Over the last half-century, higher education in America has been transformed from a quiet backwater with relatively little influence or cost into a powerful system responsible for or at least deeply complicit in numerous deleterious trends that are today wreaking havoc on the nation. A bill of indictment would have to include the following.
The diversity mania. College leaders fought furiously for the legal right to separate people (students, faculty, administrators) by groups and then gave preference to members of favored, “underrepresented” groups. This divisive, destructive idea that we must focus on moving toward group equality rather than on individual ability couldn’t have gone far without the backing of the higher education establishment.
Lowering of academic standards. College used to call for hard work, but to keep the throngs of disengaged students happy, officials have allowed standards to fall badly. Grades are inflated, and the curriculum debased. Demanding courses have been dropped, replaced with easy, fun courses and hard-core ideological offerings where a good grade depends on agreeing with the professor. Plenty of evidence shows that students can and do coast through to their degrees without learning much.
Discourse Not Reliably Civil. The academic world is largely responsible for the fallen state of discourse in America. At one time, professors knew that arguments must be met with counter-arguments, but today they’re happy to attack with falsehoods, smears, and name-calling. Free speech and academic freedom are besieged, and our higher education establishment bears much of the blame.
Grievance mongering. The U.S. is awash in grievance mongering – that is, people demanding things merely because they claim to have some historical grievance. By caving into complaints about “microaggressions” and supposed social injustices, higher education leaders have helped to spread the use of self-pity as a weapon.
College for everyone. Higher education leaders and politicians in both parties have cheered the notion that the nation benefits from greater levels of educational achievement. Having a college degree supposedly makes a person more productive, healthier, and more civic-minded. But college is not a good idea for everyone, as the large numbers of dropouts burdened by college debt and BA holders working in mundane jobs demonstrates.
Our higher education establishment has a lot to answer for.
And yet, a professor has recently written a book, Two Cheers for Higher Education. The author, Steven Brint, a professor of sociology and public policy at UC-Riverside. seeks to defuse the critics’ case that American higher education has become more of a national liability than an asset. He writes, “Many of the criticisms of higher education have merit. But they miss the big picture: American research universities have grown stronger, both financially and intellectually.”
Note that Brint wants to focus on “research universities.” They are but a small slice of the total higher education system. For every Harvard and University of Michigan, there are scores of non-famous colleges where you find that dumbing down and politicization are glaring problems. So even if it’s true that our research universities are doing good things, they are only a small part of “the big picture.”
All right, what are the research universities doing that’s so beneficial? Brint makes three claims.
First, they are spearheading the nation’s (indeed, the world’s) intellectual advance the way it “informs the activities of most scientists and scholars” and “determines many of the fundamental structures of the academy such as the centrality of academic departments and the status acquired through journal and book publications.”
That’s all correct, but not very impressive. Scholars and scientists were doing important, path-breaking work long before the research university was conceived of in the 19th century. They could and would continue doing their work if academic departments withered away; decision-makers would find ways of discerning whose scholarship was worth supporting if they couldn’t look at “status” that comes from publishing in certain journals and writing books that prestigious academic presses publish.
Second, Brint observes that universities are collaborating with business on “new technologies, to create new applied degrees, to cultivate patrons, and to manage enterprises in ways familiar to corporations.”
That “market logic” is beneficial, but it’s hard to see why such cooperation deserves praise. Of course, most universities work with business – they have complementary resources. It would be utterly crazy if our university leaders decreed that they will have nothing to do with the world of business (even though some “progressives” would like to keep higher education free of the “taint” of collaboration with business). Nobody says that business deserves any cheers for acting in a natural, self-interested way, and there is no reason to applaud universities for doing the same thing.
Third, Brint lauds universities for their devotion to “social inclusion.” He writes that they “hold themselves out as the single best option for the members of disadvantaged groups to gain skills that can lead to upward social mobility.”
Well, universities may hold themselves out that way, but is it true?
Members of disadvantaged groups were never excluded from higher education, although public universities in the South used to keep them out, something that ended in the 1960s. Qualified minority students could and did attend colleges and universities throughout our history. Those who met the entrance requirements studied hard and earned degrees in a wide array of useful academic disciplines: biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, economics, and so on.
No special treatment based on race.
No one received special treatment on account of his race. Walter Williams, a black economist, born in inner-city Philadelphia in 1941, wrote, “Thank God I received my education before it became fashionable for white people to like black people.”
But then it did become fashionable. Universities instituted racial quotas for admission with significantly lower standards for students from certain minority groups. Faculty members were pressured to “go easy” on those students, lest they fail to graduate. Special courses meant to appeal to minority students were added to the curriculum – the “identity” courses (and even majors) that were much more about stoking feelings of grievance than transmitting knowledge. And when some students demanded separate housing, separate campus centers, and separate graduation ceremonies, racially obsessed administrators readily caved in.
Once students in favored groups figured out that they didn’t have to work hard in high school because racial preferences would help them get into good colleges, they did what you would expect. They slacked off.
Diversity and inclusion are the main concerns.
We do graduate more students from “underrepresented” groups than in the past, but they often have empty credentials and feelings of hostility and an attitude of entitlement that serves them badly, rather than useful educations. In truth, there was more upward social mobility for blacks and other minorities in the 1950s and 60s than there is now that “diversity and inclusion” are the higher education establishment’s main concern.
All of this is something our universities must answer for, not something for which they should be cheered.
What problems does Brint see in American higher education?
At least, he admits that many students are not learning as much as they could. In an interview with Inside Higher Education, he argued that the solution was for the faculty to change their teaching methods. “Fortunately, cognitive science has provided convincing findings on techniques that improve student understanding of course materials,” he stated. “We need to accelerate the diffusion of these evidence-based teaching practices. They involve active learning practices, mechanisms to ensure greater student accountability for study, and teaching for deep understanding (as opposed to teaching for rote memorization).”
Those new teaching methods might have their advantages, but the real problem with student learning is not that professors are using old-fashioned, 1950-ish techniques but that expectations are often low, and students can avoid professors who are known to be hard. Administrative pressure to force faculty to institute “active learning practices” and stop requiring memorization would do more harm than good.
For all the book’s heft (more than 400 pages of text, plus notes, references, and index), Brint hardly ever engages with the arguments of higher education critics. Charles Murray has been arguing for many years that we have oversold college and lure in many young people who are not ready for or interested in serious academic work (see his book Real Education, which I reviewed here). But Brint only mentions Murray in passing, for having been at the center of a mob action at Middlebury College because he “advanced ideas about race that students and faculty members found offensive.”
Put aside the fact that those students and faculty members were reacting to false characterizations of Murray’s work. The point here is that Brint doesn’t challenge Murray’s well-known attack on the way we have turned the bachelor’s degree from a sign of real accomplishment into a mere credential that’s expected of almost everyone.
Another critic who Brint mentions is Richard Vedder. Vedder has written voluminously on the damage caused by the overexpansion of higher education, but Brint just cites a paper of his focusing on the underemployment of college graduates. Brint writes that this “is another source of students’ heightened interest in advanced degrees.” But Vedder’s argument wasn’t for still more formal education, but against drawing so many young people into college in the first place.
You won’t find any references to the arguments of other higher education critics, such as Peter Wood, Jackson Toby, or Thomas Sowell either.
I’m afraid that Two Cheers for Higher Education will make the many higher-ed Pollyannas in our midst happy at hearing how much good our “world class universities” are supposedly doing. The book is a boost for the crowd of higher-ed devotees who say that our system is the envy of the world and that we just need to “invest” more in it. Sadly, it does nothing to alert people to the prodigious harm our colleges and universities are inflicting on the nation.