College Guide


March 02, 2010 11:00 AM The Politics of Failure

By Daniel Luzer


It’s always been a little odd the way that there is only one U.S. federal department that uses its ineffectiveness as a major speaking point.

No matter what’s going on in the news, the secretary of the treasury would never say the U.S. economic system is a failure. The secretary of defense would not say the U.S. military is so terrible that it loses all its wars. This is not the case with the U.S. secretary of education, who loves to talk about the horrible problems in U.S. education. According to a piece in Inside Higher Ed:

Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary, made it clear that she didn’t just want to pour more Americans into “this broken system” of higher education, language that will resonate with those who followed her administration’s policies and rhetoric. “We need a higher education system that’s more responsive to the market place…. One of the things we’ve never asked much of higher education is accountability, and some results orientation.”

This language, oddly enough, occurred at a debate on Feb 26 in which Spellings argued that the U.S. workforce needs more college graduates

Spellings, George W. Bush’s education secretary from 2005-2009, actually frequently used the sort of language that in any other profession might be interpreted to mean “I’m not very good at my job.”

This Apocalypse talk, however, actually appears to be standard no matter who’s serving as education secretary. Rod Paige talked like this. So does Arne Duncan.

Enough of this language. Take responsibility. It’s your department. Don’t worry; there are plenty of people out there willing to let the secretary of education know if something isn’t going well.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Daniel L. Bennett on March 02, 2010 3:40 PM:

    Easy to say, difficult to do. The higher education community is vehemently opposed to change and uses its strong lobby and political allies to wage a war whenever it feels threatened. Its stance is understandable, as it has a pretty sweet going for it: tons of money flowing in from the taxpayers with very little interference. As Mrs. Spellings said, the college's attitude is "give us the money and leave us alone".

  • Daniel L. Bennett on March 02, 2010 3:44 PM:

    I usually leave links to my blogs when I comment. Forgot to do so above.

  • Regina on March 03, 2010 1:31 PM:

    Spellings is just one of the "nattering nabobs of negativism" whose only yardstick is "the market." Higher education institutions have an obligation to provide programs to serve the broadest interests among its students and faculty, each of whom has but one life to live and seeks the greatest fulfillment. To demand that the universities serve "the market" is nonsense -- students seek out their best opportunities and elect programs that appear most likely to provide them with a future, even as they develop their native talents and interests. Thus their election of programs mirrors the real world, as seen (e.g.) in the rush to the sciences and engineering at the onset of the Space Age, and other such movements at more recent breakthroughs such as those in biomedicine. But the programs must be available, and continually refreshed, which means that resources must be reliable. Contrary to Bennett's comment, the higher education community is in constant developmental change, and needs support to maintain it.