“Adult Education and Universities”: Innis extends Veblen critique of higher learning

“Adult Education and Universities” communicates serious suspicions about universities getting into adult education, arguing “[the latter] is apt to involve the standardization of information and propaganda” (213). Not an advocate of what Max Weber critiques as the phenomenon of credentialism, Innis says universities must perform two primary functions: first “to make possible the life of study, whether for a few years or during a whole career,” and second “to bring together… face to face teacher and teacher, teacher and student, student and student” (212). Adult education fails to fulfill either criteria, because adult students, with concomitant “real world” responsibilities and obligations, are not well situated to come to universities to pursue a “life of study” and more so – and here is a strand that Fox News and the likes of David Horowitz would call “academic-leftist elitism” – adult students will be especially difficult for them to put in the time or gain the experiences of scholarship and therefore will always be marked as “amateurs and dilettantes” rather than real scholars.

Thorsten Veblen postulated a similar thesis in his 1918 classic The Higher Learning in America. It is arguable that Innis’ comments are pretty much a continuation of Veblen’s excoriating criticism of the status quo in higher education institutions. First Innis’ use the phrase “amateurs and dilettantes” to describe the adult student, a phrase Veblen repeatedly used – hostilely so – in his dismissal of vocational training as an appropriate avenue of work for universities. Second, Innis’ point that the university tradition in Europe cannot find “effective expression under the constitutional devices characteristic of North America” is also reminiscent of Veblen’s attack on the university boards made up of businessmen and bureaucrats that are “an aimless survival from the days of clerical rule” (Veblen 63).

My point is not to say that Innis arguments are derivative and I certainly don’t mean he plagiarized Veblen.  I am arguing that The Higher Learning in America was hugely influential in its time – and continues to be even today – and doubtless its discourse was very much part of the culture that Report of the Manitoba Royal Commission on Adult Education came out of. More so it also strikes me that Innis’ charge of providing adult education is to “concentrate on territory held by newspapers, radio, and films [following] patters of advertising” is an elaboration of Veblen’s arguments in terms of modern communication. It is an explication that follows his overall work in communication that modern forms of technology (education is technology when it is organized around providing skills rather than critical philosophical debate) institutionally communicate ideologies enabling the production imperatives of mechanization rather than the “life of study” through “the direct and powerful device of the spoken word in small groups” (A Bias of Communication is in some ways a bias towards orality).

Works Cited

Innis, Harold. The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2006.

Veblen. Thorstein. The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum of the Conduct of Universities by Businessmen. New York: B. W. Buesch, 1918.

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