Finally, a high-profile review of these “crisis in higher education” books that calls them for what they are: bull$hitte. (H/t to my colleague and occasional blog contributorNathan Citino for the link. He reads the New York Review of Books so I don’t have to!) Go read the whole thing by Peter Brooks–but here are some parts I thought particularly choice:
On the one hand, all the critics of the American university claim to be partisans of the liberal arts, to want students to study philosophy and literature, even the arts, and to learn “critical thinking” (the currently accepted mantra—not a bad one). On the other hand, the tests proposed always seem to have to do with job preparation—even as the critics in the same breath deplore “vocationalism” and point to the impoverished education that many majors in business or accounting receive. And one would like to know whether the level of higher education attainment measured by the OECD is in fact liberal education or simply technocratic training at a high level (a point raised by Martha Nussbaum in Not for Profit, the welcome outlier among the books under review).
[Claudia] Hacker and [Andrew] Dreifus, in their self-consciously iconoclastic (and sometimes cranky) book, identify a “Golden Dozen” colleges considered the most desirable: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Penn, Stanford, Duke, Amherst, Williams. They find it hard to obtain “solid information” to gauge the success of Golden Dozen graduates. So they turn to Who’s Who in America, to track one class (‘73) from Princeton—to find that national eminence has been achieved by a disappointing percentage of them. From this and some other equally shaky research, they conclude: “We found that most Dozen graduates do not create distinctive lives and careers—at least not to the extent one would expect from colleges that claim to find and nurture unusual talent.” The exercise is trivial—to judge the successful life requires far greater depth of knowledge—and its conclusions lightweight.
Hey, social scientists: how ’bout that methodology? I’m sure they have some super-scientific formula for determining “national eminence.” And who cares about the Class of 1973 from Princeton–did Hacker and Dreifus consider that the uni was still being churned by co-education for undergraduates, which had only begun in 1969? Princeton’s largely male class of 1973 likely still was reflective more of ancestral privilege and old-boy networks rather than a more meritocratic admissions system. Gee–no wonder so few (by their measure) are “nationally eminent!”
Brooks makes a really interesting point about the ways in which universities have lived up to American ideals much more than other institutions in American society (save perhaps one: the military, especially after the overturning of the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy, but because the military is explicitlyauthoritarian and hierarchical it passes muster with the right.) I’ve long thought that this is exactly why universities have been in the crosshairs of the American right for the past forty or fifty years:
American higher education is a nonsystem that is messy, reduplicative, unfair—just like American society as a whole—but it has made genuine commitments to quality and to a greater degree of social justice, to the extent that is within its control, than most other institutions of the society. It has brought new blood into old elitist institutions, and indeed has thoroughly scrambled the hereditary caste it began with. You have simply to walk the paths of any reputable American university today to see that the student population looks like the range of American ethnicities—far more than many other institutions. Universities have taken seriously calls for inclusiveness and affirmative action. The large expenditures on their admissions offices that bring sneers from Hacker and Dreifus have promoted diversity in ways unimagined fifty years ago. Given the long and continuing history of American anti-intellectualism—which today takes the form of a vicious know-nothingism—I am often surprised that America has universities of the quality it does.
Brooks also notes that all universities are not created equal, and public unis are in a much worse position than private colleges and universities:
The real issue that emerges for me from this and other critiques of American higher education concerns our once proudly public universities. Since the time I last taught at the University of Virginia, five years ago, in-state tuition has risen by over 50 percent. The reason is simple: the Commonwealth of Virginia’s contribution to its flagship university makes up only about 8 percent of its operating budget. Salaries and student aid are squeezed. Administrators who want UVA to continue as a first-rate institution see raising tuition as the only solution. Not their fault—but what has happened to the American commitment to public higher education?The University of California system, in so many ways the pride of the nation, is currently being savaged by budget cuts. Things are not likely to get better: most state budgets are in a parlous condition, and education is the easy target—especially with Hacker and Dreifus and [Mark] Taylor telling people that many of the faculty are a waste of money to begin with.
A lot of money would make things better.
But this is education, Professor Brooks, the one sector of the economy that’s supposed to do more with less every year, the one thing we can’t “throw money at” and expect results! (Isn’t it funny how no one ever talks about “throwing money” at national security for example, or the U.S. military, or Wall Street? I guess completely male-dominated industries dependent on male-dominated private contractors deserve to be on the public teat in ways that industries that employ more than token numbers of women professionals do not.)
Only teachers and professors are supposed to live up to the secular monastic ideal of poverty, chastity, and above all, obedience. Professors and teachers deserve neither respect, nor job security, nor a living wage with a decent retirement plan. If they were so smart, why didn’t they go into fields where they could make some real money? Sing it with me, friends: Americans expect Excellence without Money! They’re entitled to it because they’re Americans, dammit. They don’t need to pay taxes. They don’t need no stinkin’ taxes.
Let’s close out this rant with a little song that’s been in heavy play at Chez Historiann lately: “Welcome to the Tea Party!”