Scholars of the World Unite!

December 16, 2010 Topics: PhilosophyTechnology Regions: United States

Scholars of the World Unite!

Mini Teaser: Superficial analysis says America's universities are on a precipitous decline. The truth is that the U.S. academy has become a paragon of learning to which all the world aspires.

by Author(s): Anthony Grafton

[amazon 0805087346 full]Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do about It (New York: Times Books, 2010), 288 pp., $26.00.

Mark C. Taylor, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 256 pp., $24.00.

SINCE THE Reagan years, academics and journalists have scarified the American university again and again. Allan Bloom, that well-known advocate of classical education, drew up one of the first bills of particulars in his Closing of the American Mind; Charles Sykes, Martin Anderson and other prophets of the ivory tower’s demise enriched his analysis with vivid details—or at least decorated it with scurrilous anecdotes. Professors, these writers argued, are obsessed with producing highly specialized research to meet the priorities of their sclerotic, self-obsessed disciplines. We write more and more about less and less, producing articles and books cast in impenetrable jargon, babbling to one another at some ninety thousand conferences a year for the liberal arts alone.

Worse, we train our graduate students to do the same, even though they will never find tenure-track jobs. By doing so we condemn them to a hopeless, grinding life, which they will spend trying to pursue their pedantry while flying down the freeway from one part-time position to another. We don’t teach undergraduates at all, even though we shamelessly charge them hundreds of dollars for an hour of our time. Mostly we leave them to the graduate students and adjuncts. Yet that may not be such a bad thing. For on the rare occasions when we do enter a classroom, we don’t offer students close encounters with powerful forms of knowledge, new or old. Rather, we make them master our “theories”—systems of interpretation as complicated and mechanical as sausage machines. However rich and varied the ingredients that go in the hopper, what comes out looks and tastes the same: philosophy and poetry, history and oratory, each is deconstructed and revealed to be Eurocentric, logocentric and all the other centrics an academic mind might concoct. So long as professors do not forswear their foolish ways, the university is doomed to fail the students and parents whose hard-earned money and hardly borne postgraduation debt support it. It is a Hogarthian picture: plushy professors, drunk on self-satisfaction, sprawl on satin couches, stomachs poked upward, while their half-naked students stagger out the back door to a lifetime of rag picking.


[amazon 0307593290 full]IN TWO new books, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus—a political scientist and a reporter—and Mark Taylor—a professor of religion—mount similar indictments, suitably updated to reflect current salaries and tuition costs. True, their emphases differ in certain ways. Hacker and Dreifus explore a range of problems—including the corrupting role of big-time sports and admissions preferences for the children of alumni and donors—that Taylor doesn’t address. Hacker and Dreifus, moreover, actually visited a large number of campuses, including community colleges, state liberal-arts colleges and for-profit universities. Taylor, by contrast, limits himself to elite institutions like Williams and Columbia where he has taught. Hacker and Dreifus reject the authors and approaches beloved of “theorists” in the humanities. Taylor sees them as valuable and has written about them at length, though his priorities seem to have changed of late. Hacker and Dreifus make clear that they have found valuable initiatives at many levels of the system—just not in most elite research universities. Taylor instead offers the institutions he himself has created as solutions to general problems. (Do professors hesitate to learn digital tools? Then create a center like the one Taylor built at Williams where students can guide their mentors’ fumbling fingers onto keyboard and mouse. Do professors find it hard to reach a large public? Then create a program like the one Taylor has devised at Columbia, which brings together professors and local media.) Only a virtual trip to the MIT Media Lab—a place adept at spawning innovations and even more adept at winning publicity—varies his paeans to his own creative energies.

At the core, though, the two offerings have a great deal in common. Both point out—with considerable justice—that the financial condition of American universities is at best precarious, far more so than most academics have realized. States have lowered their support, which rarely comes to more than 15 percent of the budget of a flagship public university. Endowments—which administrators and the rest of us, carried away by rapture of the private placements, expected to rise like elevators, year after year, until the next millennium—crashed with the rest of the economy in 2008. Family incomes are stagnant for all but the rich. Still, the cost of a year’s study at a college or university escalates, year upon year.

Yet how good is this expensive product? Drop-out rates are frighteningly high: fewer than half of those who enter college will earn an associate’s degree within three years or a BA within six. Even those who finish, moreover, often emerge from college with staggering debts, no technical qualifications and few basic skills. In 2003, the last National Assessment of Adult Literacy revealed that:

Only 41 percent of graduate students tested . . . could be classified as “proficient” in prose—reading and understanding information in short texts—down 10 percentage points since 1992. Of college graduates, only 31 percent were classified as proficient.1

In these circumstances, the critics argue, radical measures are needed: measures that will both cut costs and make education more valuable.


ONE THING Hacker and Dreifus have in common with Taylor is a striking amount of hubris. They seek to show how massive institutions, some of them richly endowed, all of them central to American society and culture, should be reshaped. Yet both books are also strikingly superficial. The authors confidently denounce all current scholarship as worthless in itself and irrelevant or harmful to the sort of teaching students need. “So-called cutting-edge work became more and more about less and less,” says Taylor. He cites no evidence to support the claim—as if any single person could assess the quality of work in a single discipline, much less all of them. Hacker and Dreifus want scientists to transform their basic courses from harsh, demanding experiences into accessible introductions to “the hopes of their chosen field and the goals of science as a whole.” Yet they never explain how American science would survive once the universities took themselves out of the business of scientific research and turned Physics and Chemistry 101 into Science for Poets. Though they adopt suitably urgent tones, these would-be reformers have done far less reading and thinking about the university than earlier writers such as Harvard’s David Damrosch and UC Berkeley’s David Kirp. It shows.

To stake out their cure-alls for higher education, the two treatises depend heavily—as their scanty footnotes reveal—on articles from newspapers and the Chronicle of Higher Education—not exactly evidence that the authors have dug deep in their search for understanding. And both offer snap judgments and glib suggestions that a moment’s reflection—not to say ten minutes’ Googling—would have qualified or eliminated. Hacker and Dreifus note that in 2008, Williams spent $70,316 on each student, while collecting only $23,468 on average in tuition. This they find excessive: “For a contrast, we visited Linfield College, in Oregon’s wine country, where we found an excellent liberal arts education was offered for $26,603.” Williams, in their view, “could do just as well by its students on Linfield’s $26,603. But it spends $70,316 because it can find it.” Linfield may well offer an excellent education. But if you compare the two colleges’ websites, you see that Williams offers instruction in more languages than Linfield—notably Russian, which that small college in the Pacific Northwest apparently doesn’t offer, and Arabic, in which Williams has just created a major; that its library is several times larger than Linfield’s; and that its faculty-to-student ratio is seven to one (Linfield’s is twelve to one). Williams spends more than Linfield not because its president and trustees are carrying out some weird form of potlatch ritual but so that it can offer students a wider range of resources and possibilities.

Taylor, for his part, argues that it makes no sense to keep disciplines separate any longer—to have students, for example, spend their time as undergraduates mastering one language and literature, rather than in a single department of literature. His “bold” proposal (Taylor’s term) calls for the creation of “Emerging Zones”: special spaces in which disciplines can come together to carry out specific tasks, and students can learn how to bring multiple pursuits together. In fact, though, there is nothing bold about such ideas. Apparently Taylor has not noticed that his own university, Columbia, has a Genome Center where—as at other first-rate universities—students can pursue doctorates in the “Integrated Program in Cellular, Molecular and Biomedical Studies.” The “faculty belong to a variety of academic departments including Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, Biological Sciences, Biomedical Informatics, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering and Pharmacology.” And though programs in comparative literature, religion and other fields can certainly benefit undergraduates, Taylor seems to have forgotten that really mastering a single foreign language and literature requires a student to take multiple courses with many experts. Though he no longer calls for replacing traditional majors with programs in “Water” and “Space,” as he did in the New York Times editorial that preceded the appearance of his book by sixteen months or so, his sketches of how universities should cut and manage the disciplines show little appreciation of their historical and aesthetic richness. In many fields we have already learned to do a reasonably good job of bringing disciplines together—when it’s necessary to carry out a particular job. We assemble psychologists, computer scientists, mathematicians and physicists to interpret fMRI images. And we join chemical engineers with physicists and the like to study the electrical properties of substances that could be used in solid-state electronic devices. (These are merely two examples out of many from my own university, based respectively at Princeton’s Center for the Study of the Brain, Mind and Behavior and Center for Complex Materials.) Pushing all the others together by fiat would cause confusion, not creativity, and undermine much solid learning.


IN THE end, these authors pin their hopes on the same academic messiah. If university presidents had the power to act as CEOs, they could cut the Gordian knots. So let’s give them the power to dismiss professors who are overpaid and past their sell-by dates, and to set all the others to teaching four or five courses a term. Just run the university as a teaching corporation, in other words, and all will be well. Strip faculty of tenure, since existing constitutional law will protect professors’ freedom of speech and tenure has no other function. Cut our excessive salaries and refuse to support research with sabbatical leaves and grants. Then we professors can be put back to work in the classroom, the only place we actually belong, offering a fair day’s work for a modest day’s pay. The university will once again be doing its proper job, giving students basic skills and civic values by making them read the classics (Hacker and Dreifus) or preparing them to compete in a hot, flat world by helping them learn to abandon old, tired linear arguments for the multimedia juxtapositions and digressions possible in digital work (Taylor). Presumably, professors—except for the incorrigible ones—will happily collaborate in building new curricula to meet their new circumstances. (Neither book explains why able people would want to become professors in these new systems, both of which would reduce their jobs to glorified versions of high school teaching.)

This is not a new idea. As Frank Donoghue showed in The Last Professors, some of the entrepreneurs who created big business in America in the decades around 1900 believed that universities should be run like factories, with stern time discipline and no tenure. It’s also not a good idea. The American corporate model looks a little battered at the moment, while American universities have become paragons of learning to which all the world aspires. Does it really make sense to refashion Harvard in the image of GM or BP? For all the problems tenure causes, it has proved its value over time—and not only, or mainly, as a way of protecting free speech. Sometimes, basic research in humanities, social science and natural science pays off quickly in real-world results. More often, though, it takes a generation or so for practical implications to become clear. That’s how long it took, for example, for new research (most of it done in universities) which showed how central slavery was to both the life of the South and the outbreak of the Civil War, to transform the way public historians present the American past at historical sites. That’s how long it will probably take for the genomic research that is currently exploding to have a practical impact on medical treatment. Basic research doesn’t immediately fatten the bottom line, even in the fiscal quarter when results are announced. Many corporations have cut or withdrawn their support for it, on strictly economic grounds. In earlier decades, AT&T (later Lucent Technologies), RCA, Xerox and other industrial companies did a vast amount of basic research. AT&T’s Bell Labs, for one, created the transistor and the photovoltaic cell, and mounted the first TV and fax transmissions. But funding fell and corporate priorities changed—and they have shrunk in every sense ever since. Just one thousand employees walk the darkened corridors of Bell Labs, down from a staff of thirty thousand in 2001. We need universities, and tenured professors, to carry on the basic research that most corporations have abandoned. What we don’t need is for universities to adopt the style of management that wrecked the corporate research centers.


FOR ALL their faults, both of these books illuminate some dark recesses of the American university system, and they deserve credit for doing so. But they are cast in a polemical and condescending key that will win few admirers among the professors whose lives and attitudes they hope to transform. Their analyses and their suggestions lack the depth and specificity that someone like Kirp attained by carrying out detailed case studies of individual colleges and universities. Neither of them confronts—or even mentions—some of the basic causes for the problems they have identified: the widespread collapse of public secondary education, which sends so many students to university unprepared and turns college courses into remedial work; or the disappearance of the idea that a solid education is a public good that societies should provide to as many of their members as possible. Strangest of all, these erudite writers show little understanding of the intellectual richness and variety that have made American universities the envy of observers around the world—observers who are horrified by our failing infrastructure, our radically unequal system of health care and our wretched provision for the poorest of our poor. As Michael Crow—the reforming president of Arizona State, much admired by Hacker and Dreifus—has made clear by example (as when he hired Kip Hodges, a longtime professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at the interdisciplinary-center-creator-par-excellence MIT, to run a new School of Earth and Space Exploration), the way to improve on traditional models is not to abandon them but to go them one better. The solution is to offer gifted scientists and scholars who have proved themselves in the old system new and better ways to do their work. More radical proposals sound good, stir up brief but heated debates and sell books. But they will not help us save the complex, delicate ecology of teaching and learning from the ice age that now threatens it.


Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton University.

1 Lois Romano, “Literacy of College Graduates Is on Decline,” Washington Post, December 25, 2005.


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