Education: Answers for Everybody

Christopher Jencks, one of the fertile thinkers associated with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, and David Riesman, the renowned sociologist, have combined the historical and sociological approaches in The Academic Revolution, an important analysis of the relationship of higher education to American culture.
The authors have set for themselves a gigantic task, which they accomplish by outlining the evolution of higher education in America and then examining the role of higher education vis-à-vis particular interest groups and subcultures (occupational, sectarian, ethnic, geographical, sexual, generational). Among the colleges especially founded to serve these various groups are Catholic, community, women’s, sectarian, Negro, and professional. Sometimes the focus of the study is
on the relationship between groups and the overall system of higher education; other chapters deal specifically with the impact and implication of what the authors view as the major trend in American education upon the special-purpose college. The volume concludes with a discussion of the graduate schools, which now shape undergraduate education, and with suggestions for their improvement.
The Academic Revolution
by Christopher Jencks and David Riesman (Doubleday, $8.95)
The book covers a Niagara of subjects, and the authors admit that their writing is speculative, impressionistic, and that their conclusions are often contradictory, based on a deductive and functional analysis. They use little documentary evidence because of the paucity of such material. Instead, Jencks and Riesman have relied upon secondary sources and interviews and have invented a methodology as they move along. If the writing often seems all thumbs, their defense of an academically unorthodox approach is quite noble: the very lack of material on this subject testifies to the fact that too often scholarly research has been directed away from pressing social issues because of a slavish adherence to a particular methodological discipline. This they feel is nothing less than a de facto abdication of both a personal and a social responsibility which should be a central concern of the academy.
The thesis of The Academic Revolution is that this century has seen the rise to power of the academic professions. From prestigious bastions of intellectual power, and through the sacred vessel of the Ph.D. degree, the academy now dominates discussion and policy on who deserves an education, as well as how and what constitutes that education. On a positive side, Riesman and Jencks believe that this “revolution” has resulted in the rise of a “meritocratic” system, seemingly equalitarian, where competence and achievement (measured by objective tests) rather than social position are the criteria for entrance into the world of higher education. They also applaud the essentially liberal social and political attitudes which are often the byproduct of this training.
Their work, however, is not a hymn of praise. Rather it is a lament etched with a certain irony. For underpinning the outward trappings of meritocratic selection are the structural realities of American society. In company with an increasing number of our better critics Jencks and Riesman argue that the relative size of social classes in this country has remained unchanged since the end of the Second World War. There has been, however, an absolute growth in the number of college graduates.
This exposes as a false assumption the familiar idea — which educational institutions feast upon in order to grow — that education is a key to a room at the top. There is movement within classes, but educational attainment does not necessarily determine a higher social position. The authors fear that we still prefer to believe otherwise, with resultant social frustration. When they write then that what we need in education is less emphasis upon social mobility and more emphasis upon equality, they utter a plea for a healthy diversity of honored approaches in higher education to serve a number of different needs.
But is there a healthy diversity of approaches? The general conclusion of this book is that the prestige models offered by the academic revolution, the university-college and the Ph.D., are so attractive that like a gorgeous woman of pleasure they are leading good men astray. The already well-known chapter on the Negro colleges is a case in point. The vast majority of these colleges now enroll students who need remedial help. But Jencks and Riesman find that these colleges are mimicking the prestige models and thus leaving their students poorly educated, B.A. degree and all. Are the colleges likely to change? Riesman and Jencks are pessimistic. The same trap awaits community and Catholic colleges. The authors hope that the community colleges will always lead an independent life, offering a curriculum aimed at local problems and utilizing faculty and material which would cause convulsions on a university-college campus. Will they? Riesman and Jencks are pessimistic.
The movement of the Catholic colleges into the revolutionary arena is widely hailed today. While applauding the end to a narrow parochialism, our authors would not have these schools surrender an ethical concern which they find sadly lacking in the empirical academy, just as they hope that a feminine point of view will not be lost as coeducation, which they support, inexorably sweeps away all but the richest women’s colleges.
Jencks and Riesman naturally save their sharpest comments for the conduct of graduate education, for here is where the academy perpetuates itself. They echo the appeals of the most intelligent student activists and faculty dissenters who are urging a more flexible mixture of theory and practice which demands and rewards a much more flexible range of skills and competences. The radically simple reason for these demands is that a worthwhile education must always concern itself with issues less defined by colleagues than by society itself. The lavish support offered to our prestige universitycolleges, however, has allowed their faculties to sponsor too much preprofessional training and irrelevant scholarship to the exclusion of more existential concerns.
For the sympathetic reviewer, this book is hard to talk about. One could plead endlessly for tighter distinctions and more precision of language and concept. One could criticize the irony which pervades its pages, for Riesman and Jencks often hold out little hope that their criticisms will be accepted. It is a game they play, and it is often quite contrived. But overall the book is a triumph which raises the right questions on a broad canvas about higher education in this country.