Tony Grafton on the higher education crisis, and your turn to talk back!

Via my colleague Nathan Citino who reads the New York Review of Books, we learn that Tony Grafton has written a thoughtful review of the raft of books on the “crisis” of higher education in the United States published recently.  He dislikes the polemics that pick one enemy–the lazy-a$$ed faculty who allegedly never teach, or the inflated ranks of administrators who allegedly suck up six-figure salaries without contributing to the core mission of education.

However, Grafton appears to agree with Historiann’s analysis of the free farm clubs that unis run for the NFL and the NBA, reserving some choice disdain for the fact that “head football and basketball coaches earn millions and their assistants hundreds of thousands for running semiprofessional teams. Few of these teams earn much money for the universities that sponsor them, and some brutally exploit their players.”  But even I must acknowledge the fact that even if Baa Ram U. fired the coaches and told the men’s football and basketball teams to hold a bake sale if they want uniforms and travel money, it’s unlikely that the money saved would actually be invested in rebuilding the faculty or otherwise improving the quality of classroom education we offer.  (I still think it’s a fantasy worth preserving, however!)

The problem as Grafton sees it is not just that students buy into the Animal House vision of student life, with an emphasis on a social life built around sports and alcohol and drug-consumption rather than an intellectual life built around independent study.  He argues that American universities themselves foster the Animal House sensibility, rewarding faculty only for their research and never for their teaching, and providing a range of amenities for students that lure them anywhere but the classroom or the library:

In many ways, universities have reshaped themselves over recent decades to support the current version of student life. Particularly in the natural and social sciences, professors are encouraged to feel that it is legitimate to devote most of their energy to research. When they make a discovery, they receive a reward: exemption from time in the classroom. Even those who don’t discover America, as the Italians used to say, spend as much time as they can in the lab or the library. Teaching has been reassigned, more and more, from tenured and tenure-track faculty to graduate students and adjuncts.

In theory, budgetary constraints have forced these measures on reluctant deans. In fact, though, they also make it easier to recruit and retain star academics, whose salaries and research support are costly. It’s a lot easier to convince a Deep Thinker to move to Old Siwash and cogitate for a few graduate students than it is to convince the same Deep Thinker to come teach 120 kids a term.

Even in these supposedly tight times, finally, well-paid administrators and nonacademic professionals proliferate—as do the costly extracurricular activities that they provide, from bonding exercises for freshmen to intercollegiate sports. The message is clear: no one sees classroom learning as a primary pursuit.

Go read the whole thing–it’s the weekend, after all, and aren’t weekends made for reflecting on the failures and inherent corruption of our work environments?  (I choose to believe that’s part of the reason the labor movement fought for the weekend.)

Grafton concludes that given the tremendous diversity of the American “system” of higher education, we need more fine-grained and close-up studies of how higher education is working–or not working–for American students, administrators, and faculty, and the larger communities they serve:

Best of all would be for enterprising publishers to find curious writers and have them describe some universities and colleges, in detail, with all their defects. The polemical books, even those that have some substance, end up slinging mud—which, as Huckleberry Finn pointed out to Tom Sawyer, isn’t argument—more often than laying out the evidence. The empirical studies, with a very few exceptions, are deliberately cast in such general terms, and written in such a value- and metaphor-free style, that they won’t reach anyone without a professional interest. Neither sort would give an intelligent outsider—say, a parent or student, a regent or a trustee—a vivid picture of a year’s life and work at a college or university, as it is experienced by all parties; much less a lucid explanation of how finance and pedagogy, bad intentions and good execution shape one another in the academic world.

It’s been a few years since those of us in this corner of the blogosphere have passed around a meme, so let’s rent a barn and put on a show, kids!  People with blogs are “curious writers,” even if some of us (guilty, as charged!) have a flair for the polemic.  The other bloggers and regular commenters here study and/or teach at a variety of institutions around the world–so let’s offer our own detailed descriptions of our universities and what the problems look like from our vantage. will offer virtual stage time to those of you who don’t have your own blogs but who would like to contribute an essay–e-mail me whatever you like, and I’ll publish it under your nom de blog, anonymously, or under your own name, as you wish.  (However, in order to verify your identity, you will need to disclose to me your RL name and submit your essay via an institutional e-mail address.)

So, let’s tag some bloggers, and let the fun begin!  Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar.  SquadratomagicoRoxie’s World.  Tenured Radical.  Clio’s Disciple.  Dr. Crazy. The Clutter Museum.  Another Damned MedievalistKelly J. Baker.  Religion in American History.  Romantoes.  More or Less Bunk.  Ferule and Fescue.  Professor Zero.  Dude, Where’s My Tardis?  And let’s not restrict this meme to just people who teach and/or study in the United States, because university people around the world have troubles to share, too:  Janice Liedl.  J. Otto Pohl.  Feminist Avatar, and Spanish Prof., you’re tagged too!  Link back to me (and also e-mail me, since my bloggy software doesn’t always seem to identify all of the links I get), tag some more contributors too, and I’ll advertise your post and start a new blog page collecting them all.

(Don’t let this feel like yet another work obligation.  I know that the committee work is ramping up, and so is the grading and time spent dealing with student issues from now on through American Thanksgiving and final week, so just remember:  short can be sweet!)

60 thoughts on “Tony Grafton on the higher education crisis, and your turn to talk back!

  1. Pingback: Our Universities: Why Are They Failing? Some (internet) dialogue | Brush off the dust! History now!

  2. Pingback: Why I’ve fallen down on the (uncompensated) job this term : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  3. May I ask, in the experience of the people responding to this post: is this true?

    “Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.”

    I certainly didn’t have an experience like that as an undergraduate at an (admittedly famously prestigious) university in the UK. It’s almost enviable if it weren’t such an enormous waste of everyone’s time (and money).


  4. Pingback: What’s the matter with higher ed? Too much talk about degrees, not enough talk about achievement. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  5. Pingback: Sunday round-up: the “crisis in higher ed,” your turn edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  6. Pingback: The “crisis” in higher ed? truffula sniffs out “administrative bloat.” : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  7. Pingback: Why I’ve fallen down on the (uncompensated) job this term | Historiann

  8. Pingback: Sunday round-up: the “crisis in higher ed,” your turn edition | Historiann

  9. Pingback: The “crisis” in higher ed? truffula sniffs out “administrative bloat.” | Historiann

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