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.
* Brooks praises Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, but discusses it only in passing.