All posts by Herb London

Herb London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.

What Are Students Obliged To Read?

What do college students read? According to one survey Shades of Gray, the sado-masochistic novel, was the most widely read book outside the classroom. Another survey indicated that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, dealing with her battle with cancer and racial grievance, was the most popular book.

But as the recent publication of the National Association of Scholars (Beach Books: 2012-2013: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?) suggests most common reading assignments are recent books with a political theme. Classics are rarely assigned.

The common reading program serves as substitute for a common core since the core curriculum went the way of the abacus. Colleges typically assign a book as a theme which is meant to spur discussion, “a way to initiate new students.” In a sense the common reading is an expression of values, values of the college and values the faculty thinks students should imbibe. Since the college as community has virtually disappeared, common reading assignments are thought to fill the void.

So called “social action” and “social justice” books are very much in vogue such as The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing Our Planet, Our Communities and Our Health – and A Vision for Change. Books that explicitly focus on racial divisions invariably make the list of common reading assignments, albeit the classics, even those that explore grievance, tend to be ignored.

As the NAS report notes, the explanation often given for the lack of classics is that these books are to be found in the regular curriculum. However, this claim is not true. With the exception of a few institutions like Columbia and St. John’s College, books of enduring philosophical and literary value are rarely assigned. In some colleges, English majors aren’t required to read Shakespeare. In other colleges, political science majors aren’t required to read Plato.

Some scholars argue students aren’t prepared to read books with rigor. Alas, that may be true, but isn’t a college designed to take students out of their comfort zone, to challenge their intellect? If not, what is the purpose of the four year program?

The purpose behind common reading may be worthy. After all, encouraging campus-wide discussion can build community consciousness. However, common readings are not a common core and the books selected are often designed to proselytize, to glorify “green” or disparage the market economy, or emphasize racial division. Instead of raising universal questions, the common readings are usually narrow and parochial.

Higher education has become a thicket of each student charting his course of study through 300 pages of the university catalogue. Professors are increasingly focused on their own narrow area of study and refuse to assume responsibility for a common core. As a consequence, administrators can point to common readings as the community catalyst.

In fact, if common readings are required, why not assign books above students’ heads? Books that employ elegant language can serve as writing samples. And books that force genuine introspection about the human condition we share can be both uplifting and intellectually satisfying. It is not necessary to pander to students, nor is it reasonable to impose a political agenda.

If the university is a place to explore, if to educate is a reflexive verb, open the doors of Academe to a variety of viewpoints. Green trees are wonderful, but so is air conditioning in the desert. Sustainability has its virtues, but does it mean we should return to the Stone Age? Common readings should have a common purpose: to transmit the best of our culture, to open our eyes to the human experience, to learn what we don’t know and to seek the truth however illusory it may be. That is a common conversation worth having and from my point of view the only worthwhile conversation in the corridors of higher learning.

Race on Campus As Seen By President Bollinger

Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, gave voice to what is now a standard appeal for diversity in American institutions of higher learning on the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 5, 2013). Challenging Justice Clarence Thomas’ claim that there is “no principled distinction between the University’s assertion that diversity yields educational benefits and the segregationists’ assertion that segregation yielded those same benefits,” Bollinger avers that not only is there a distinction, but that diversity is consistent with the educational mission of the nation.

He asserts, without empirical evidence, that “students learn better in educational environments that confront them with people who are, or whom they perceive to be, different.” In fact, study after study demonstrates that racial and ethnic diversity on campus hasn’t any relationship to cognitive development. Some students do contend that confronting classmates from different backgrounds may be a rewarding dimension of the college experience, but that claim in itself doesn’t prove diversity enhances learning opportunity.

Mr. Bollinger goes on to cite the way we educate our children in overcoming “two centuries of slavery and another hundred years of Jim Crow laws” is an historic yardstick. Of course, there is a need to repudiate slavery and Jim Crow, but is the application of race admissions to colleges the way to do it? Because a college has a mixture of racial and ethnic groups on campus does not ensure the integration Bollinger glibly asserts. In a visit to a cafeteria at Columbia, I noticed that two tables were occupied by black students without the presence of one white person. That, in itself, is an insufficient example from which to draw any conclusion, but it does raise questions about the assumption undergirding racial diversity.

The recent Fisher case, which sidestepped the issue of affirmative action leaving it to lower courts to decide its veracity, will force universities to consider criteria for arriving at the conclusion diversity should be an essential feature of higher education. To be sure, Columbia and most elite institutions examine a kaleidoscope of talents and backgrounds in making admissions decisions. Since race is presumably one of those factors, perhaps religion might be another. How many born-again Christians are among the recently constructed admissions’ class? Moreover, if diversity is the goal, has an effort been made to identify conservatives whose point of view may be different from President Bollinger’s?

In his article Mr. Bollinger attempts to connect “the educational benefits” of diversity with the ideals in the Constitution. Alas, Bollinger ignores the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments that contend we are equal before the law and should be treated equally without the application of race as a handicap or an advantage. He concludes with the hyperbolic claim that “what we have not achieved, and need desperately to have, are more decisions with heart – conveying the essence of why it matters to the broader moral and social needs of the nation.”

Here again, I take exception. What we need are decisions that rely on our “head,” on the essence of fair play and why it matters that a university – as a contributor to the nation’s moral foundation – understands that disparate admission standards based on race violate the basic principles of this nation and are wholly inconsistent with our social needs.

London’s Three Laws

For forty years I labored in the groves of Academe as professor and dean. Though I learned many lessons in this four decade period, three of them are worth noting.

NYU, the place I called academic home, transformed itself from a “commuter school” into a “world class university” with campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai and with students attending from every corner of the globe. Clearly reputations count, but questions emerges from this change: do the proliferation of “portals” influence the quality of the offerings? Is more better? And can one argue that having “academic stars” on and off campus, who rarely teach, benefit the academic enterprise?

Second, the Academy in general has gone through a metamorphosis. Despite a claim to fairness and openness which is ubiquitous across the academic landscape, most campuses have acquired an orthodoxy that is rarely challenged. It would be hard to espouse much less gain acceptance for ideas like Christian belief adherence, sexual abstinence, dominion over nature, pro-life acceptance, opposition to gay marriage, Absolute Truth, to cite several examples. Should one challenge the orthodoxy, tenure is likely to be denied and chastisement, in the form of rejection, likely to follow.

While liberal views prevailed at most campuses before the 1960’s, there was a willingness to entertain “other,” oppositional points of view – a reason why I sought a career in academic life in the first place – that standard is no longer the case. The outrage displayed over McCarthyite imposed conformity in the 1950’s has been converted into the acceptance of the herd of independent thinkers who populate the campus today.

Last, arguably the most profound change, is the evolutionary belief that everyone should go to college. It is as if George Washington Carver, who argued for practical skills, lost a debate to W.E.B Dubois, who maintained a belief in higher learning for African Americans, except that this debate occurred on the national stage for all Americans. Mass higher education has changed the face of the Academy in several respects. Not only is “diversity” the calling card for admissions’ officers, but government spending has exploded. Higher education has close to a $500 billion annual price tag attached to it and student loans are presently $690 billion (roughly $25,000 per student).

By contrast in 1970 Pell grants didn’t exist and student loans in the aggregate were at $7 billion. Now President Obama contends every American should commit to at least one year of post-secondary education. Who will pay this bill and what are the intended and unintended consequences of enjoining his proposal?

Obviously the bills will be absorbed by taxpayers in one way or another and Obama’s intention is to offer opportunity for Americans in pursuit of employment. However, the unintended consequences are far more revealing.

As Bill Bennett (Bennett’s Hypothesis) noted, increased government expenditures lead inexorably to increases in tuition, a cycle that leads to a need for more financial assistance. I contend, in what might be described as London’s Law, that easily available money for higher education in the form of Title 4 grants and Stafford loans has democratized education, creating the impression everyone can and should go to college. The net effect is that many unqualified students enroll and rigorous academic standards have suffered. Instruction gravitates to the level of visible ability, thereby lowering standards across the board. Hence, easy money yields less intelligence than would otherwise be the case.

Yes, almost every professor over 50 would agree with this proposition, but it cannot be said. Nor is it easy to claim college isn’t for everyone. It isn’t, but try telling that to grandma who wants to see a grandchild with parchment in hand. This condition alone explains in large part why a nation with a 7.5 percent unemployment rate will soon have 1.5 million well paid computer engineering jobs left unfilled. We don’t produce students with the skills for these positions; we don’t maintain rigorous standards and we spend too much for too little received in the way of performance outcomes.

The Payoff For a College Degree

It’s clear that the return on the investment in a college education isn’t as promising as it once was. To that end, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently wondered how to “assess the real payoff of a college degree.” Answering this question necessitates defining higher education’s purpose.

If one attends college simply hoping for an economic return on their investment, then colleges are clearly failing. With jobs now in short supply, there is a growing disconnect between degrees and employment opportunities. At private colleges where the tab often exceeds $50,000 a year, tuition and other expenses are so steep that one might need to wait twenty years before one sees a real return on their investment. Based on this economic cost-benefit analysis, one could argue that a liberal arts education is impractical. Moreover, given the disappearance of academic standards in the humanities, one could even say that a liberal arts education is worthless.

As I see it, the discussion on the investment in higher education makes some sense since the costs seemingly outstrip the benefits. Yet it would be a mistake, in my judgment, to assume this is the be all and end all of an evaluation. Higher education should be more than a rite of passage or a ticket to employment. It should involve more than the ritualistic call for personal growth Higher education must also concern itself with transmission of the intellectual tradition that undergirds Western civilization.

If there is growing cynicism about higher education, it is because many now know that the four years of “study” often involve banal subjects and bacchanalian pleasure. Educators have lost perspective, and the academy is adrift in a sea of empty. As such, higher education provides no guide for students’ future.

The MOOC Revolution Continues

It is difficult to know if MOOCs (Massive
Open Online Courses) are a conspiracy to undermine the academy or a way to open
the avenues of higher education. However one sees it, though, a revolution is
certainly taking place: millions of people are already taking on-line courses.

It seems that the U.S. Department of
Education is helping to move the revolution along. According to a missive sent
college officials, schools can now award federal student aid on the basis of
“competencies” rather than credit hours accumulated. To that end, Southern New
Hampshire University’s request to award aid based on the direct assessment of
student learning is poised for approval. While this option has existed since
2005, it hasn’t been employed until now.

This is a major step forward. If competency-based
education catches on for student aid, it may well have broad effects. After
all, obtaining a college degree currently requires accumulating about 128
credits. If degrees reflected demonstrated competencies rather than “seat
time,” the college degree would actually prove useful for potential
employers.  Likewise, if “competency” becomes the new goal of college
education, more students will enroll in non-traditional institutions where they
can obtain useful skills at a fraction of the cost of traditional options. If
the trend towards demonstrated competencies continued, expect to see greater
movement towards the MOOCs.

The Market Can Cure Higher-Ed’s Ailments

Most reasonable people realize that the tuition bubble is bound to burst. On line courses are altering the university landscape, reducing costs and the need for brick-and-mortar settings. Moreover, despite President Obama’s call for additional student aid, Washington’s support for higher education is bound to wane in this period of economic exigency.

Student aid is a dicey proposition organized by government loans and needs-based grants. In many instances funding decisions are arbitrary. Suppose, however, that there was a human capital fund treated exactly like the stock market where students can gain access to capital by investing in their future, i.e. making a bet on their success 

For example, the student studying acting probably has a limited financial basis for success and, as a consequence, must pay a premium to borrow from the fund. By contrast, the chemical engineering student might pay a lower interest rate for his tuition loan since the market signals his brighter financial future.  

Undergirding the market is a capital asset fund that receives monthly payments from graduates Such a market-based approach would add efficiency into a basically inefficient system. It would also remove the government from its present role as loan officer and banker for the higher education system.

President Obama often discusses ways to promote college education. He waxes lyrical about his College Scorecard to reduce the “soaring cost of higher education,” but avoids proposing fundamental changes that could reduce the expense burden.

It may well be that historical forces, namely technological innovation, will inevitably bring about the bursting of the education bubble. However, there is a way to reduce the pain now and the president and his education advisers would be well advised to consider it. Markets tend to work because they are sensitive to supply and demand coefficients. Their application in higher education could reveal a great deal about funding mistakes and opportunities for efficient design in the future. 

Why Great Books?

In the January 2013 issue of First Things, Professor Patrick Deneen contends that the decline in the study of great books is to be found in the very arguments within the great books themselves.

While these arguments do exist, their role and the extent of their influence, is difficult to assess.  Admittedly the reflexive use of “critical thinking” as an argument for the study of great books is absurd since no one quite knows what it is or how to achieve it.  Moreover, the essence of any thinking is related to a knowledge core and experience base.  Without these conditions “critical thinking” is merely one more cliché in the armory of academic rhetoric.

John Dewey argued that the reading of great books is essential as a preparation for citizenship.  But since his view of citizenship is an individual circumscribed by “the collective,” the readings are designed to justify an end, not as an open-ended dialogue.

Then there is the view that great books leads inextricably to a humanitarian stance, a hallmark civilizational insight.  Yet Joseph Mengele, the butcher of Nazi depravity, was a scholar of classic texts.  Books can make a world and can destroy the world or even be irrelevant to the world.  Great books have housed within them the treasure of human wisdom, but it is not revealed by simple reading.  Are there books designed to perpetuate virtue or to transform education?  This bifurcated model offered by Professor Deneen is a useful concept.  For if one accepts the latter stance of transformation,  great books may be an encumbrance best displaced at the heart of education.

Deneen concludes by suggesting we consider “humble books, or at least great books that  teach humility, in contrast to those great books that advance a version of Promethean greatness, an aspiration that has undermined the study of books.”  What is called for ultimately is a “liberation from the tyranny of our unconscious submission to the ideas that dominate our age by considering others that have been discarded.”

Clearly this is praise, albeit modest praise, for “humble books” as a witness for where we stand at the moment.  But I remain unpersuaded by his argument, in part because Deneen does not truly address the importance of great books in the total educational experience.  His is right to contend these texts do not necessarily mold citizens, or encourage critical thought or offer civilizational insights.  These are weak confirmations for great books as an educational core.

What is important, what stands as the justification for great books, is that the canon asks the appropriate questions, questions that as Cardinal Newman noted, go to the very essence of education.  Instead of being narrowly defined by disciplinary restrictions, great books cut across the human experience to ask, why are we here;  how do we leave our mark; how do we control inner desire; to whom do we owe allegiance and why and recognizing the derision of death, what gives life meaning.

These, of course, are not the only questions, but they are queries unfastened to disciplinary study.  Moreover, these are questions designed to inspire thought, not  simple answers since those aren’t readily available.  In a university setting, where vocationalism is in the ascendency, a place where students often regurgitate the anticipated response to professional testing, questions that provoke are rarely on display.

Yet it is the questions that lie at the heart of the curriculum and it is the questions that are evoked from the reading of great books.  Professor Deneen appropriately tells us to moderate our claims about these texts.  I would agree; yet I would urge him to consider the real reason these books should remain at the very center of the curriculum.  In education, the question is often more significant than the answer.

Haters of the Constitution Speak Up

Members of the academy usually display their anti-American sentiment by promoting multiculturalism. Rarely, however, does their critique involve the Constitution itself. To be sure, one can reasonably argue that Supreme Court justices have overstepped their authority or mistaken various clauses. However, Georgetown University professor Louis Michael Seidman wonders whether we should obey the Constitution at all.                                                                                                                               

In his new book  On Constitutional Disobedience, Professor Seidman contends that since we have a different framework from the framers of the Constitution, we are under no obligation to adhere to its provisions. As he sees it, invoking Constitutional arguments detracts from the merits of an issue and is usually “profoundly beside the point.”

Seidman quite clearly belongs to the university club that attributes the dysfunction of government to the Constitution’s role in public life, e.g. free speech and gun control. He maintains that the political theory undergirding the Constitution was a product of another time and is thereby “weird, if not actually repugnant.” He refers specifically to the denial of rights to women, nonwhites and those without property. As he notes: “I do think what we’re talking about here is cultural change. America is at a stage where there is a growing realization that a lot of constitutional law is empty posturing.”

Alas, Professor Seidman is probably right about that point. Where he is not right is in assuming the Constitution is irrelevant or an impediment to the resolution of contemporary issues. The strength of this 23- page document is in its recognition of human frailty.  

The Founders, relying on a combination of Original Sin and Augustinian assumptions, wrote a document that assumes mankind is not comprised of angels. Therefore the institutions of state should rely on a balance of power, authority vested in each branch of government that curtails the influence of the others. Whether Seidman thinks so or not, this position is axiomatic. It is not restricted to time and place, but directs attention to a universal theme.

Assuredly the Constitution is a document related to its time. But the resilience built into its provisions has allowed for issues like women’s rights to be redressed. Similarly, Seidman assumes that the Constitution is a hopelessly anachronistic document that doesn’t speak cogently to the problems we must now confront. Yet it is precisely the genius and flexibility inherent in it that contributes to public debate and adjudication of problems.  

At the risk of logical extension, Seidman represents a breed of left-wing faculty members who contend it is time to change the rules that govern the nation. Presumably it is this group that is prepared to lead us to a new and more desirable promised land. This is not merely the Constitution, as “living document,” tortured by interpretation. This is disobedience, a refusal to employ the Constitution as the boundary in public discourse and national governance.

What is overlooked in this critique is that in calling for disobedience, these professors are advocating a form of anarchy. They would contend, of course, that natural factors such as common sense and local legislation will fill the political vacuum. Perhaps. Since one can perceive a deterioration of common-sensical reactions to public issues, I am not as sanguine as the left-wing professoriate about Constitutional disobedience. Nor am I persuaded that there exists a group of people steeped in the laws of human behavior and biblical prescriptions who can create the contours of effective rules for this republic. It may surprise many in university life, but this nation was blessed to have the Constitution bestowed on it. It is a gift that keeps on giving, even if many of its beneficiaries don’t realize it.

When Points Destroy The Game

In 1956 my Jamaica high school basketball
team played Far Rockaway, a league rival. At the end of the first quarter I had
19 points and our team was ahead by twenty. The result of the game was already
determined. I felt confident of breaking the school scoring record and perhaps
the city record as well, but to my dismay the coach took me out of the game. I
was furious. Yet in retrospect, he was right.

Had I broken the school record, it would have
come at the expense of a marginal team. Moreover, it would have embarrassed the
other players. My coach understood what I did not.

Now we hear the story of Grinnell College
sophomore guard named Jack Taylor who scored 138 points in a recent game
against First Baptist Bible College. While this point total obliterated the
college record and even pro stars like LeBron James are eager to see the video
tape, I find this story depressing. Why didn’t Grinnell’s coach, David Arsenault
bench his star player who took 108 shots – missing 56 – in a game won by 75 points?

The once decent standard of not embarrassing
a rival has been interred along with giving bench-warmers a chance to play in a
one sided victory. “Kicking” an opponent when he is down was something college
athletes were once told to avoid. That, of course, was yesteryear when
competition counted and records were set that had real meaning.

As I see it, there isn’t anything reasonable
about one player taking 108 shots in a game whose outcome was not in question.
Whatever happened to sportsmanship in college sports? Instead of applauding
this performance as television hosts have, it should be criticized. Imagine
“pressing” all game in a 75 point margin of victory.

During college basketball and football games,
there is the ritualistic suggestion by the NCAA that athletics build character.
After this performance at Grinnell that bromide should be a source of
embarrassment. It is bad enough that players routinely preen in front of the
television camera after a dunk. It is sickening to hear players curse at one
another and engage in verbal intimidation. Exploiting weak athletes by piling
on is yet the latest perversion in college sports. My guess is Jack Taylor will
be a model, a source of emulation. And a coach, who should know better, is also
likely to represent a new bench standard.

College basketball is a game that can build
character when talented players restrain personal ambition for team goals. It
happened last season at Kentucky with six teammates drafted into the professional
ranks. Of course, at Kentucky academic life is a meaningless after thought
since what happens on the hardwood is all that counts. Yet Coach Calipari,
despite his reputation for challenging academic standards, does teach something
about team play.

Jack Taylor, by all appearances, seems to be
a sensible young man. Perhaps he is embarrassed by all the attention. He should
be. The game in this instance was converted into a gladiatorial event with the
opposition gored into submission. Some may call that basketball; I call it

My Teacher, Jacques Barzun

was fortunate to know Jacques Barzun as both a teacher and colleague.
Jacques changed my life from basketball jock to library denizen. So
intoxicated was I by the Trilling-Barzun seminar that I wanted to speak French,
dress like Jacques, and write literate cultural essays about every topic the
mind could conjure. I was hooked, a true Barzun apostle.

later, in 1992, he asked me to write the introduction to the reissued
version of The American University (1967).
I assumed this would be a four- or five-page exercise completed in a few
days. Little did I know. Jacques insisted that I write a history of the
university from ’67 to ’92, a far more formidable task than I anticipated.
However, the opportunity to work with him was a privilege I will never forget.
Once again, he was my instructor forcing me to justify every word. He was a
rigorous taskmaster, demanding but kind.

so many respects Jacques Barzun was a model of erudition, common sense and
breathtaking knowledge. Whatever modest attainments I have achieved are due in
no small part to this extraordinary man who was teacher, friend and confidante. 

The Online Ban in Minnesota

The State of Minnesota has cracked down on free on-line courses offered by Coursera, founded by Stanford computer science professors. A spokesman for the state’s office of Higher Education said that Minnesota is simply “enforcing a longstanding state law requiring colleges to get the government’s permission to offer instruction within its borders.”

How this state law can be enforced is unclear since the ban is meaningless in cyberspace unless, of course, Minnesota authorities decide to act like Chinese politburo officials. Moreover, Coursera isn’t offering degrees – only classes.

Presumably you can exchange ideas on Facebook or Twitter, but should you decide to review Coursera material on macroeconomics, for example, the strong arm of authorities will take hold. This is mind-numbing. It may make sense for higher education authorities to monitor degree granting programs, but Coursera courses do not have degree implications.

In some respects this absurd state response is comparable to horse-owners opposing the first tractors. Whether Minnesota likes it or not, on-line education is here to stay, calling into question the traditional delivery of education and the competence standards associated with a degree. If one relies on Richard Arum and Josipa Ruksa’s conclusion in Academically Adrift, most college students don’t learn much during four years on campus. At the same time, the cost of tuition has reached a break point for most middle-class families.  

Clearly the market is demanding an alternative. On-line education is filling an obvious need. It is inexpensive and in theory can be at least as rigorous as traditional education purports to be. 

An Appeal for For-Profit Education

I chair the Governing Board at Grantham University in Kansas City, Missouri, an on-line, for-profit institution. Grantham diverges from Congress’ caricature of for-profits. More than ninety percent of its students have a military background; in fact, most of these students remain in active service as they pursue their degrees. Most are also first generation college enrollers. The average age of the student population is thirty and a disproportionate number are African-American or Hispanic.                                                                               

One might assume – as many in the Congress do – that Grantham is a “matchbook cover” institution offering undemanding programs and disdain for academic integrity, but nothing could be further from the truth. Though standards for admission are not up to the Ivy League’s requirements, the exit requirements are rigorous. Of course, not every student thrives. However, after considering high school grades and SAT scores, students’ success rates defy expectations.         

At last year’s Grantham commencement I observed families crying uncontrollably as their loved ones rose to accept diplomas. This wasn’t like any graduation I experienced in my 35 year academic career. Children, parents and grandparents participated in a poignant scene. For most of those present, their for-profit degree represented a pathway to a promising future.                     

There is yet another good reason to support for-profit education. Non-profit universities tend to ignore sound business practices because demand for their degrees has been inelastic. Therefore, university officials have no concept of efficiency. Having been a professor and dean at a private institution, I can confirm the existence of widespread waste, duplication, and inordinate expense on student entertainment. Higher tuition has not adversely affected student enrollment; hence, the price of college tends to be arbitrary.    

While it is true that for-profit institutions might prioritize profit over quality education, profit isn’t a dirty word when it imposes restraints on non-essential spending. For-profits’ responsibility to stockholders means that lavish, unnecessary expenditures are unacceptable. Accordingly, for-profits don’t offer the amenities that increase student satisfaction but have little impact on student success. Unlike their spendthrift peers in the non-profit world, for-profits have no sports teams, bowling alleys, or student lounges.            

If one were to establish a university de novo one wouldn’t invest in bricks and mortar. It is not coincidental that Governors’ University, organized by the governors of western states, is an on-line program. With the nominal cost of higher education beyond the reach of average income earners and explosion of student debt, on-line education will become an increasingly attractive option for both the consumers and producers of higher education. Even elite private institutions are already offering a full array of online courses.

Stereotypes die hard, so it will undoubtedly take a crisis for meaningful change to occur. With the college tuition bubble about to burst, that crisis is just over the horizon. In short order, the for-profit, on-line institution will look like a reasonable educational alternative for students, parents, and politicians who have thrown vast sums at traditional institutions of higher learning.

Rankings and Grades–Two Inflated Currencies

Although high school students applying to colleges invariably rely on college ranking guides as a primary source of information, these guides are often misleading and, in most cases, counterproductive. Frederick Hess and Faryn Hochleitner at the American Enterprise Institute (College Rankings Inflation: Are You Overpaying for Prestige) AEI, 5/24/12 contend “the ranks of the top tier schools are growing without any evidence that these schools’ instructional quality is increasing.”

Continue reading Rankings and Grades–Two Inflated Currencies

Why Didn’t Harvard Say No to Bo?

By any standard, including the misguided behavior of Western elitists, Bo Guagua is a bon vivant with a penchant for sports cars, equestrian sports, alcohol and women. His father Bo Xilai, faces charges in China of corruption and abuse of power in what has become a case receiving worldwide attention. His mother, Gu Kailai, is accused of murdering a British businessman who was allegedly her lover. And now his father is accused of wiretapping top officials. This has all the earmarks of a tabloid story that keeps giving.

Continue reading Why Didn’t Harvard Say No to Bo?

Scholars Who Are Beyond Open-Mindedness

A phenomenon is taking hold in universities on both sides of the Atlantic. For lack of a better label, I call it the Absolute Truth brigade, i.e. intellectuals so sure of their views that they will not entertain contrary thought.

Friedrich Hayek used the following quote from David Hume on the front page of The Road to Serfdom: “It is seldom that any kind of liberty is lost all at once.” He did so to indicate the threat to freedom in our era. But despite the passage of seven decades since the publication of Hayek’s masterpiece, the words are not heeded.

Continue reading Scholars Who Are Beyond Open-Mindedness

What Does a High Graduation Rate Prove?

A mantra fills the airways from the White House to the NCAA and from there to California governor’s mansion: keep graduating students from American colleges and universities. Keep the system of higher education humming. But what precisely does a graduate rate measure other than the completion of thirty, perhaps 32, courses whose quality is unknown and whose instructors have varied talents?

Continue reading What Does a High Graduation Rate Prove?

Let the Free Market Set College Tuition

When President
Obama talked about unaffordable college tuition, he failed to point out that
federal subsidies are responsible for much of the unaffordability. In his State
of the Union message, he said, “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the
funding you get from taxpayers will go down.” However, since tuition is
dependent on federal aid, it cannot remain stable or go down unless federal aid
is reduced.

Continue reading Let the Free Market Set College Tuition

What Has Happened to Academic Freedom?

Dr. London, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute, received the Jeane Kirkpatrick Award for Academic Freedom on February 9 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the American Conservative Union Foundation. These were his remarks on the occasion.

It is with enormous humility and gratitude that I accept this award from the Bradley Foundation that has done so much to promote liberty inside and outside the Academy. I am particularly pleased to receive the Jeane Kirkpatrick Award since I remember with great joy our discussion of her very important essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which appeared in the November 1979 issue of Commentary.

To think that this distinguished scholar would be denied an opportunity to speak at American colleges demonstrates how far we have traveled down the slope of despair. Jeane fought back with her arsenal of well-placed barbs and could not be intimidated by academic thuggery. She will always remain one of my heroines.

This introduction is a reminder of why academic freedom must be defended and what it stands for. In 1940 the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” As the AAUP saw it, academic freedom was a right and a privilege. It afforded scholars the opportunity to express their views freely, applying standards of critical judgment, objectivity, sincere inquiry.

This right to express one’s views unfettered by outside influence is unique. It is one of the two essential characteristics of academic freedom. The first of these is what the German gymnasium called lehrfreiheit. In offering this freedom, the Academy noted that teaching should foster integrity, a spirit of inquiry, and competence in one’s field of study. Some might describe it as the search for truth circumscribed by ethical standards.

The second feature of academic freedom is lernfreiheit, or the right of a student to express himself free from intimidation. Here is the presumptive classroom synergy: professorial freedom to inquire and student freedom to express opinions.

It is a privilege for the Academy to claim it is imperium in imperio. Since colleges are set apart from society, there is an implicit belief in self-regulation. Presumably just as the scholar can resist intervention from critics, the professoriate in general can resist pressures from the larger society, a form of collective academic freedom. That reality was recognized with some aberrations throughout this last century.

Now, however, there is a growing awareness, and I should hastily note an appropriate awareness, that academic freedom can be used to protect irresponsible behavior. In fact, for some faculty members, academic freedom has been so defined that any resemblance between the professional behavior outlined in the AAUP 1940 statement and present patterns of conduct are merely coincidental.

Alas, many college campuses have been converted into centers of orthodoxy for unwary students often too naïve to identify the propagandistic exercise of overzealous instructors. It is ironic that while most college administrators will reflexively adopt diversity standards on campus in an effort to have different racial and ethnic groups represented, these same administrators often reject the diversity of ideas that is the well spring of academic freedom.

It is curious that the professorial organizations created to protect faculty members from blacklisting and government intervention often have a political agenda of their own that repudiates the very principles they were organized to defend. This isn’t the first, and probably won’t be the last, example of organizations that have lost touch with their own principles, but for someone who has been in the academic vineyards for decades, it is disillusioning.

In the late sixties an Australian political scientist argued that it is more important “to win” than to teach. By “win” he meant convert the culture through the mobilization of student activists. Today there are many professors on this side of the Pacific who would agree with this proposal. Whatever happened to the spirit of inquiry? And when did the words “teach” and “preach” become indistinguishable?

In a Middle East Studies course at Columbia University, an instructor provocatively asked a student who had served in the Israeli Defense Force, “How many Arab woman and children have you killed?” Whatever happened to the avoidance of intimidation?  Could the student in question ever feel free to raise an opposing point of view in that classroom?

Last year, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren – a noted scholar in his own right – was about to deliver an address at the University of California, Irvine. As soon as he went to the podium, representatives of the Muslim Student Association shouted him down and threatened further violence, thereby ending the engagement. When the Muslim students were indicted for promoting violence, the faculty raised money for their defense. Whatever happened to the dignity and openness academic freedom was intended to promote? What is the message faculty members are trying to convey on that campus?

The price of academic freedom, like the price of democracy, is eternal vigilance. A diminution of academic freedom and the principles residing in this concept affect all Americans. We should call on scholars and administrators alike to reaffirm the traditions of the past recognizing that academic freedom is not conditional. Scholarship worthy of that designation must be objective, rigorous, analytical, and disinterested. And we should have the courage to criticize those faculty members who have undermined academic integrity and the administrators who avert their gaze to the travesty on campus.

A Southern preacher filled with fire and brimstone gave a sermon to his followers on the End of Days. With great passion he said, “When the end of days comes there will be crying, wailing and the gnashing of teeth.” He repeated this lamentation several times. An elderly man seated in the front of the church stood up and said, “but preacher I haven’t any teeth.” Somewhat disarmed, the preacher thought for a moment and then replied, “At the End of Days teeth will be provided.”

We do not have to wait till the End of Days. Our teeth can be found in the principles associated with academic freedom. If you bare them, the activists will retreat allowing colleges and universities to return to the sensible openness that not so long ago characterized academic life.

What to Do About Big-Money College Sports?

Mark Emmert, the head of the NCAA, is a man with a mission. A
series of unprecedented scandals has eroded confidence in big-time college
sports. In fact, some critics contend the NCAA is an enabler that is
compromised by the billions of dollars colleges earn through football and
basketball programs. Mr. Emmert is intent on changing that perception.

Some contend that the so-called student-athlete should be paid
and, at the very least, have called for “extra money” for athletes. Others
argue that those who violate recruitment regulations and the maintenance of
minimal academic standards should be prohibited from Bowl games and March
Madness tournament participation. With 338 Division I members, whose budgets
range from $5 million to $155 million consensus is not easily achieved. And
some, Joe Nocera of the New York Times for example, contend that “Many NCAA
infractions consist of actions that most people would consider perfectly appropriate
– and entirely legal – but that the NCAA has chosen to criminalize.”

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The Anarchic Impulse in Zuccotti Park

The Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are no longer merely residents of Zuccotti Park, they have converted themselves into roving bands restricting traffic on Broadway and Church Street and occupying nearby buildings. Yet the city authorities avert their gaze and well known scholars who share a hard left ideology such as Cornel West, Slavoj Zizek and Frances Fox Piven offer words of encouragement to the demonstrators.

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Cheating is the New Normal

A well-publicized cheating scandal at Great Neck High School featured a criminal entrepreneur taking SAT tests for college-bound high school students. My colleagues in the Academy tell me cheating is endemic with papers written by “service” organizations and plagiarism a national contagion. Teachers are routinely engaged in “scrubbing” various tests in an effort to increase the ratio of passing grades. The Atlanta school system was recently indicted for changing, student grades in an effort to improve the schools’ performance profile.

These stories invite the obvious question: Are conditions worse now than earlier?

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The Neglect of the High Achievers

The Thomas Fordham Institute released the results of a study this week entitled “Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students.” This is among the first studies to examine the performance of America’s highest achieving children over time and at the individual student level. Produced in partnership with the Northwest Evaluation Association, this study’s results indicate that many high achieving students struggle to maintain their elite performance over their school years and often fail to improve their reading ability at the same rate as their average and below average cohorts.

This study raises a troubling but predictable question: Is the U.S. preoccupation with closing achievement gaps and “leaving no child behind” coming at the expense of our “talented tenth”?

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Facing Down Anti-Semitism on Campus

At long last an attempt is bring made to curtail blatant anti-Semitic commentary on American campuses. The Israel Law Center warns that colleges and universities “may be liable for massive damage” if they fail to prevent anti-Semitism. The center sent hundreds of letters to university presidents drawing a line in the sand. This Israel civil rights center is carrying out this campaign in response to an alarming number of incidents against Jewish and Israeli students at U.S. universities.

A center’s lawyer, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner said, “Anti-Israel rallies and events frequently exceed legitimate criticism of Israel and cross the line into blatant anti-Semitism, resulting in hateful attacks against Jews.” A student at Rutgers, to cite one example, said he was called “a racist Zionist pig” in a Facebook posting. That comment was made when the student questioned a Student Assembly decision to donate money to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, a nonprofit organization with ties to the Holy Land Foundation, a foundation that has funded Hamas.

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What Will They Learn? Not That Much

The redoubtable Anne Neal, President of ACTA, has released a survey entitled “What Will They Learn?” – a sobering analysis of general education in the nation’s colleges and universities. The report covers major public and private institutions in all 50 states.

Each of the higher education institutions was assigned a letter grade from “A” to “F” based on the requirement seven core subjects: composition, U.S. government or history, economics, literature, math, science, and foreign languages. 

The results are troubling. Only 5 percent of those in the survey require economics. Slightly less than 20 percent require intermediate level foreign language. Moreover, cost is not correlated to quality. The higher the tuition, the more likely it is that students are left without guidance on general education subjects.

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