Walter Russell Mead: The Coming Reformation of Higher Ed


These are slightly edited remarks delivered by Professor Mead at a Manhattan Institute luncheon on April 1 in New York City. He is James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and he currently teaches American foreign policy at Yale. He has served as Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and runs a popular daily blog on foreign policy and American culture, Via Meadia.

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We Need an Entirely New Model

When we look at these sophisticated service delivery systems like health care and education, we can see that failure to solve these problems will have immense consequences.  If we don’t get health care right it’s going to bankrupt the government and American society.  I don’t care whether you have a single-payer system or Obamacare, the share of GDP represented by health care is moving toward an unsustainable level. In a society that feels government has some responsibility to prevent people from dying untreated on the street, you are looking at national bankruptcy if you can’t figure out health care.

The consequences of failing to fix higher ed economically are not quite as great. It’s not going to wreck the federal government budget if we don’t have higher ed reform.  But, when you think about the impact of crippling student debt on a generation, when you think about the problems of access that an expensive and poorly performing system has for low-income or first-generation college students, when you think about the misallocation of intellectual and cultural resources resources that higher ed represents, then you know we will have serious problems if we don’t get this right.

But the problems of higher ed are not unique to higher ed. They are part of a general social crisis that I think of as the result of our transformation from a late-stage industrial society where the blue model at least arguably worked to an early stage information society in which a lot of our institutions and ways of doing things will have to change. That change will be as profound as the change from an agricultural society to an industrial society back during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. It’s that big.

When we talk about the crisis in higher ed, it’s not that there’s one problem to solve that will bring about a magical cure. Higher ed is a tangled system that has grown out of many different initiatives over decades and centuries.  We can point to specific eras of change, the most profound perhaps being the post-1945 decision to make higher ed a mass phenomenon rather than one restricted to elites. Another wave came in the 1960s when we moved very aggressively to expand access even more.  An earlier important wave was the arrival of the German research university in the late 19th and early 20th centuries–the professionalization of the knowledge and teaching business.

So we have different kinds of institutions, all under the umbrella of higher ed: community colleges, research universities and all kinds of things in between, so when we talk about reforming higher ed we should realize we’re actually talking about many, many different things.

As you heard in Howard Husock’s introduction to this talk, I am more of a generalist than a specialist, so I’m going to try to look at some broad themes.

From ‘Time-Served’ to ‘Stuff-Learned’

One important shift we need to make, in K12 as well as in higher ed, is from the time-served model of education to a stuff-learned model. The time-served model asks how many credits, how many years? As a method of qualification it is characteristic of guilds where you have to serve so many years as an apprentice, so many years as a journeyman–you have to walk through all the steps.  And it also is a revenue enhancer for colleges because the bright kid is going to have to take just as many courses as the dumb kid. Here’s another aspect of the stuff-learned model. Suppose we actually had an exam, a national baccalaureate exam of some kind, and if you passed that exam then you would be deemed to have graduated from college with an equivalent of a BA. Not only would this make it possible for a lot of people to get that degree with less time in class and less money spent, it would also allow the kid that went to the University of Illinois and learned a lot to be able to compete with the kid who went to Harvard and stayed drunk. It gives the kid from the no-name or lesser-name school an honest-to-God credential. To me, this is a matter of elementary social justice. It would help to reduce the immense prestige premium that a handful of schools have–a form of privilege that those of us who care about a more open and democratic society should oppose.  And I think it would be healthy to put less pressure on middle-class kids to get into name schools and put more pressure on them to learn stuff that would be interesting and useful. And offering certificates equivalent to a BA to students passing an exam would address a lot of the needs that are now fulfilled through very cumbersome and expensive programs often leading to a lot of student debt.

And if a family’s kids are able to graduate from high school two or three years early, the taxpayers save money.  Why shouldn’t some of those savings go to the family that managed the savings, so they could use the money for the next stage in their childrens’ education?

Cutting Out the Fat

I think we also need to take out the trash: a lot of what goes on in colleges is inappropriate for colleges. I’m not talking about frat parties. That’s a different issue. I’m talking about majors like “business communication” or ” marketing,” where what is taught in most cases is a lot of vacuous courses created to justify a four-year program.  These programs are neither fish nor flesh nor fowl. They aren’t natural science; they aren’t serious humanities; they aren’t social science.  They are essentially products of a careerist, credential-driven educational model.  People need a college degree and these things are offered.  Sometimes these are the courses that some educational reformers consider practical. But things like “business communication” are not practical at all. It would make more sense if colleges could focus their programs on subjects of real heft and distinction, whether in liberal arts and the humanities or in serious hard-science courses and important social science courses. (I’m sure I’m going to hear from a lot of people about how courses such as “business communication” are not trash majors. President Obama got in trouble when he attacked art history.  I wouldn’t dare take on the art historians. Business communication people, come at me.)

Slashing administrative overhead is another item on the reform agenda. Over the last 25 or 30 years, studies have shown that administrative budgets have been growing more rapidly than numbers of students or payments to faculty. This needs to change. Colleges must adopt the same kind of very aggressive cost-cutting that we’ve seen in the private sector. Companies are using the power of information technology to reduce their clerical and managerial staffs because competitive pressures leave them no choice. Everybody who has dealt with colleges and universities knows that their administrative systems are nightmares of bureaucracy, incompetence and delay. A lot of money is spent, but not a lot comes out of it.

When considering its financial aid to colleges and students, the federal government might be interested in limiting the percentage of total budget that could be spent on administration. There may be some other ways to reform institutions.  For instance, in an odd way, colleges have given up a lot in loco parentis while actually providing more of them, such as health care.

Why is a university necessarily a good health care provider or the best employer of counselors, particularly when their administrative systems are so poor and their personnel systems are often not very wisely put together?  It might well be better to strip out a lot of these functions and let a university or a college concentrate more effectively on smaller things.

We might also allow a decentralization of administration in another way: perhaps small groups of like-minded professors might elect to affiliate with a particular college.  Their program might be quite autonomous. In a way, this would be similar to charter schools. Instead of having one big school administered in an overwhelmingly bureaucratic way, you could have choice within a college–a college within a college. It could set up shop without a lot of bureaucratic interference and oversight, then attract students based on the professors’ own performance and reputation.  We might be able to do more along those lines to reduce the salience of administration and overhead in colleges and put more of the resources and focus on the teaching.

No Silver Bullet, But New Ideas Are Needed

As you can tell, none of what I’m saying is translating into a seven-step magic reform plan for American higher education.  I’m trying to spark thought and speculation rather than lay out answers.  But, one thing I think we need to look at heavily is a battle cry of the Renaissance scholars, ad fontes, to the sources.  Don’t educate kids on a lot of crabbed, monkish commentary and medieval theorizing. Don’t read what 700 commentators have written about Aquinas. Go read what Aquinas read: Augustine, Aristotle, Plato, the great thinkers, and then read Aquinas and have your own commentaries.  In other words, don’t study what’s hip in the university system right now, the latest development of academic theory.  I’m not saying that these theories are good or bad.  I think they vary quite a bit across disciplines and with people.  But, the education of students and especially undergraduates need to be in the great books, the great ideas, students do not need to be the disciples of their professors; they need to be the disciples of the great minds.

I think moving toward a direct engagement of students with the thoughts that have shaped our civilization, the thinkers, the ideas, the events, would be far better than sort of focusing on this second- and third-tier theoretical, very complex scholarship which, frankly, by the time the kids are in their fifties will all be forgotten. Why study it?

Another point: society makes a huge mistake separating the young from the world of work. When I talk to 22-year-old college seniors who are trying to figure out what they’re going to do in a couple of months, they often have no idea what work is.  They have been defining themselves all their lives by what they consume.  You express your identity by the kind of music you listen to, by the kind of clothes you wear, by the kind of clubs you go to.  What a pathetic and weak form of human identity this is.  Look at traditional societies around the world, even 19th century America. As you grow up, you move naturally and gradually in a very integrated way from being a dependent child to being an independent adult.  If, like most people in America in the 19th century, you were the child of family farmers, at four years old your mom sends you out into the henhouse to bring in the eggs. You were gradually learning skills, economics, husbandry, and very naturally taking on more and more responsibility. 

It makes for a very different kind of adolescence and young adulthood. Your movement through life is more seamless.  Our school and university system really reflects the realities of nineteenth-century industrialization, where you basically had to break kids to the discipline of sitting in school for hours and hours every day doing boring repetitive tasks.  Everybody moving at the same pace, that was what was demanded and the educational system was producing a society of people who were suited either to the drudgery of factory work where you’re just sort of doing this kind of hand movement all day, or to the drudgery of the routine clerical work that was the underpinning of any complex organization before computers and IT.  That stuff is gone.  But, we still have a rigid separation of work and school.  We are still not exposing kids to the joys of productive work and how so much of life is closed to people who are not in the world making the world by what they do.  And that falsifies their education to some degree, because they’re living in a bubble.

I am not sure how all this translates into a specific program of academic reform, but I do know that the United States urgently needs a higher ed system that’s different, better and more effective than the one we have today.


2 thoughts on “Walter Russell Mead: The Coming Reformation of Higher Ed

  1. We are living at the beginning of a “digital age” and the rapid gathering of information from the internet, but knowing what Gettysburg means and understanding the complexities of the American Civil war are very different endeavors. Knowledge and understanding are not the same. Our students seems to lack knowledge and understanding and thus will never see the value of wisdom.

  2. One of the problems with what you are saying is that “stuff learned” is very much a muddle right now. Quiz any college student (good or bad) today and they can not tell you who was the President before George Bush or where or what Gettysburg was or who fought in World War II. But give them a smartphone and they can get this information in 10 seconds. They are not retaining facts, they see no need to do so.
    What they should be being taught is processes and methods of making assessments of the infinite data and material that is readily available to them. But schools and teachers don’t know how to do that right now. Schools can teach specific career knowledge but when it comes to the “general” and “good citizens” education of the past they are just as lost as their students.
    According to all these tests, students are much dumber than in the past. Do you really think that is true or are they just living in a different world?

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