Let's Calm Down About Higher Education

These worries are as old as the Republic. American colleges and universities are not going down the tubes.

At the University of Virginia in the 1970s. (Roger Wollstadt/Flickr)

Have you heard? Higher education in the United States is in serious decline; our colleges and universities are headed down the tubes. The problems, we're told, are manifold. Universities are self-serving bastions of managerial privilege, where multiple layers of deans feather their nests. Colleges are wasting money on nonsense, failing to educate students for the 21st century's demands. Kids themselves are co-conspirators, taking easy or trivial courses, avoiding study, and partying all the time. Graduates incur intolerable debt to secure a future filled with underemployment.

Sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? And those are just a few of the prominent strands of argument on the topic.

You don't need to navigate away from TheAtlantic.com to come across fresh examples of the hand-wringing. Recently, Scott Gerber instructed readers here on "How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America." This sort of thing is everywhere. Megan McArdle, recently of The Atlantic, now at Newsweek and the Daily Beast, wrote the September 9th Newsweek cover article, "Is College a Lousy Investment?" Her short answer: yes, it is.

There's much more, of course, and if you want to bone up on this literature, you might start with a couple of review essays that appeared within the last eighteen months in the New York Review of Books -- the first by Peter Brooks, the second by Anthony Grafton.

What interests me about all this is that it is merely the latest iteration of a long-recurring narrative that American higher education is in crisis. American colleges and universities have inspired such concerns for centuries, and the same themes get revisited over and over. Colleges aren't appropriately training students for the needs of contemporary society; students are too preoccupied with extra-curricular activities and with having fun. Admissions standards are too strict or too lax; universities are being overtaken by managers; the high price of a college education is leaving too many people without access to one. What accounts for the recurring anxiety and inflated rhetoric?

Much of the writing about the current "crisis" in American higher education is meant to scare, not to inform.

No small part of the agitation is because we are not certain what it is people need to know to succeed individually, for our society to thrive, and our economy to be competitive. And we never have known.

People in the early Republic fought over the colleges' almost-exclusive emphasis at the time on teaching Latin and Greek: Educated persons, some Founding Fathers including Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician, warned that a continued preoccupation with the ancient languages would harm the country's development. "To spend four or more years in learning two dead languages," he wrote, "is to turn our backs upon a gold mine, in order to amuse ourselves catching butterflies."

In 1869, Charles W. Eliot, soon to become Harvard's president, argued in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly in favor of substituting a broadly elective course of study for the old prescribed and circumscribed classical education. The pushback around the country was formidable, even though his view eventually prevailed. But in these and other instances, the root of the anxiety was the same: an uncertainty about what college students should be learning.

Of course, controversy also arises regularly over what subjects are legitimate matters for academic inquiry. In the early 1800s, many critics derided the idea that college students should study science or modern languages. In recent decades, critics similarly have argued that our universities are in decline because they offer majors in subjects such as black studies, women's studies, or LGBT studies.

All of this is to say that people are not in agreement about what the purpose of a college education is. Should it be to broaden the mind and enrich one's faculties of critical thought? That was certainly the view of the Yale faculty in 1828, which issued a famous report arguing for the classical course of study and its aristocratic purpose -- strengthening "the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers and storing it with knowledge."

Going back at least that far, others have argued that higher education's purpose is to prepare people for jobs and careers, for productive roles in a competitive society. This debate persists because we don't know, or can't agree on, the answer.

In the face of this uncertainty and ambiguity, it's no surprise that history is replete with people who want to step forward and offer prescriptions. Behind their remedies are their preferences for how things should be. They hope to define the problem in a way that leads the audience towards the political or policy "solutions" the authors prefer.

How to build support for their preferred course of action? By telling a story, offering a narrative. Usually, the story is one of decline: Things are getting worse, soon they'll be intolerable; something must be done. As political scientist Deborah Stone has noted in Policy Paradox and Political Reason, "This story usually ends with a prediction of crisis -- there will be some kind of breakdown, collapse, or doom -- and a proposal for some steps to avoid the crisis. The proposal might even take the form of a warning: Unless such-and-such is done, disaster will follow."

Many of these narratives come from journalists and academics who hope to enhance their visibility and professional reputation by being the first person on the block to identify some "new" threat, fresh scourge, or imminent disaster in the world of higher education.

Over time, many of the sharpest criticisms have come from the right side of the ideological divide. Conservatives weave stories about colleges and universities brainwashing students with liberal viewpoints, dumbing down the curriculum, and tolerating hedonistic lifestyles infused with drugs, alcohol, sex, and rock n' roll.

In the 1950s, there were criticisms from the left about conformity and orthodoxy, etc. In the last few years, liberals have focused most of their scorn on the corporatization of the university, the exploitation of academic labor, and escalating debt of students. Jeffrey J. Williams identifies these contemporary liberal critiques as some of the elements of what he calls "the emerging field of 'critical university studies.'" Its adherents want to reduce the influence of corporate methods and goals (a recent case of which would be the attempted ouster of Teresa Sullivan from the presidency of the University of Virginia), stop what they regard as business's corruption of research, and stem the increasing managerial (as opposed to faculty) control of universities.

The point here is not to deny the existence of problems in American higher education. That would be absurd. The point, rather, is to say that much of the writing about the current "crisis" in American higher education is meant to scare, not to inform; to back agendas, not to enlighten or improve. The worries that afflict us are as old as the Republic. American higher education is not going down the tubes.