In Decline or Under Attack?: American Higher Education Today

A commenter called “blackcampbell” posted this response to my piece, “From Great Universities to ‘Knowledge Factories’: Another American Institution in Decline“:

There are several aspects to the decline of academia that the author — not surprisngly, on his rush to look for a corporate strawman — misses. The “decline” is due to many forces 1) an antiquated view of the academci’s position. We are not “great men” that mids are coming to sit at the knee off. Good Google Fu and a desire to learn can get them an educatipn without us. 2) Increased demand, reduced utility: in the mad push of the ’80s and ’90s to get everyone a liberal arts degree, we caused massive inflation in cost for the schools and the students, while miinimizing the worh of the degree in the real world. Oh…that supply and demand thing. It’s a bitch. Because of this, the cost-benefit of a college degree outside of certain fields is, frankly, not there for most students; they’d be better served with a vocational school. 4) That reduced utility is causing a sharp drop in people interested in blowing money on college. Simply put, your product isn’t i. Demand. Worse, 5) the quality of the academic has suffered sharply due to arrogance and political posturing. There is very little diversity of thought, which leads to degraded education. This is especially obvious to he student (but, unfortunatle, not the purveyors of tired theories) — when everything is framed in terms of victimology, liberal arts educations are a waste of time for the student.

I’ve been on both sides of the desk the last 15 years, and to anyone not desperately looking to cling to the past and ride the government funding gravy train, it’s painfully obvious that we’re aren’t providing the product they need in a time when a glut of graduates has created “certification inflation”, reduced utility to the student, and has led tp a retraction in the demand and respect for high education.

In a comment, I responded briefly:

First, yes, it is possible to be an autodidact. There are plenty. But that does not mean it should be necessary or that it is even a good way to go. For most, learning on one’s own does not work well. Second, there was no “mad rush,” as you call it. Third, you are creating a false dichotomy between vocational training and the liberal arts. Pursuing one does not mean giving up the other. Fourth, there has been no “reduced utility” of a college degree–and such degrees are certainly in great demand. Fifth, the diversity of thought in our institutions of higher education is staggering. The only people who think not are those who find that their own narrow beliefs cannot stand up to scrutiny or who haven’t the guts to argue forcefully for their beliefs in an academic setting. Sixth, I have heard no one frame everything in terms of “victimology” (whatever that means). Seventh, it is the for-profit colleges who are really riding the “government funding gravy train,” not the traditional colleges and universities.

I added that I would respond more fully in a later post. This is it:

  1. Self-help movements, particularly in regard to education, have been around, in North America, at least since the time of Benjamin Franklin. These are part and parcel of what I call the American “cult of individualism,” but they are rarely sufficient for a first-rate education. Education, after all, is a cultural phenomenon. It requires direct interaction with others to succeed and to be valuable. It is not, furthermore, most of us who teach in contemporary colleges and universities who buy into the “great men” theory of education, but online educators, particularly those pushing Massive Open Online Courses, with their ‘superteacher’ conceit. It is also the people who want to quantify teacher value, they who lay student advancement at the feet of teachers, judging them through “assessment” of student progress, forgetting that it is students who are at the heart of education, not teachers. Strangely, it is those in the for-profit and “reform” movements who complain most about “sage on the stage” methodologies, yet it is they who do the most to promote them. Almost all real movement toward more effective teaching comes from venues within traditional institutions where space for experimentation is provided.
  2. If there was a “mad push… to get everyone a liberal arts degree,” it was not of the 80s and 90s but began at the end of World War II, reaching its height during the Vietnam War, when staying in school was the best and easiest way of avoiding the draft. Also, to say that such a “push” was responsible for increases in the cost of education makes no sense: Mass production drives costs down, not up.
  3. Reducing education to “cost-benefit” ratios is part of what I am complaining about. The value of education cannot be seen simply in terms of wage differentials. Students are not “better served” by vocational training alone… unless they are seen simply as raw material for corporate machines.
  4. College isn’t in demand? Read this from insidehighered: “Nearly three million more people will be enrolled in American colleges and universities in 2022 than were enrolled in 2012, according to Education Department projections released Thursday. That would represent a significant slowdown in enrollment growth over the next decade compared to the last one, but the projection is still aggressive given that the traditional college-age population is expected to decline over the same period.”
  5. Sure, there is “arrogance and political posturing” in higher education… but there is “arrogance and political posturing” in everything. And there always has been. It makes no sense to say that “arrogance and political posturing” have contributed to the decline in higher education for two reasons. First, as “arrogance and political posturing” have always been significant and their frequency has not changed, these cannot be blamed for what has changed. Second, American universities are not in decline. There are as many great universities now as there have ever been. There are as many top-flight colleges now as there have ever been. What has changed is that the diversity and numbers of higher-ed institutions has grown by leaps and bounds. Some of these are not quite as good, bringing the average down. Foremost among the “not quite as good” are the for-profit colleges that have proliferated over the past few decades. To go on, the idea that “there is little diversity of thought” in contemporary higher education in America would be laughable if so many didn’t believe it. Compared with for-profit schools, where regimentation is the rule, there is plenty of diversity of thought in more traditional colleges and universities. Just look at the variety of syllabi. The diversity starts with the broad number of types of institutions with diverse purposes and goes down to the incredible variety of choices individual instructors make. The charge of lack of diversity of thought usually comes from people whose own ideological agendas are so narrow that their rigid beliefs are rejected within the broad spirit of discussion found on college and university campuses. As to “victimology,” I think the opposite is generally the case on college campuses, where students are encouraged to take control of their own learning, their own lives.

It is not traditional institutions of higher education who are ‘riding the government gravy train.’ On the contrary, they contribute quite heavily to the economies of their cities and towns, states and the nation as a whole. They are an important part of progress and community, helping American progress in many different ways. For-profit institutions, on the other hand, rely on government-backed loans to students to survive–and they produce little for the communities in which they operate. So, if any institutions of higher education are ‘riding the government gravy train,’ it is the for-profits who take without giving back.

I know, I run the risk of sounding too enthusiastic about American higher education here–but sometimes it is necessary to point out that, for all the criticism (and I, too, can be vociferous in my complaints), American higher education, in its traditional form, is still far above any of the alternatives that have been proposed or instituted. Though we are heading down a path that scares me, a path toward education factories, we have not reached there yet. “Blackcampbell” believes I am setting up corporatization as a “straw man,” but his or her own comments are those of someone quite in favor of the corporate model I resist, making it clear that I am not creating a “straw man” argument at all. If anything, “blackcampbell”‘s comments personify that “straw man,” showing just how real it is and how devious its arguments are.

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