NO BIG DEAL...but many small ones

Peter Wood

The UMass student newspaper has an interesting follow-up to the scandal in which Chaplain Kent Higgins in collusion with a least one member of the History Department sought to give academic credit to students who volunteered to help with the Obama campaign in New Hampshire. The newspaper polled UMass students on the question, “Should a state university offer credits to students for partisan campaigning?” A full quarter of the respondents saw nothing wrong with the practice: 21 percent endorsed it, and 4 percent said, “It’s all the same to me.”   The Daily Collegian’s pie-chart is here.  

                It is not even clear that the 75 percent of respondents who oppose campaigning-for-credit see the issue clearly. The poll labels their answer, “No—It compromises the University’s ethic.” Yes it does, if the “ethic” in question is the need for a public university to stand outside partisan politics. But that’s far from the only reason why credit for political campaigning is wrong, and would be just as wrong at a private college. 

                The central issue is the need to distinguish genuine academic work from other activities. Higher education has been blurring this line for over a generation by awarding credit for internships, community volunteering, “life experience,” and other nonce categories. Academics can always conjure reasons for these exceptions. Students truly do learn something, whatever the experience. It can be “academicized” by requiring the student to write a paper about it afterwards. Anyone with an ounce of imagination can invent a plausible-sounding intellectual connection between extra-curricular experience and something in the curriculum. And awarding academic credit for non-academic work may indeed be an incentive for students to stick with unpaid internships and volunteer shifts.

                There is also pressure from businesses to award academic credit for internships, since otherwise companies face legal requirements to pay their interns. The Obama campaign faces no such compulsion, but it has come on the scene at a time when students have been thoroughly habituated to the idea that “academic credit” is an all-purpose currency that can be won in any manner of situations having little or nothing to do with academic work. We haven’t reached the point where students can win academic credit inside Coke or Pepsi bottle caps, but that’s only because Coke and Pepsi don’t run universities. 

                While working on this story, I have been repeatedly struck by a generation gap. Recent college grads across the political spectrum seem to have a “no big deal” response to the idea that awarding credit for campaign volunteering damages education. It is not that the university that is at risk (though UMass should be embarrassed) but that the college degree is cheapened.   Of course, a college degree has been cheapened in lots of other ways too, including by the flimsy curricula that many students encounter. But awarding academic credit for non-academic work is a distinct form of cheapening college degrees.   It is a way of making college level with the rest of what you do with your life. That might be an easy sell to students eager to rack up their credits, but it has the unintended consequence of trivializing higher education itself. 

                Anthropologists in the last century made some fascinating observations about what happened when tribes who had had elaborate trading systems in goods but no general purpose currency encountered money for the first time. Once they grasped the idea, it proved enormously destructive. At first, through the magic of money, things of little real value could be transformed into things traditionally regarded as of high value. Then came the realization that the high value things no longer had much value. And finally the realization that nothing had value anymore except money itself. 

                Academic credit is in fact a highly specialized currency that has real value only so long as it serves its special purpose. Handing it out for other purposes devalues it. 

                The folly of offering academic credit for political campaigning comes after decades of this broader folly. Maybe we should be used to the coarsening and cheapening of higher education, but Obama-for-credit is so nakedly cynical a form of exploiting higher education that it still has the power to shock. I’d like to think it will prompt a larger reconsideration of how academic credit is misused. 

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