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Our Universities: How Bad? How Good?

Martha Nussbaum; drawing by John Springs

The truth is that this book is short on reasoned analysis and long on animus, directed at elite universities, at administrators, and more than anything else at the “professoriate,” as they call it. Professors are seen on the whole as lazy, self-serving, interested only in sabbaticals, prizing only their own research, and profoundly uninterested in teaching students. The accusation is not new. I have to say that it does not correspond with my own experience, and that of most of the faculty I know—including dozens of former students teaching in a range of institutions, from the elite to the community college. On the contrary, I find most faculty more than ever before aware of the importance of teaching well. Some of their research is highly specialized, some trivial, and some in fact of remarkable ambition and interdisciplinary reach.

It’s easy to blame the professors. They are also the main target of Mark C. Taylor’s inflated Crisis on Campus, a New York Times Op-Ed from 2009 that hypertrophied into a book. “If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured,” he wrote in the Times. 4 The book develops his notions for restructuring over a set of chapters that mainly rehearse ideas that have been common currency since the 1960s: revamp doctoral programs, abolish departments and promote interdisciplinarity, create knowledge networks using new technologies, move from “walls to webs,” impose mandatory retirement, put an end to tenure.

The proposals are not new, a number of them have been acted upon in one form or another, others are underway—no university that I know of is oblivious to the revolutions of network and Web. As for mandatory retirement, Taylor seems to forget that this was not abolished by the universities, which would love to bring it back, but by an act of Congress. Regulation is a more sinister matter, I believe. Who or what is to regulate American universities? The Department of Education that brought us the Spellings Commission report? Some national board armed with the Collegiate Learning Assessment? Or perhaps Representative Darrell Issa, chair of the House Committee on Oversight?

On the whole, one has to say that the relative autonomy of the American university has been far more beneficial than the contrary. American higher education is a nonsystem that is messy, reduplicative, unfair—just like American society as a whole—but it has made genuine commitments to quality and to a greater degree of social justice, to the extent that is within its control, than most other institutions of the society. It has brought new blood into old elitist institutions, and indeed has thoroughly scrambled the hereditary caste it began with. You have simply to walk the paths of any reputable American university today to see that the student population looks like the range of American ethnicities—far more than many other institutions. Universities have taken seriously calls for inclusiveness and affirmative action. The large expenditures on their admissions offices that bring sneers from Hacker and Dreifus have promoted diversity in ways unimagined fifty years ago. Given the long and continuing history of American anti-intellectualism—which today takes the form of a vicious know-nothingism—I am often surprised that America has universities of the quality it does.

The Hacker and Dreifus animus against Harvard et al. reminds me of the time I lived in rural Virginia and drove some distance on Sundays to buy The New York Times: the storekeeper would squint at me as I handed over my $5.00 and declare, “‘T’ain’t worth it.” While he was probably right about the Sunday Times, I doubt that many students (or their parents) will really pass up admission to the Golden Dozen for a place at Ole Miss. For both the wrong reasons and the right reasons, America’s elite colleges will continue to be coveted (Harvard just reported a record 35,000 applications for its next freshman class).

The real issue that emerges for me from this and other critiques of American higher education concerns our once proudly public universities. Since the time I last taught at the University of Virginia, five years ago, in-state tuition has risen by over 50 percent. The reason is simple: the Commonwealth of Virginia’s contribution to its flagship university makes up only about 8 percent of its operating budget. Salaries and student aid are squeezed. Administrators who want UVA to continue as a first-rate institution see raising tuition as the only solution. Not their fault—but what has happened to the American commitment to public higher education? The University of California system, in so many ways the pride of the nation, is currently being savaged by budget cuts. Things are not likely to get better: most state budgets are in a parlous condition, and education is the easy target—especially with Hacker and Dreifus and Taylor telling people that many of the faculty are a waste of money to begin with.

A lot of money would make things better. Since that is unlikely to come to the public universities—whereas the rich private universities are now recuperating pretty well from their endowment losses of a couple of years ago—should we heed the calls in these books to abolish tenure, which would allow universities to fire and hire at will? Neither Taylor nor Hacker and Dreifus think tenure is necessary to protect academic freedom: the former sees no threat, and the latter two give a few examples where tenure did nothing to protect a number of unfortunates, including Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado, who fell afoul of administrators or politicians, or both. If tenure is a weak shield, why have it?

These studies don’t consider whether the dark days of McCarthyism would have produced even more casualties without it; nor do they anticipate what things could be like in a political culture of Tea Partiers and Palinites. To be sure, tenure can protect the careers of some mediocrities. On the other hand, the selection of faculty by peers empowered by the permanence of their appointments still seems the best way to ensure that they are chosen on the right grounds. And the weightiness of this decision—attaching someone to your institution for an indefinite future—at least means that almost all universities have created reasonably careful and solemn procedures of review.

Here, really, is the other argument for tenure, less often heard than the claim that it protects academic freedom. It runs like this: if the body of permanently appointed professors is not to determine who merits appointment as professors, according to peer review of their competence and the prospect of their remaining active and engaged, who will? Who will do the hiring and firing? It would in all likelihood be the administration—presidents, boards of trustees, some of whom have considerable power as it is. Is that really what we want—even what Hacker and Dreifus, who have no love for most university presidents, whom they think overpaid and mediocre, would want?

Proposals to abolish tenure in a setting of calls for some equivalent of “no child left behind” for college students—what the Spellings Commission report and Academically Adrift propose—should give us pause. Arguments emphasizing crisis and decline feed the demand for reform based on “improved measurement” of what students learn, which in turn is fostering a new metrics enterprise. That “Collegiate Learning Assessment,” designed not to test student acquisition of knowledge but rather “core outcomes espoused by all of higher education,” has three parts. According to Arum and Roksa, the best developed is the “performance task component.” In the example they give (and praise), students are asked to write a “memo” to the president of DynaTech, which makes precision instruments, concerning whether the corporation should buy a certain small jet, the SwiftAir 235, which seems to meet the needs of its sales force—but has had a recent crash.

This cost-benefit exercise is fun, but it hardly tests the kind of thing I teach (which might best be evaluated, I have often thought, by what students are thinking about and dreaming of twenty years after graduation). Such exercises resemble the case studies pioneered by Harvard Business School. But the test results allow Arum and Roksa to ring the alarm bells (students are learning very little from their college studies), and to cite with approval the Spellings Commission report claim that “the quality of student learning at US colleges and universities is inadequate, and in some cases, declining.” To blame? The culture of the professoriate, once more. The solution?

From our standpoint, the evidence of student and organizational cultures’ inattention to learning and high levels of societal investment makes discussion of higher education’s accountability both largely inevitable and in certain respects warranted.

Though ponderously stated (as is the whole book), the message again is that the university must be policed and regulated through outcomes testing.5

One turns with some relief to Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit, and her impassioned (if somewhat preachy) argument in favor of study of the humanities. She suggests, contra the critics, that “the liberal arts portion of college and university education in the United States now supports democratic citizenship better than it did fifty years ago.” Her concern is with the diminishing place given to the liberal arts in many institutions: their marginalization by technocratic and business-oriented demands.6 Her book pursues a comparison between the US and India, and the progressive reforms of John Dewey and of Rabindranath Tagore, which seem to have been largely lost in India’s drive to achieve pride of place in the new global economies. Nussbaum takes her position firmly in the Socratic tradition of inquiry, and of teaching, and she points out that this works best in small groups, with live questions and answers. Nussbaum calls on a great tradition of educational reformers—Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebl, Horace Mann, Dewey—to argue for the place of creative play and imaginative sympathy in education. She wants dreamers to further the American dream—something that is beyond the imagination of most of the books under review.

Before we subscribe to the narrative of decline promoted by critics of the university, we might think of the narrow-mindedness of our educational beginnings. The early curriculum of Yale College was described, in a somewhat severe retrospect, by Samuel Johnson of the class of 1714 (who later became president of King’s College, itself to become Columbia University):

The utmost that was generally attempted…was to construe five or six of Tully’s orations, as many books of Virgil, and part only of the Greek Testament, with some chapters of the Hebrew Psalter. Common arithmetic, and a little surveying, were the ne plus ultra of mathematical acquirements. The logic, metaphysics, and ethics that were then taught, were entangled in the scholastic cobwebs of a few paltry systems, that would now be laid by as proper food for worms. Indeed…the students had heard of a certain new and strange philosophy, that was in vogue in England, and the names of Descartes, Boyle, Locke, and Newton, had reached them; but they were not suffered to think that any valuable improvements were to be expected from philosophical innovations.7
  1. 4

    End the University as We Know It,” The New York Times, April 26, 2009. 

  2. 5

    UK faculty have for some years now been required to report to government in the form of the “Research Assessment Exercise” (RAE). For an analysis of what that has meant, see Simon Head, ” The Grim Threat to British Universities,” The New York Review, January 13, 2011. 

  3. 6

    See also Victor E. Ferrall Jr.’s Liberal Arts at the Brink (Harvard University Press, 2011), which looks at the economic challenges facing liberal arts colleges. 

  4. 7

    Johnson’s remarks are cited in the 1828 Report of the Yale College Faculty—a conservative defense of a curriculum founded on the Greek and Roman classics that had considerable influence in American universities for several decades. 

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