That Smug Article in the New York Review of Books

Last year, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreyfus published Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids–And What We Can Do About It, a resounding broadside against campus policies and practices.  They berated the system for producing useless research, creating cushy working conditions, neglecting undergraduates, and reproducing elitism.

Hacker and Dreyfus sometimes swung their club wildly, it is true, but one had to appreciate their concern.  They had no conservative or liberal axe to grind, and no anti-academic or anti-intellectual attitudes in place.  They deeply believe that higher education has lost its way, its civic virtue, and they launched a polemic to correct it.

One might argue with their evidence and question their assumptions, of course.  Here, however, is how a recent reviewer in The New York Review of Books characterizes them: 

“Hacker and Dreyfus, in their self-consciously iconoclastic (and sometimes cranky) book . . .”

The reviewer is Peter Brooks, Yale French professor.  His dismissive tone continues throughout. Noting that the authors at one point used Who’s Who in America to follow the Princeton class of ’73, Brooks remarks, “The exercise is trivial—to judge the successful life requires far greater depth of knowledge—and its conclusions lightweight.”

When Hacker and Dreyfus find a dozen second- and third-tier universities that provide just as strong an education as the first-tier, Brooks huffs, “What seems to recommend them most to Hacker and Dreyfus is of course precisely that they are plain Chevys in a parking lot with too many BMWs.”

Brooks also reviews other books on higher education–Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift, Mark Taylors’ Crisis on Campus, and Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit–and offers more comments along the same lines:

“Debating education has always been an American pastime.”

“. . . public universities, which have been busy raising tuitions at a faster rate than ever before to compensate for the lack of support from the states whose pride and joy they purportedly are.”

“Hence the recommendation of the CLA [the Collegiate Learning Assessment by Arum and Roksa], a kind of Consumer Reports for the head-scratchers.”

“Given the long and continuing history of American anti-intellectualism—which today takes the form of a vicious know-nothingism—I am often surprised that America has universities of the quality it does.”

“[Nussbaum] wants dreamers to further the American dream—something that is beyond the imagination of most of the books under review.”

“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.”

The sarcasm, the smugness, the treatment of the books and authors under review (except for Nussbaum) as intellectually vulgar, the self-satisfaction . . . they’re hard to take.  “Debating education has always been an American pastime”?  It has?  People baffled by the norms and networks of college campuses are “head-scratchers”?  We should listen to a professor who’s spent his life at the most elite institutions warn about the “frightening inequality” of the land?  And his complaint about the "vicious know-nothings" of our time, along with the "surprising" quality of the campus is, of course, a compliment to himself and his colleagues. 

The attitude culminates in this remembrance:

“The Hacker and Dreifus animus against Harvard et al. reminds me of the time I lived in rural Virginia and drove some distance on Sundays to buy The New York Times: the storekeeper would squint at me as I handed over my $5.50 and declare, ‘T’ain’t worth it.’  While he was probably right about the Sunday Times, I doubt that many students (or their parents) will really pass up admission to the Golden Dozen for a place at Ole Miss.”

The snobbery oozes forth, in spite of the "probably right" admission.  Furthermore, Brooks actually agrees here with Hacker and Dreifus, one of whose points is that people across the country accept the hierarchy of colleges, not realizing that the learning outcomes may in fact be better at the “inferior” ones.

One could add to Brooks’s superiority his unfamiliarity with the subject.  He says that “most good universities have undergone considerable self-study and reform since {1987]—which, though not always productive of good results, have largely focused on improving undergraduate education, and created new opportunities for freshmen and others to work closely with creative scholars.”  I have no idea what evidence might support this trend of improvement.  On the contrary, there is abundant evidence of deterioration.  According to surveys such as NSSE, The American Freshman, and Your First College Year, two of the most important measures of academics, homework time and engagement with professors outside of class, are both down, significantly so.

If professors cannot respond to criticism with more substantive and less pique-ish stances, they should expect more criticisms to follow.  This is an approach that will convince nobody outside the higher circles.  If professors wish to respond effectively and wisely to critiques of their sphere, the smug response has got to go.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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