The Decline of Higher Learning

American Professors

by Howard R. Bowen and Jack H. Schuster
Oxford University Press, 304 pp., $24.95

None of the Above: Behind the Myth of Scholastic Aptitude

by David Owen
Houghton Mifflin, 327 pp., $16.95

Terminal Degrees: The Job Crisis in Higher Education

by Emily K. Abel
Praeger, 253 pp., $26.95

Liberating Education

by Zelda F. Gamson. associates
Jossey-Bass, 253 pp., $16.95

The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus

by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner
Beacon, 219 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Mastering the Techniques of Teaching

by Joseph Lowman
Jossey-Bass, 245 pp., $18.95

Selective Guide to Colleges

by Edward B. Fiske
Times Books, 583 pp., $10.95

The Zero-Sum Solution: Building a World-Class American Economy

by Lester C. Thurow
Simon and Schuster, 414 pp., $18.95

To Reclaim a Legacy

by William J. Bennett
National Endowment for the Humanities, US Government Printing Office, 44 pp., $2.00

Integrity in the College Curriculum

by Frederick Rudolph. others
Association of American Colleges, 47 pp., $4.00

Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of American Higher Education

National Institute of Education
US Government Printing Office, 99 pp., $4.50

For most people, “going to college” means four convivial years, with the prospect of higher income and social status. Plus, of course, the hope that pursuing a degree will elevate the mind and spirit. Recently, however, the atmosphere on most campuses has been one of malaise. Moreover, the past year has brought a series of reports on the decline of higher learning, especially in the liberal arts. These studies have not received anything like the attention accorded earlier scrutinies of our elementary and high schools. There the emphasis was on a failure to teach basic skills, resulting in a semiliterate workforce and the blunting of the country’s competitive edge. The recent criticism of colleges, serious in its own right, does not cite an equivalent peril.

To Reclaim a Legacy comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and is the work of its then chairman, William J. Bennett, now the secretary of education, and one of the cabinet’s more outspoken conservatives. Despite its source, the report gives an impression of being ideologically neutral. For example, it does not accuse colleges of being unfriendly to business or soft on communism. Bennett’s main concern is that liberal arts have become so “adulterated” and “diluted” that graduates know little of the “culture and civilization of which they are members.” Many not in sympathy with the present administration could still assent to that.

Two other studies are equally severe. Integrity in the College Curriculum, sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and mainly written by Frederick Rudolph, a Williams College historian, points to “the accelerating decline of the undergraduate degree.” He charges that in “what passes for a college curriculum, almost anything goes.” And Involvement in Learning, from a group convened by the National Institute of Education, devotes itself chiefly to the low quality of college teaching. (I will refer to the first two reports by their principal authors, and the third as the NIE study.) In addition, several recent books set these concerns in context, by examining the attitudes and expectations of today’s students and professors.


All three studies take the view that things were better in the past. Thus the NIE report finds students “increasingly reluctant to undertake courses of study in college that challenge their academic skills,” implying this was not always the case. Courses in the liberal arts, which once had pride of place on most campuses, are no longer required of all undergraduates. Bennett notes that fewer than half of the nation’s colleges demand study of a foreign language, compared with almost 90 percent twenty years ago. In addition, three-quarters of all students can receive bachelors’ degrees without having had a course in European history. A recent survey of liberal arts graduates revealed that over half of them had taken no work at all in economics or philosophy or, for that matter, chemistry.1 Rudolph says he encountered “evidence of decline and devaluation” at virtually every campus he visited. Higher education, he asserts, has become “a supermarket where…

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