Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education
But it was not only the postwar middle class that public higher education helped create; it was the postwar prosperity altogether. Knowledge, again, is our most important resource. States that balance their budgets on the backs of their public universities are not eating their seed corn; they’re trampling it into the mud. My state of Oregon, a chronic economic underperformer, has difficulty attracting investment, not because its corporate taxes are high—they’re among the lowest—but because its workforce is poorly educated. So it will be for the nation as a whole. Our college-completion rate has fallen from second to eighth. And we are not just defunding instruction; we are defunding research, the creation of knowledge itself. Stipends are so low at the University of California, Berkeley, the third-ranked research institution on the planet, that the school is having trouble attracting graduate students. In fact, the whole California system, the crown jewel of American public higher education, is being torn apart by budget cuts. This is not a problem; it is a calamity.
Private institutions are in comparable trouble, for reasons that will sound familiar: too much spending during the boom years—much of it on construction, much of it driven by the desire to improve “market position” relative to competitors by offering amenities like new dorms and student centers that have nothing to do with teaching or research—supported by too much borrowing, has led to a debt crisis. Among the class of academic managers responsible for the trouble in the first place, an industry of reform has sprung up, along with a literature of reform to go with it. Books like Taylor’s Crisis on Campus, James Garland’s Saving Alma Mater (2009) and the most measured and well-informed of the ones I’ve come across, Robert Zemsky’s Making Reform Work (2009), propose their variously visionary schemes.
Nearly all involve technology to drive efficiency. Online courses, distance learning, do-it-yourself instruction: this is the future we’re being offered. Why teach a required art history course to twenty students at a time when you can march them through a self-guided online textbook followed by a multiple-choice exam? Why have professors or even graduate students grade papers when you can outsource them to BAs around the country, even the world? Why waste time with office hours when students can interact with their professors via e-mail?
The other great hope—I know you’ll never see this coming—is the market. After all, it works so well in healthcare, and we’re already trying it in primary and secondary education. Garland, a former president of Miami University of Ohio (a public institution), argues for a voucher system. Instead of giving money to schools, the state would give it to students, and the credit would be good at any nonprofit institution in the state—in other words, at private ones as well. The student would run the show (as the customer should, of course), scouring the market like a savvy consumer. Universities, in turn, “would compete with each other…by tailoring their course offerings, degree programs, student services, and extracurricular activities” to the needs of our newly empowered 18-year-olds, and the invisible hand would rain down its blessings.
But do we really want our higher education system redesigned by the self-identified needs of high school seniors? This is what the British are about to try, and in a country with one of Europe’s most distinguished intellectual traditions, they seem poised to destroy the liberal arts altogether. How much do 18-year-olds even know about what they want out of college? About not only what it can get them, but what it can give them? These are young people who don’t know what college is, who they are, who they might want to be—things you need a college education, and specifically a liberal arts education, to help you figure out.
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Yet the liberal arts, as we know, are dying. All the political and parental pressure is pushing in the other direction, toward the “practical,” narrowly conceived: the instrumental, the utilitarian, the immediately negotiable. Colleges and universities are moving away from the liberal arts toward professional, technical and vocational training. Last year, the State University of New York at Albany announced plans to close its departments of French, Italian, Russian, classics and theater—a wholesale slaughter of the humanities. When Garland enumerates the fields a state legislature might want to encourage its young people to enter, he lists “engineering, agriculture, nursing, math and science education, or any other area of state importance.” Apparently political science, philosophy, history and anthropology, among others, are not areas of state importance. Zemsky wants to consider reducing college to three years—meaning less time for young people to figure out what to study, to take courses in a wide range of disciplines, to explore, to mature, to think.
When politicians, from Barack Obama all the way down, talk about higher education, they talk almost exclusively about math and science. Indeed, technology creates the future. But it is not enough to create the future. We also need to organize it, as the social sciences enable us to do. We need to make sense of it, as the humanities enable us to do. A system of higher education that ignores the liberal arts, as Jonathan Cole points out in The Great American University (2009), is what they have in China, where they don’t want people to think about other ways to arrange society or other meanings than the authorized ones. A scientific education creates technologists. A liberal arts education creates citizens: people who can think broadly and critically about themselves and the world.
Yet of course it is precisely China—and Singapore, another great democracy—that the Obama administration holds up as the model to emulate in our new Sputnik moment. It’s funny; after the original Sputnik, we didn’t decide to become more like the Soviet Union. But we don’t possess that kind of confidence anymore.
There is a large, public debate right now about primary and secondary education. There is a smaller, less public debate about higher education. What I fail to understand is why they aren’t the same debate. We all know that students in elementary and high school learn best in small classrooms with the individualized attention of motivated teachers. It is the same in college. Education, it is said, is lighting a fire, not filling a bucket. The word comes from the Latin for “educe,” lead forth. Learning isn’t about downloading a certain quantity of information into your brain, as the proponents of online instruction seem to think. It is about the kind of interchange and incitement—the leading forth of new ideas and powers—that can happen only in a seminar. (“Seminar” being a fancy name for what every class already is from K–12.) It is labor-intensive; it is face-to-face; it is one-at-a-time.
The key finding of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift (2011), that a lot of kids aren’t learning much in college, comes as no surprise to me. The system is no longer set up to challenge them. If we’re going to make college an intellectually rigorous experience for the students who already go—still more, for all the ones we want to go if we’re going to reach the oft-repeated goal of universal postsecondary education, an objective that would double enrollments—we’re going to need a lot more teachers: well paid, institutionally supported, socially valued. As of 2003 there were about 400,000 tenure-track professors in the United States (as compared with about 6 million primary- and secondary-school teachers). Between reducing class sizes, reversing the shift to contingent labor and beefing up our college-completion rates, we’re going to need at least five times as many.
So where’s the money supposed to come from? It’s the same question we ask about the federal budget, and the answer is the same. We’re still a very wealthy country. There’s plenty of money, if we spend it on the right things. Just as we need to wrestle with the $700 billion gorilla of defense, so do universities need to take on administrative edema and extracurricular spending. We can start with presidential salaries. Universities, like corporations, claim they need to pay the going rate for top talent. The argument is not only dubious—whom exactly are they competing with for the services of these managerial titans, aside from one another?—it is beside the point. Academia is not supposed to be a place to get rich. If your ego can’t survive on less than $200,000 a year (on top of the prestige of a university presidency), you need to find another line of work. Once, there were academic leaders who put themselves forward as champions of social progress: people like Woodrow Wilson at Princeton in the 1900s; James Conant at Harvard in the 1940s; and Kingman Brewster at Yale, Clark Kerr at the University of California and Theodore Hesburgh at Notre Dame in the 1960s. What a statement it would make if the Ivy League presidents got together and announced that they were going to take an immediate 75 percent pay cut. What a way to restore academia’s moral prestige and demonstrate some leadership again.
But leadership will have to come from somewhere else, as well. Just as in society as a whole, the academic upper middle class needs to rethink its alliances. Its dignity will not survive forever if it doesn’t fight for that of everyone below it in the academic hierarchy. (“First they came for the graduate students, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a graduate student…”) For all its pretensions to public importance (every professor secretly thinks he’s a public intellectual), the professoriate is awfully quiet, essentially nonexistent as a collective voice. If academia is going to once again become a decent place to work, if our best young minds are going to be attracted back to the profession, if higher education is going to be reclaimed as part of the American promise, if teaching and research are going to make the country strong again, then professors need to get off their backsides and organize: department by department, institution to institution, state by state and across the nation as a whole. Tenured professors enjoy the strongest speech protections in society. It’s time they started using them.