Phi Beta Cons

The Secrets of Cambridge and Oxford

How have they avoided the ills that plague U.S. universities?

I doubt anyone involved in higher education in the United States will deny that Oxford and Cambridge in England are the sine qua non of universities. Yet, these two seats of excellent academics have not adopted the radical re-interpretation of curriculum that has reduced U.S. colleges and universities to politically correct, multicultural bastions of mediocrity in the fields of the liberal arts. So to what standard are American college “modernists” – or New Scholars, as they call themselves – aspiring? And how do they explain the perplexing irony that the worse they perform, the more their costs have increased?

Size matters. Oxford and Cambridge are universities in name only. Rather, each town is host to approximately 35 independent colleges, each with its own particular heritage, traditions, wine cellars, and self-esteem. An aspiring student applies to an individual college with small enrollment. Ten or so students meet in the offices of their tutor, who assigns reading  and suggested lectures. The tutor guides them with a steady hand through their undergraduate days, usually three years.

In the United States, top students apply either to a huge, amorphous university, or to one of the dozen elite small colleges that require a hefty tuition. Either route has become more and more costly. While Yale and Harvard and Princeton, and other small colleges, strive for small classes, the tuition bill is astronomical. Universities are less expensive but becoming more costly. These ever-growing schools, with their bigger and bigger classes and  less one-on-one instruction, are overladen with administrators and  have become – to coin a phrase – too big to fail  and impossible to manage efficiently.

And then there is the issue of tenure. Oxford and Cambridge colleges do not extend  tenure to fellows, tutors, or lecturers – called professors in America. This stark difference may explain a key reason why “Oxbridge” colleges maintain academic standards – and a strong dedication to the liberal arts – while  U.S. schools continue in their spiraling decline, signified by the politicization of the liberal arts, the course of study that separates the educated from the trained.

Egotistic tenured professors in the U.S. are invested in using their leisure to radicalize curriculum, when not focusing on benefits and sabbaticals. Compared to Oxbridge tutors, they perform half the work, forcing schools to hire new assistant and adjunct professors. Concomitantly, university and college bureaucracies grow like weeds, usually infected with the manifestos and doctrines of the all-powerful tenured radicals.

Of course, I will hear back that I overstate the decline of college education in the U. S. compared to Oxford and Cambridge. Detractors will point to studies that prove college graduates make far more money than non-college workers. Or that families still will sacrifice to assure their children are accepted in a “good school.” That point of view has truth behind it, if you see a college education as job training. Or if you think it is acceptable for college graduates to be uninformed about their own civilization and hold opinions that resemble the views of Young Pioneers in the old Soviet Union – as is the case with college students since the mid-1980s.

As U.S. colleges pursue contradictory paths – diversity and work skills  –  the Oxbridge tradition, which has succeeded brilliantly for 800 years, has been abandoned in the name of progressivism  and victimization studies. We once emulated the old traditions of rigorous immersion into intellectual reasoning, ethical decision-making, the ability to write clearly, speak properly, and imbue the mind with “knowledge” of history, literature, cultural arts and mathematical precision. The tenured radicals are to blame for this disaster.

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