Politics & Policy

Can Higher Education Be Saved?

Universities are expensive engines of propaganda and intolerance, and many non-academics are offering scholarly material free online.

America is schizophrenic about its major universities and, to a lesser extent, its undergraduate colleges.

On the one hand, higher education’s professional schools in medicine and business, as well as graduate and undergraduate programs in math, science, and engineering, are the world’s best. America dominates the lists of the top universities compiled in global surveys conducted from the United Kingdom to Japan.

On the other hand, the liberal arts and social sciences have long ago mostly lost their reputations. Go online to Amazon or to the local Barnes and Noble bookstore, and the books on literature, art, and history are often not the products of university professors and presses.

Few believe any more that current liberal-arts programs have prepared graduates to write persuasively and elegantly, to read critically and to think inductively while drawing on a wide body of literary, linguistic, historical, artistic, and philosophical knowledge. In fairness, that is no longer the aim of higher education. When students at tony colleges present petitions objecting to free speech or the right of guests to give lectures, they are usually full of grammatical errors and often incoherent.

Colleges, with some major exceptions (Hillsdale most preeminently), simply do not ensure the teaching of such skills any more. Of course, there remain wonderful classes, courageous deans who buck trends, and hardworking faculty who teach splendidly and have received modest compensation and little credit for their yeoman work. But they are a minority and a shrinking one at that.

By and large, the bachelor’s degree, even in a liberal-arts major, no longer certifies that a graduate will be able to read, reason, compute, or draw on a body of knowledge far more effectively than those without an undergraduate degree. The decline of the university has been an ongoing tragedy since the 1960s, but the erosion has accelerated because of ideological bias and its twin, incompetence. Here are five major recent and additional catalysts.

I. Debt

Students owe about $1.5 trillion in student loans, much of it at interest rates higher than those of contemporary mortgages. At least a half-trillion dollars cannot and won’t be paid back. It is hard to know whether unsustainable college mortgages are a reflection or a cause of university decline, or both.

But the crushing student debt plays a variety of pernicious roles in wider society. Students postpone marriage and child-rearing, a trend that is negatively affecting U.S. demography. Home ownership is put off, in favor of living at home in prolonged adolescence, ending the old idea of becoming an adult in one’s early twenties. Most of today’s pejoratives, such as “snowflake” or “social justice warrior,” originate from the reality that on-again-off-again college debt has arrested the development of adult men and women and consumed their twenties.

Much of the debt is due to federally guaranteed loans that were sold to students, and looked on by them, as a virtual loan—more as a grant not necessarily to be paid back. And universities saw the loan guarantee as a green light to jack up their costs higher than the annual rate of inflation. Thanks to such huge cash influxes into campuses, students got Club Med rec centers and well-appointed apartments, while administrators hired a costly legion of diversity and inclusion officers, whose chief duties were to monitor faculty thought, indoctrinate students, and protect their superiors from charges of intersectional racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism, and xenophobia. Perhaps the last hired diversity czar can turn out the lights at another insolvent private liberal-arts college.

Staggering student debt came at time when major research universities no longer measured their endowments and income in the millions, but in some cases the many billions. In other words, some institutions did very well, even as most students did not.

Any alumni donations that are not strictly targeted should be seen as a waste of philanthropy; they function like toxic drugs to an end-stage addict. And the most frightening idea for most elite academic socialists is that the government might tax endowments over $5 billion or adopt some sort of professional-sports nostrum in which the richest campus franchises must share with the poorest.

II. The Therapeutic Curriculum

Most college courses in literature and history — despite their sometimes anachronistic and traditional titles — focus on “diversity.” That is, they present a play or novel, or a past historical period or event, in terms of how it adversely portrayed or affected the poor, women, and minorities. The larger agenda is ideological: to instruct how the superior present can craft remedies to ensure that incorrect thinking and the biases throughout history and literature do not contaminate contemporary life and society.

What is often forgotten is that political correctness comes at a price of not learning a language, or reading the plays of Shakespeare, or mastering the basic outlines of the Civil War or World War II — given that for youth learning is so often a zero-sum game with only limited hours in the day for study and reading.

Today’s students, like their professors, not only do not possess, but feel no need to possess, familiarity with Thucydides, or Dante’s Inferno, or some idea of the Napoleonic Wars, or the work of T. S. Eliot. And at least one reason they do not is that teaching and reading these texts and studying complex histories are far more difficult tasks than various therapeutic -studies courses about prejudices, biases, and -isms and -ologies. Becoming woke is not the same as being educated. The former is easy and seeks the affirmation of the majority, the latter harder and often a lonely experience.

Finally, the morality of the curriculum is upside down. If the purpose of the contemporary university is to empower the marginalized and the previously discriminated against, then it would be hard to envision classes that could more deprive first-generation college students of the very analytic tools and knowledge that might ensure their success.

Two simple proposals — predicating the bachelor’s degree on an exit exam analogous to required admission tests, and allowing teachers to opt for an academic master’s degree in lieu of a teaching credential — would expose the current poverty of the curriculum. Perhaps half the nation’s graduates could not pass a basic exit exam in the arts and sciences. And, if given a choice, most would-be teachers would prefer studying for an academic M.A. to spending a year with the Ministry of Credentials.

III. Scholarship and the Internet

Higher education invests a huge fortune in faculty “development,” more specifically in sabbaticals, grants, teaching reductions, release time, accelerated promotions, cash prizes, and awards and merit raises to conduct research. In theory, such subsidies are a wise investment, even in the humanities and social sciences. The mostly unknown work of scholars supposedly expands the body of wisdom. Ideally, seemingly narrow, unheralded work finds its way into surveys and popular knowledge. Scholars become better teachers as they ground their classroom work with the facts and data of their own narrower investigations.

Moreover, scholarship benefits the larger public. For example, the tedious work of establishing accurate Linear B texts allows us to understand why Mycenaean civilization more or less mysteriously collapsed in the 13th century b.c. Using archival work to reconstruct the year-by-year lives of a Ulysses S. Grant or William Tecumseh Sherman allows biographers to provide the public with a richer appreciation of their complex careers. Thanks to scholarly and often underappreciated work, we have a more nuanced understanding of prior simplistic views, such as the notion that the Versailles Treaty was too punitive.

Yet as universities expanded, scholarship became deeply embedded in careerism and, in many cases, became scholastic nitpicking and, in other instances, abjectly political. Then came the Internet, which destroyed many academic hierarchies and brought the law of the arena into scholarly work. Rather than wait a year for a prestigious journal to peer-review a submission (supposedly blindly but more often not quite) and then, when published, to reach an audience of 20 to 30 fellow scholars, most academics could post anything on a blog and sometimes find an audience of hundreds if not thousands.

The absence of peer review, scholarly critique, and editorial intervention, of course, green-lighted incompetent work, but the majority thumbs-up/thumbs-down opinion of thousands of online readers also tended to glean some chaff from the wheat.

In sum, thousands of autodidacts and independent scholars are now publishing as they please, and often their ideas and research are as good as, or better than, the costly university bureaucracy of academic production. As we look back at the 75-year massive investment in post-war scholarly research, it is increasingly clear that, in our present age of over-specialization and postmodern partisanship, the results often no longer justify commensurate release time from teaching or the careerist rewards that “research” provides. Universities would be better off investing in part-time faculty to end the rank exploitation of those with provisional contracts.

IV. Online and For-Profit Courses

The Internet likewise destroyed lots of other protocols and, by extension, university titles and the notion of a mandarin class of Ivy League scholars and the sanctity of the campus. Not only do autodidacts freelance and post their lectures through free podcasts, but colleges themselves offer online classes. The faculty who most effectively can speak before a camera without notes and maintain anonymous audiences of thousands are not always the faculty who win traditional teaching awards and get fast-tracked through promotion.

For-profit “diploma mills” are laughed at by serious colleges on the rationale they offer neither “the college experience” nor a “broad education” but simply sell units of online certification in vocational skills, education, and business. But if the universities do not offer a rich liberal-arts curriculum that emphasizes literature, philosophy, and history, and if the modern campus is a cultural and political landmine where perhaps four of the ten amendments of the Bill of Rights do not apply, then millions will ask, Why pay for academia’s toxic bells and whistles?

Colleges have an argument to make that close interaction among faculty and students, the larger landscape of cultural opportunities available on a physical campus, and the ability to see and talk directly with an instructor inside a classroom are essential to an undergraduate experience, but they have not made that case. Instead, they have invalidated it by their very intolerance and warping of the curriculum.

V. Tenure

There should always be an argument for tenure given that administrators and academics are by nature timid and vindictive and will predictably bend to the mob’s demand to fire someone for saying something that someone else doesn’t like.

But the 80-year experience with widespread academic tenure suggests that it no longer encourages diverse views or protects freedom of speech — the university is now one of the most monolithic and ideologically repressive institutions in society. Moreover, at many state schools, nearly 40–50 percent of the courses offered are taught by part-time, non-tenured faculty, who enjoy no such career protection.

In sum, tenure has become a medieval caste system. It gives mandarins life-long career security without much post-tenure review or encouragement of diversity of thought, while simply writing off thousands of faculty helots as not worthy of commensurate career security. It could be easily replaced by five- or ten-year contracts, specifying teaching and research expectations without discriminating between part- and full-time faculty.

We are entering an age in which college, as we have understood that term, will no longer be assumed essential to becoming educated. And the number of colleges will shrink either because of consolidation, transformations to online institutions, or bankruptcy. The reasons for these existential changes are not just technology and economics but are found within the university itself. It broke its pact with the public to offer a disinterested and good education at an affordable price to the nation’s youth — and instead ended up doing precisely the opposite.


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