U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Some Thoughts on the Crisis in Higher Education (2011 Edition)

Like masculinity, higher education is apparently always in crisis in the United States.  The March 28, 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books featured what to me was an entirely sensible assessment by the Princeton literary scholar Peter Brooks of four books on higher education today, two of which were minor sensations last year: Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It and Mark Taylor’s Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (h/t for the link to the Brooks piece to bookforum.com).


Now to be fair, responding to Taylor and Hacker & Dreifus is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Their portraits of the university today seem transparently unfair; their solutions arbitrary and ill-conceived.  I’m not going to repeat the bill of particulars here. Those interested can read Brooks’s take on them, with which I feel wholly sympathetic.

Brooks essentially argues that there’s much more right than wrong in US higher education today, and that the principal challenges that our colleges and universities face come more from off-campus than from on:  a collapse in public funds for public institutions, leading to huge increases in student fees, and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in American society, which is mirrored on campus by an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots within higher education itself.

Along the way, he mounts a vigorous defense of tenure as not only required by academic freedom, but also as a key aspect of faculty self -governance:

if the body of permanently appointed professors is not to determine who merits appointment as professors, according to peer review of their competence and the prospect of their remaining active and engaged, who will? Who will do the hiring and the firing?

But while I’m entirely comfortable with my agreement with Brooks’s rejection of Taylor’s and Hacker & Dreifus’s prescriptions, there’s a side to me that’s a bit suspicious of my easy acceptance of Brooks’s essay.  To begin with, it strikes me as too defensive. While earlier crises in American higher education featured robust critiques from both left and right, for most of the last three decades, the voices of criticism from the right have been much louder.  And the responses to them from the left have often been oddly, well, conservative.

Brooks, to his credit, acknowledges that there are aspects of the academy today that merit real concern:

The affluence gap between Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, plus a few others, and the rest of the universities has indeed increased, and permits a degree of luxury to both students and faculty in those institutions that are the envy of the rest.  . . .

Meanwhile, many students who would previously have gone to a four-year college have to be content with a two-year community college, where faculty are typically underpaid and overworked. Even at many relatively more prosperous institutions, full-time tenured faculty—expensive and immovable—are being replaced by various temps and adjuncts. As in the rest of corporate America—and universities are increasingly corporate in their management style—a hungry and mobile labor force is considered desirable. There is in fact some evidence that increased access to higher education has simply perpetuated or even exacerbated social stratification since the educational “system” is itself so highly tiered, and expansion tends to come in lower tiers rather than the elites.

But these observation occur in Brooks’s piece in an odd context, as an explanation for what Brooks sees as the largely arbitrary concerns of the authors of three of the four books under review*:

The result, I think, is a fair measure of bafflement and ressentiment, resulting in a kind of indiscriminate flailing about in criticism of the university, some of it justified, much of it misdirected, and some pernicious.

Brooks is not wrong, I think, to link the concerns of Taylor, Hacker, and Dreifus–and the avid audience for them outside the academy–to larger social changes.  But his notion that these critics are merely confused by an unsettling time strikes me as punting an interesting and important intellectual historical story, one that Andrew Hartman is probably better suited to tell than I am.

Brooks notes the odd way in which critics simultaneously call for a return to the “Great Books” and demand that higher education more directly serve the post-college job market:

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.

Though this position is seemingly incoherent, both aspects of it seem to me to flow out of the waters of the culture wars of the last thirty years.

And the tendency to blame supposedly lazy, self-interested faculty (and the supposedly cushy conditions of their employment) for all the failings of higher education is closely paralleled by the tendency of the currently dominant sect of would-be reformers of public primary and secondary education, who blame teachers and their unions for all of public education’s ills.

Education is in a very strange place in this nation’s political culture today. On the one hand, with the very peculiar exception of the military, it is the only public institution whose efforts at improving individuals’ social status are seen as entirely legitimate.  On the other hand, as a result, our educational system is being asked to substitute for our denuded social safety net and for policies that might be designed to alter the structure of income and wealth in our society. The fantasy is that, even in a winner-take-all society, if we are all educated well, we can all be winners.  But when that fantasy inevitably fails, someone needs to blamed, or at least “held accountable.” And the most convenient targets are teachers and professors.

Of course professors are also among the exemplars of the “New Class,” that has been a bête noire among some quarters of the right for a couple generations.

Rather than representing ressentiment-tinged “flailing about,” the seemingly contradictory critiques of higher education today reflect a complicated but traceable heritage.

The other problem with Brooks’s treatment of the real, economic crisis that is hitting higher education–and especially public higher education–today is his sense that nothing can be done about it. So sure is Brooks of this sentiment that he expresses it almost parenthetically. And the sense that public education cannot be improved in the most meaningful way in which Brooks feels it might be improved not surprisingly underscores the basic defensiveness of his message:

I am not so much impressed by the faults and failings of the university—they are real enough, but largely the product of frightening trends toward inequality in American society that the universities can combat only to a limited degree. It’s more the survival of the university that amazes and concerns me. It’s one of the best things we’ve got, and at times—as when reading these books—it almost seems to me better than what we deserve.

As I say above, I admit there’s a side to me that feels very comfortable with this tone.  There’s a fairly delicious irony, I think, for those of us on the left to go to battle in a culture war as defenders of our nation’s established culture and institutions.  It’s also, however, a lot easier to do this than to try to really address the ways in which America’s growing social inequality affects academia. And it’s an (unfortunate) luxury of tenure that some of us can avoid such a confrontation.

So while Brooks’s argument feels in many ways more comfortable to me, the more difficult path of active, progressive reform proposed by folks like Marc Bousquet probably has more merit.    
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*  Brooks praises Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, but discusses it only in passing.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for taking on this subject. I was glad to see you mention Martha Nussbaum’s book. For the past two years, I’ve assigned an article from that text, “Education for Profit, Education for Freedom,” to students in my first year seminar so that they can see, and learn to articulate, the value of a liberal arts education:
    http://www.aacu.org/liberaleducation/le-su09/documents/LE-SU09_Nussbaum.pdf

    I was also delighted to see you mention Marc Bousquet, one of the most passionate and articulate defenders of academic workers. For anyone who would like to make a defense of academic pay scales, his article in the Minnesota Review does a nice job comparing the pay of a typical professor with that of a civil service employee:
    http://www.theminnesotareview.org/journal/ns7172/credos_bousquet.shtml

  2. Ben & Colleagues,

    Great post, as usual. There’s a lot of chew on here.

    The demands on higher education today are impossible to meet. As Ben noted in this excellent passage:

    “Education is in a very strange place in this nation’s political culture today. On the one hand, with the very peculiar exception of the military, it is the only public institution whose efforts at improving individuals’ social status are seen as entirely legitimate. On the other hand, as a result, our educational system is being asked to substitute for our denuded social safety net and for policies that might be designed to alter the structure of income and wealth in our society. The fantasy is that, even in a winner-take-all society, if we are all educated well, we can all be winners. But when that fantasy inevitably fails, someone needs to blamed, or at least ‘held accountable.’ And the most convenient targets are teachers and professors.”

    Let’s try to tease out as many of these contradictory demands as possible. I’ll include Ben’s and some of my own:

    1. Get the student a middle-class job, as well as help her/him avoid poverty (i.e. Ben’s point about vocationalism and the social safety net).
    2. Provide research that will keep America on the cutting edge of the global economy.
    3. Train the next generation of researchers while still conducting productive, innovative research.
    4. Fight anti-intellectualism always and everywhere in American culture.
    5. Assimilate educated immigrants (i.e. convince education immigrants to stay in America).
    6. Enable all American dreams (a kind of meta point in Ben’s paragraph).
    7. Remediate improperly educated secondary school students.
    8. Preserve the liberal arts (Ben’s point).
    9. Forward and preserve state pride via athletic excellence.
    10. Avoid all partisan politics, but enable solid citizenship (i.e. don’t discuss your politics or controversial political topics, even if it might provide an example of citizenship).
    11. Be 100 percent “objective,” though objectivity is devalued in politics and media today (and though objectivity is, philosophically speaking, next to impossible).
    12. Be assessed by conformist outcomes (e.g. standardized assessments that socialize students as professionals and critical thinkers) while also respecting individuality and creativity.
    13. Serve as an adjustment bureau for “emerging adults” while also treating each student as a full adult who may be called to die for her/his country.
    14. Teach students to navigate the present-day world while avoiding popular culture (e.g. trendy courses and current events) while also enforcing rote knowledge of old ideas presented in foreign (e.g. historical) languages/forms of expression (this goes to Ben’s point about respecting tradition via the great books).
    15. Teach at once how civilization is both progressing and regressing, to appease both sides of the political/social/religious coin.

    And I’m spent. What other tensions have I forgotten that have contributed to the ongoing crisis in higher education?

    – TL

  3. LD,

    Well played. Let’s add to my list:

    16. Provide outstanding customer service to students, parents, administrators, and trustees.
    17. Enable non-profit universities to operate with yearly “surpluses” (not profits, perish the word!) that may feed the endowment, but more likely enable over-paid administrators.
    18. Entertain your students while simultaneously educating them and holding them accountable.
    19. Instructors must look fit and attractive while teaching heavier workloads, turning out more research, and running themselves ragged with advising and recruiting tasks—all on a public servant’s salary while being incessantly reminded of the benefits of tenure as a “lifetime” contract.
    20. Maintain saintly, stoic “disinterest” while being personally and viciously attacked by partisans for being self-serving and politicized.

  4. Ben: Excellent post. And though I’m flattered in the way you called me out, you’ve captured the perplexities of Brooks’s positioning perfectly. There’s a seeming contradiction inherent in defending the humanities for their own sake, and in wanting the universities to act as an agent of social change. But perhaps this isn’t as contradictory upon second glance. Where everybody in the debate is wrong is in thinking the humanities ever had a heyday. US higher education has always been tilted towards vocationalism. Of course, more so now than ever, but I would say the humanities have never really set the agenda of higher education in any meaningful way. Perhaps in the Ivy Leagues, but not in the land grants. So, to paraphrase Gandhi (when he was asked his thoughts on western civilization: humanities, it’s a nice idea.

    Your post brings up one other interesting development. Although university professors have long been the bête noire of the right, and although teacher’s unions have likewise long been demonized, teachers for the most part have historically been placed on a pedestal (in paternalistic fashion, no doubt, but still). There was a sort of dual-level discourse: one directed at the abstract (teachers unions), and one at the particular (individual teachers whom everyone knew and liked from first-hand experience). But now, with the attack on public-sector employee pensions, I’m not so sure these discourses exist on different levels anymore. I’m hoping this backfires, because teachers are still very rooted in their communities.

  5. Thanks for all of your excellent comments!

    I just want to disagree (very slightly, I think) with one thing that Andrew says.

    While I agree that US higher education has always tended toward the vocational, there was at least a relative heyday of the humanities in the middle decades of the 20th century.

    In 1967, 17.4% of degrees were in the humanities. Over the course of the ’60s and ’70s the percentage of humanities majors declined sharply. Since 1990, the percentage has been around 8-9%.

    I mention this less because I think we ought to be celebrating the Sixties as a heyday (17.4% is a pretty modest heyday), but because these numbers (especially 1967 vs. today) are often presented by critics to suggest that there has been a recent decline in humanities majors. But in fact there’s been no decline for two decades.

    (I’m borrowing heavily here from this November 2010 Crooked Timber post by Michael Bérubé, who’s thought much more about this stuff than I have.)

  6. I have a slightly different, and longer-term, take on this statement by Andrew: “US higher education has always been tilted towards vocationalism.”

    This statement depends on the timeframe one draws upon, as well as how one defines “vocationalism,” the liberal arts, and humanism’s place in higher education. So let’s review a little higher education history.

    The land-grant colleges were specifically charged, from the outset, with providing both vocational skills and liberal learning. Here’s the relevant text from the Morrill Act of 1862 (bolds mine):

    “The endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

    The U.S. clearly enshrined the tension between vocational/practical learning and liberal arts in its land grant colleges. Policy-makers sought to split the difference between the emergent sciences, hopes for agricultural progress, and the old college ideal.

    But this was done in a context. Prior to Morrill, American higher education clearly favored the liberal arts (if not humanism precisely), but in a peculiar, somewhat medieval, fashion. The 1828 Yale Report spoke of an imperative to provide “discipline and furniture” for the mind. Here’s the quote:

    “The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge. The former of these is, perhaps, the more important of the two. A commanding object, therefore, in a collegiate course, should be, to call into daily and vigorous exercise the faculties of the student.”

    [continued below]

  7. [continued from above]

    Now if you define vocationalism in relation to vocation as a religious ideal, then I won’t argue against “vocationalism” as something that’s been around since the found of universities in the medieval period. But I’m pretty sure Andrew didn’t mean it in this sense.

    Returning to more recent history, when the land-grant universities were established, it was against a limited liberal arts model—to improve the horizons of higher education. And in that prior time frame (pre-Civil War), the professions of law, medicine, and engineering existed more as apprenticeships. They hadn’t infected undergraduate education with a professional focus. So I’d argue with a caveat that American higher education prior to the Civil War ~did~ promote liberal education, if in a flawed, one-sided, somewhat illiberal way—meaning the topics were a priority, but not the means of liberal education as conceived today (discussion, critical thinking).

    But then, in a twist (and in improvement I’d say) the American land-grant schools were unexpected influenced shortly after their founding by the great German university model. The German model began to affect American institutions in the 1870s, giving the imperative to the notions of Wissenschaft (investigation and writing) and Lehrfreiheit (pure learning). Those ideals pushed the land-grant model toward a kind of revised liberal arts and sciences ideal—one which still de-emphasized discipline and furniture, but also moved the land-grant schools away from practicalism (and hence vocationalism).

    So I think it is wrong to say that either vocationalism or the liberal arts, as we conceive of them today, have every really held sway in American higher education. During the colonial and antebellum period, American universities catered toward genteel expectations, meaning that higher education stocked the mind of young men so that they could properly condescend, and avoid being illiberal. Hoeveler rightly argues that politics were important in higher education, which of course implies thinking about policy practicality, but that doesn’t privilege vocationalism.

    I’m 99 percent sure you know all of this, Andrew, but I thought I’d make these points clear in relation to the longue durée of this discussion about “vocationalism” and the “liberal arts.”

    – TL

  8. Correction: On Hoeveler, let me restate the sentence—“In his 2002 book Creating the American Mind: Intellect and Politics in the Colonial Colleges, J. David Hoeveler rightly argues that politics were important in this early period, which of course implies thinking about policy practicality. But that doesn’t mean that vocationalism was a priority in colonial, early Republic, and antebellum colleges.”

  9. Ben and Tim: Thanks for calling attention to the specifics, which understood properly point towards humanities declension. I don’t deny that. I was being intentionally glib, perhaps, but I still maintain that humanities have never had a heyday in the sense that, say, Lynne Cheney contends, since her notion of an ideal humanities is tied up in a specific political vision of the American nation. And, as I think Ben, Tim, and Brooks make clear, even when the humanities were more prominent, class expectations were often (though, not always) tied to whether one’s education more or less vocational. I’d be interested in James Levy’s take on all of this, however, since his work argues against the grain that the vocationalism at the center of early 20c black institutions such as Tuskegee was more intellectual and liberal than historians usually assume.

  10. AH: Speaking of Ms. Cheney, I don’t want to be perceived—in any way—as arguing that she was correct in her historical assessment of the problem. I say this because I’m pretty sure that she didn’t have the “discipline and furniture of the mind” model in her head when she argued for a humanities heyday. Even if she meant a great books-based humanities heyday, I would say she was coloring the history of higher education in the post-World War II period in an overly broad fashion based on the curricula of a few colleges who embraced the great books ideal as a general education or honors program. That model had some significant influence from 1945 to maybe 1970, but it was never all-encompassing, either in the sense of the general higher education landscape or even at elite schools. In this way I agree with some (but not all) of Lawrence Levine’s rebuke in his 1996 historical-polemical book, The Opening of the American Mind. – TL

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