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Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?

Perhaps it’s not a crisis. After all, as many observers have pointed out, this is the way we live now, and room remains for exceptions and for hope. Still, the dark hordes of forgotten students who leave the university as Napoleon’s army left Russia, uninspired by their courses, wounded in many cases by what they experience as their own failures, weighed down by their debts, need to be seen and heard. Perhaps some of those who write seriously about universities could stop worrying so much about who gets into Harvard, Yale, and Princeton and start worrying about the much larger numbers who don’t make it through Illinois and West Virginia, Vermont and Texas. It would also be instructive to see engaged teachers like Anthony Kronman, author of Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (2007), a recent polemic against the corruption of the humanities, concern themselves with the concrete situation in which most American students find themselves. Polemics about the death of the humanities, however eloquent, won’t remedy the inhumanities that thousands of students encounter, predictably, year by year.

Best of all would be for enterprising publishers to find curious writers and have them describe some universities and colleges, in detail, with all their defects. The polemical books, even those that have some substance, end up slinging mud—which, as Huckleberry Finn pointed out to Tom Sawyer, isn’t argument—more often than laying out the evidence. The empirical studies, with a very few exceptions, are deliberately cast in such general terms, and written in such a value- and metaphor-free style, that they won’t reach anyone without a professional interest. Neither sort would give an intelligent outsider—say, a parent or student, a regent or a trustee—a vivid picture of a year’s life and work at a college or university, as it is experienced by all parties; much less a lucid explanation of how finance and pedagogy, bad intentions and good execution shape one another in the academic world.

It must be fun to howl “Read Your Greeks” and denounce evil conspiracies. But public discussion and scrutiny would become much more productive if informed writers captured the texture and flavor of the American university as convincingly as Thomas Ricks, Evan Wright, Elizabeth Samet, and others have done for segments of the military. The novelists discovered this territory long ago. Where are the great journalists? They will find students who manage to do excellent work and many more cases of wasted possibilities, and they might gain some insight into why.

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