors of the Marxist left. (It’s weird that this critique comes out of that tradition, because Marx was one of the deepest believers in growth out there—the whole of his theory is premised on a relatively flat-footed account of modernization theory—but whatever.)

I don’t think I’ve yet seen a good account of how a zero-growth economy will sustain itself. And I agree with the economists’ arguments that I’ve seen that stagnation is never good for the political goals that proponents of anti-growth profess to profess. But I agree that we cannot keep consuming the same numbers and kinds of resources that we currently are, and continue to expand the number of people who are no longer in extreme poverty.  And I agree that many of us in the developed world are living at the far end of the Kuznets curve, where more purchases will provide only marginal increases in our quality of life.  We don’t need more books from Amazon, we need better public libraries; we don’t need faster cars, we need better bike paths, etc..  I agree with all of that.

I also agree that there are large scale changes coming, but I do not think they are for reasons of resource exhaustion. Never in human history have we systematically just run out of “things” in a way we could not compensate for. And given recent (over the past few decades, say) results of resource bets, I suspect that the resources we need will be changing faster than the demand for them exhausts them. We will innovate and adapt. Already there is much happening on that front. There may be more.

But in terms of higher education, I think “de-growth” gets something right and something wrong.  The thing it gets right is the idea that things can’t go on the way they’ve been going. This is true. But the thing it gets wrong is the reasons for that. It is not energy, or consumerism, or the environment, or natural resources, that is the problem.

The problem is demographics. We are moving from a human race (especially over the past 200 years or so) that was always getting more numerous, with successive generations larger than the ones before it, to a human race where each generation, more or less, at best, reproduces its size in the one succeeding it.  (In fact over the long run we may be coasting downward, in terms of population.)  This is happening all around the world, though at different rates—Africa, as I’ve pointed out before, is still growing in quick ways, and may be decelerating growth more slowly than predicted, but the signs of deceleration are apparent there as well. This whole thing is called the “demographic transition,” from high birth rates with high infant and child mortality rates to low birth rates and low infant and child mortality rates, coupled with changes in the life expectations and plans of women. In a way we move from a demographic “pyramid” to a demographic “pillar.” I’ve talked about this on the blog before.

Well, how does demographics affect higher ed?  I think it should be pretty obvious. Over the past century, and moreso since World War II, and even moreso since the 1970s, American higher ed has assumed there would always be more students, and so we’ve expanded. Costs go up, numbers go up, everything goes up.

But when you don’t have a continuously growing influx of new students, it’s hard to sustain this. The business model has to change. And for that to happen, the model of what we’re doing in the business has to change.

I have ideas about how this could change and I hope to post them at some later date. Effectively, my core idea is this: universities have to get out of the business of focusing exclusively on 18- to 22-year olds.  We need, not to abandon the early adulthood people at all, but to add to them a new focus: to begin to see our mission as enabling people across the scope of adulthood to enter our institutions and learn from us—not maybe necessarily centrally as a matter of “re-skilling” people, but as a way of allowing them to reconcile who they are and what they are doing. This will be a centuries-long transition in what higher ed is doing.

But that’s a topic for a longer post, and a later one.  For now this is enough: I don’t think “de-growth” is the right strategy. I think a different kind of growth, or perhaps a different kind of mission, is.