U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Elephant Still in Room; Intelligent Observers Continue Not to Notice

In her Sunday post on pedagogy and U.S. intellectual history, Lauren linked to Louis Menand’s recent New Yorker piece on “why we have college,” and asked what we thought of it.

The Menand piece is thoughtful, interesting, and very much worth reading (like most of what Menand writes IMO).  In the course of reviewing two books on the (eternal) Crisis in American Higher Education®–Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift and Professor X’s In the Basement of the Ivory Tower–Menand considers some of the reasons we might (and do) give for why students ought to have a college education.

Menand considers three possible “theories”:  1) College courses are designed to distinguish the better students from the less good students in ways helpful to future employers hoping to hire the smartest workforce; 2) College courses are designed to teach students things about the world and themselves that they won’t discover anywhere else; 3) College courses are designed to pass on specialized information necessary to successfully pursue a career in today’s economy.  Menand labels these views meritocratic, democratic, and vocational.  He’s a proponent, incidentally, of Theory 2.

Menand’s article takes a slightly different approach from two other recent reviews of books on the higher-ed crisis–Peter Brooks’s March 29, 2011 New York Review of Books essay (which reviewed the Arum and Roksa book, among others) and Nicholas Dames’s April 13, 2011 n+1 essay (which reviewed Menand’s own Marketplace of Ideas, among other books)–that I blogged about in April (respectively here and here).  The Brooks and Dames reviews are much more focused on what professors do and don’t do (and should and shouldn’t be doing).  Menand’s essay focuses instead on what we–not only as professors but as a society–should expect post-secondary students to gain from their education.


But despite this very different focus, Menand shares a blind spot with Dames and Brooks.  He largely ignores what I continue to feel is the most important factor in the current edition of the crisis in American higher education: the changing structure of the American economy and our often irrational hopes for higher education in relation to it (to be fair: Brooks mentions larger economic structures but doesn’t sufficiently grapple with their meanings for higher ed; Dames, like Menand, doesn’t deal with them).

Here’s some of what I wrote on this topic in my post on the Brooks essay:

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.

Unlike Menand, I don’t think Americans can simply be asked to choose among Theories 1, 2, and 3.  We want our education simultaneously to reward merit, to be democratic, and to pass on specialized knowledge immediately helpful for young people entering the workforce. And we want these things especially fervently precisely because succeeding in today’s economy (let alone achieving the kind of intergenerational upward mobility that Americans expected in the mid-20th century) is so difficult.

Source for Image: http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph

A recent study by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke surveyed a representative online panel of Americans regarding the actual distribution of wealth in America today and their ideal distribution of wealth in a society.  The findings were striking: Americans believe that the distribution of wealth in our society is much more balanced than it actually is and would prefer it to be even more balanced still.  As Norton and Ariely put it, most Americans would rather live in a society whose distribution of wealth looks like Sweden’s than like their own country’s.  Of course, such a desire and the policies needed to achieve it are far beyond the fringes of our nation’s political debates.

In many ways, our arguments over education have been a very imperfect proxy for a serious discussion of the growing structural inequalities in our society….”very imperfect” because they rely on a fantasy that having everyone attend college can somehow transform–or at least overcome–that structure.

Just as common education is now often expected to substitute for the absence of welfare as we knew it, higher ed is now called upon to substitute for the much more democratically structured economy of the three decades immediately following the Great Depression.

And our discussions about higher education cannot reach serious or sensible conclusions unless we name the problem of the structure of our economic system and admit that higher education alone cannot produce a solution to it.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post, Ben. I would extend your discussion of higher education to public education more generally: Americans have long been overly optimistic about the promise and purpose of our schools. Even John Dewey’s writings on education, which I largely admire–and think Hofstadter was wrong about when he criticized them in “Anti-Intellectualism…”–hoped for too much from education. The whole (neoliberal) education reform movement, which the Obama administration pushes hard, seems to be a proxy for policies that might grapple with economic inequality. The Teach for America premise that the fight against educational inequality is the new civil rights movement is just plain stupid. Not that educational inequality isn’t a problem, as Jonathan Kozol so eloquently argues in his many books. But that we can expect economic equality to follow educational equity is specious. So I agree with you wholeheartedly, and then some.

  2. Thank you for naming the frustration I’ve had with discussions of higher education that I haven’t quite been able to name. The democratic approach to education seems to assume that all people can understand the same things. Menand mentions the importance of proper training for learning a lot from college, but my constant question is how to help the good, mediocre, and poor students, when it is easy to focus on the “mini-me’s” of our classes–those students who understand most things and are headed for graduate school. Perhaps this macro-discussion of higher education is not the most helpful for our micro-decisions about teaching.

  3. Another elephant still in the room is the recent and relentless application of “market democracy” ideology to the education establishment at all levels. Though we have incredibly idealistic dreams about education properly sorting merit and, paradoxically, increasing equality, we fail to recognize how student-teacher-administrator relationships have no market parallel. Admin-MBA types fail to understand their role as a buffer between rabid parents and the student-teacher/instructor/professor relationship (at all levels). And I perfectly understand how cost distortions have increased that bad dynamic. So the administrators (principals, deans, dept. chairs, presidents, superintendents, student advisors) mediate economic expectations rather than learning expectations/abilities.

    I’m somewhere between A and B on the theories, and heavily discount C. I’m a radical here in that I think C can and should be completely ignored by every party. Indeed, I firmly believe that the burden of job training should lie firmly with the employer—especially since that ignored cost allows them to whimsically move their labor base wherever they want. So we either have to embrace employer education expectations firmly and completely (which I believe distorts both democracy and education), or place the entire burden for job training on employers. To me, the purpose of public or private pre-employment education (K-16) should be training the mind for every imaginable task via good basic skills (i.e. liberal arts and sciences).

    This leads me to all sorts of radical ends: moving most all business courses out of higher edu (except those that deal with critical theories in fields—no practice/vocational stuff allowed), creating separate college sports institutions (that hold only loose affiliations with higher edu, sort of like frat/sorority corporations—accountable to a university, but not directly funded by it) that can only be funded by corporations (e.g. NFL, MLB, NBA, etc.), and on and on. In sum, all core monies sent to education institutions, whether by taxing entities (fed, state, local) or tuition, should be focused on teachers (full-timers), students, and a moderate number of administrators (part-timers who also teach at least one class per year).

    I’ll stop now. – TL

  4. Sorry for the johnny-come-lately comment here, but I have been grappling with Menand and — who else! — Rodgers lately in terms of what Tim mentions above: the transformation of the university, or at the very least of our metaphors about it, into the marketplace. But I am having trouble settling on the moment (historically speaking, meaning that a moment can take a while) when this (purported?) shift becomes noticeable.

    And so I am starting to wonder if part of this slipperiness may have to do with what Ben is getting at here, so that university-as-market is not a new development in the sense that it is but the latest manifestation of an underlying structural inequality.

    Ben, you seem to be suggesting that “the moment” I am looking for begins (roughly) in the 1960s, because that’s when the inequality began to be more pronounced. So now I am mulling over the extent to which the Culture Wars of the 60s were a response or a result or a prompt for this divergence. And then in light of that understanding what the heck am I to make of the CW of the 80s.

    I’m not asking you to solve that puzzle for me — though you’re welcome to try. Just thinking out loud.

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