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 students are shoppers and professors are merchants.”

On the other hand, according to the NIE study, vocational programs may require students to do as much as 80 percent of their work within their specialty, whether it be business administration, mortuary science, or civil engineering. As a result, what liberal education they get takes place almost entirely in elementary courses. Bennett computes that 85 percent of all undergraduate enrollments in the humanities take place during the freshman or sophomore year, with remedial composition courses accounting for much of this total.

If ever there was a golden age of higher education, the reports do not identify when it was.2 What we do know is that more people than ever before are attending college, changing the composition of the student body. Between 1960 and 1983, undergraduate enrollments trebled, growing from 3,227,000 to 9,707,000. As it happens, less than half this increase came from the baby boom. The chief cause of the expansion was that the proportion of young people attending college rose from 34 percent to 58 percent. The current ratio runs even higher when older students—a growing group—are included. In fact, 37 percent of all present undergraduates are twenty-two or older.

The greatest growth occurred in state schools of the second rank and in two-year colleges that may open the way for better jobs but are hardly comparable to traditional four-year colleges. In only a dozen years, from 1960 to 1972, Wisconsin’s Whitewater campus expanded from 1,559 to 8,189, a fivefold increase. Western Illinois in Macon went from 2,462 to 12,517, suggesting that attending college was no longer an exclusive prerogative. As recently as 1960, schools with two-year programs accounted for only 14 percent of all enrollments. By 1982, such institutions—mainly local community colleges—were handling 42 percent of the undergraduate students. During that period, also, enrollments at private colleges fell from 40 percent to 21 percent. In addition, a third of all bachelors’ candidates now study on a part-time basis. And over half of those who get degrees take more than four years to do so.


All campuses have students who in the past would not have attended college, with many coming from high schools lacking strong preparatory programs. Hence the suspicion that their presence has led to an easing of assignments. At the same time, we have no objective measures of college performance. The Scholastic Aptitude Tests, of which more presently, are taken during high school. In fact, today’s college grades are higher: Cs, once common, are now relatively rare. Most students, without too much trouble, can manage mainly Bs. This “grade inflation” has several causes. Some professors hope to fill their classes by gaining reputations as easy graders, a tendency encouraged by the current competition among teachers to get students to register for their courses. And with so many undergraduates planning further study, there is greater pressure for higher grades to get into good professional schools. Even so, these evaluations seem somewhat anomalous, given the testimony of so many teachers that today’s students are less able than their predecessors.

One test gives at least a hint about the attitudes of students: their choice of an undergraduate major. Between 1963 and 1983, the latter being our best figures, the share of degrees in traditional liberal arts subjects dropped resoundingly. As Table A on the following page shows, the proportion of students majoring in foreign languages and literature fell by 58 percent, philosophy by 60 percent, and English by 72 percent.


The “hard sciences”—chemistry, physics, and mathematics—also lost students. However, what is less often noted is that the overall proportion of students choosing vocational fields hardly altered at all, although many deserted the field of education and chose to concentrate on health and business subjects. Equally interesting are the remaining majors, whose share doubled in the two decades. Most of these also have a strong practical component, ranging from computers and “communications,” to law enforcement and social work. The same holds for biology, now heavily a premed major; and to some extent with the arts, which include photography and applied design.

It has been argued that the liberal arts flourished when students came from secure backgrounds and were confident about their prospects. By that reasoning, more recent entrants to higher education are apt to play it safe by choosing vocational programs. In addition, we are told, undergraduates from less prosperous backgrounds tend to lack the sophistication academic subjects require. While these may seem plausible explanations, they are not supported by the statistics. Rather, as the figures show, the years of the greatest expansion in enrollments—1963 to 1973—did not jeopardize the liberal arts. During that decade, the share of students completing arts and science majors remained remarkably stable, while degrees in applied fields actually declined. The real flight from the liberal arts came later, between 1973 and 1983, when enrollments had leveled off. This suggests that an ebbing economy has a greater impact on choice of programs than influxes of students new to the college scene.


To hear many professors talk, today’s undergraduates are an unimpressive lot. In Liberating Education, Zelda Gamson notes the “condescension to students” and “dyspeptic talk about poor preparation” common among college teachers. In a recent survey of faculty mmebers by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, three-quarters complained that current students show less interest in learning than those they had at the outset of their own careers.3 The most frequently cited sign of declining academic skills comes from the Scholastic Aptitude Test, whose scores have been going downhill for about twenty years. Each year almost a million high school seniors take this three-hour examination, consisting of some 150 multiple-choice questions. Students’ scores have become the closest thing we have to a national IQ, while admissions officers regard them as the best augury of college work. David Owen’s None of the Above, a vigorous indictment of the tests, contains much information about the way they are constructed and the reliability of their results. He shows, for example, that the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, which claims to rely on established scholars, often hires local graduate students to prepare its questions. More important, Owen contends the tests misjudge students’ capacities by relying on the multiple-choice format to assess them.

For this reason, Owen is not worried about the slump in scores. He points out that only a quarter of the decline can be attributed to the broader spectrum of applicants taking the test. Lower results are now common among students from well-to-do homes, seniors at private schools, even valedictorians. In fact, 60 percent of those who took the test last year had parents who attended college, a much higher ratio than in the past. There are fewer high scorers altogether, especially on the verbal part, where fewer than half as many achieve 700 or better—each scale runs from 200 to 800—compared with two decades ago.


Much has been made of some improvement in the scores since 1981. Owen is not impressed. Almost half the candidates now take coaching courses, where they study sample questions, get advice on guessing, and learn the logic of the tests. Such sessions can raise one’s “aptitude” by 50 to 100 points. Some services even offer refunds if you don’t improve substantially on your second time around. The Educational Testing Service itself, which prepares the SAT, now sells how-to books and packages courses for high schools. It seems plain that without this preparation, which was rare in the past, scores would have continued to tumble. In other words, they are still going down.

Finding reasons for the test-score decline has become a minor industry. Owen cites a few from his files: water fluoridation, declining church attendance, anesthesia in childbirth, fewer spinster teachers. More serious studies have blamed easier high school courses, with simpler textbooks and lighter homework assignments. Even worse, young people read less as they grow older. A 1982 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that high school seniors actually spend less time reading books than fourth graders. On the demographic side, the drop in scores coincided with the baby boom. With families growing larger, children got less of the sustained parental attention that, according to some scholars, stimulates academic achievement. Plus, of course, television. By the age of sixteen, most children have logged more hours gazing at the set than they have spent in school. According to some research, this diet, plus a regimen of rock music, “may affect the neural mechanisms of the mind and, over time, could lower an individual’s ability to handle verbal materials”4—although it is not clear just how the brain is affected or for how long.

A more revealing explanation comes from Robert Stake, a psychologist at the University of Illinois. Before the 1960s, students were much more dutiful, willing to accept the assignments given them by the adult world. If they got higher scores then, it was because they approached the tests with a more acquiescent attitude. Today’s young people, Stake suggests, resist the demand for a single “correct” answer:

Students do not believe as much in “right answers,” so they do not memorize or seek them as they used to. An increasing number think the whole “right-wrong” business is a put-on.5

They have been raised in more permissive households, where they are allowed, even urged, to express ideas of their own. Schools now encourage discussion, which often ends inconclusively. However, the test makers are still asking the same questions, in the same way as a generation ago. Most of us are familiar with the format, in which you are told to pick the right response from four or five possible answers. Thus in the SAT’s reading comprehension section, you are presented with a paragraph on an unfamiliar subject, say, the feeding habits of various birds. After taking a minute to read it, you must decide which of several statements “best describes” the contents of the passage. The only problem, Stake says, is that today’s young people have a different cast of mind from that expected by the tests. As a result, they spend too much time arguing with the questions, often concluding with Owen that the actual answer is “none of the above.”

Nor is there evidence that the tests pinpoint which people will do well at college or afterward. A twenty-year follow-up of Yale graduates, sponsored—but not publicized—by the College Board, reported “no significant relation could be found between original scores and…honors and standing within their occupations.” David McClelland reached a similar conclusion: “No consistent relationships exist between Scholastic Aptitude scores in college students, and their actual accomplishment in social leadership, the arts, sciences, music, writing, and speech and drama.”6 Test taking is a very special kind of skill, having little in common with the uses of talent in the larger world. More than that, Owen makes a convincing case that it cannot reliably predict undergraduate performance. He shows how reliance on the SAT can skew admissions decisions. For example, students who do well in the mathematics part tend to score well in the verbal section, not necessarily because they have strong verbal aptitudes but because they take easily to the kind of format in which the verbal questions are set. Students with a literary bent have no equivalent advantage. Bowdoin College stopped requiring the test after discovering that many of its best students turned out to have had below-average scores. (Johns Hopkins Medical School and the Harvard Business School recently came to the same conclusion.)

Do the tests discriminate? Quite obviously they do, against people who don’t have the knack for solving puzzles at the rate of one a minute. Moreover, teenagers drawn to the arts are less likely to do well. At the same time, students from better-off families are more apt to attend schools that prepare them for the multiple-choice method. Hence, as Table B on the opposite page shows, there is a not-surprising association between economic status and SAT scores.


Indeed, this accounts for much of the variation among ethnic groups, as can be seen from the correlation of their incomes and scores. However, there are exceptions to this rule. The final column in the table includes only those candidates from families that have incomes in the $40,000 to $50,000 range, quite comfortably middle class. In this bracket, Puerto Ricans and Asian-Americans have improved notably, compared with the general distribution. Scores for blacks, however, have fallen even further behind the next-ranked group.

The tests are evidently biased. Whether that bias has a racial component is, of course, a much-argued question. Thus a recent College Board report concluded that “black students are exposed to less-challenging educational program offerings which are less likely to enhance the development of higher order cognitive skills and abilities than are white students.”7 But is that also true for black students with incomes of over $40,000 a year? Multiple-choice tests discriminate in favor of those who can adapt to the rendering of knowledge the tests represent. What is interesting is that Asians have adapted to this mode with alacrity and skill. What is depressing is the degree to which even upper-middle-class blacks still stand apart from that culture. This is not to commend a world that relies so heavily on machine-scored ratings, but simply to state that those who hope to succeed in that world must submit to its tests.

Multiple-choice tests are being used by states to judge the competence of school-teachers, just as they are the first hurdle for police officers and firefighters. Statewide tests have also been proposed for colleges, to ascertain how much undergraduates are learning. David Owen’s None of the Above goes beyond the charges it levels at the Educational Testing Service. It asks what can be the conception of education colleges that rely so heavily on the scores, or in a society that places so much store in picking predetermined answers.


The three reports on higher education are most severe on college faculties. All three rate the general run of teachers as mediocre or indolent, with most professors indifferent to larger educational aims. Rudolph found college catalogs crammed with “exquisite examples of specialized learning” more suited for graduate students already dedicated to a discipline. “Does it makes sense,” he asks, “for a college to offer a thousand courses to a student who will only take 36?” His point is not to deny opportunities to undergraduates who wish to learn more about a field, but that if choices proliferate, hardly anyone is concerned to formulate a basic liberal arts curriculum. At all events, with so many electives available, he writes, “students bound from course to course,” acquiring the requisite credits but not an education. “Too many faculty members,” Bennett says, “want to teach their dissertation or their next article.”8 Only rarely are senior scholars willing to give comprehensive courses. “Historians who used to be responsible for teaching the entire sweep of Western civilization or the Survey of American History now insist on teaching only that portion of it that corresponds to their specialties.”

The customary reply is that knowledge has become so vast and specialized that a single scholar cannot in conscience try to teach the old kind of survey course. Indeed, faculty members who ask for such assignments may find their professional reputations in jeopardy. As often as not, introductory classes are assigned to parttime instructors or graduate assistants, who may not feel competent either but have no choice in the matter. However, there is more at issue here than growing specialization. Earlier generations of liberal arts teachers, Bennett writes, felt they had “the intellectual authority to say to students what the outcome of a college education ought to be.” Supported by what Rudolph terms “the authority of tradition,” they felt sufficiently secure to expound on the economy of the Roman Empire, Renaissance architecture, and the Treaty of Ghent. Neither Rudolph nor Bennett explores the sources of this authority, perhaps because they suspect it cannot be restored. Certainly, the confidence of professors in the past owed much to their membership in an established middle class, a commitment to European learning, and a Christian conception of character and culture. Moreover, their corpus of knowledge was more readily understood, since the research of most scholars was presented in a common language. As new formulations arose, like Newton’s “thermodynamics” and Kant’s “antimonies,” they became part of educated discourse.

Liberal arts departments still bear their traditional titles. However, as Zelda Gamson notes in Liberating Education, the way they conceive of their subjects has changed considerably. Asking “whatever happened to liberal education?” she suggests the shift took place more recently than Bennett or Rudolph, stating that during the 1960s, “graduate school preoccupations…took hold in many schools.” Undergraduate courses now reflect the way disciplines are conceived at the doctoral level. This has been the real academic revolution; and, Gamson suggests, it has done more than anything else to undercut the liberal arts. Faculty members, to be true to their callings, feel they must spend much of their time discussing the work of their fellow professors. This is most apparent in the social sciences, where courses often give more attention to the models of their disciplines than to society itself. This tendency is less pronounced in the humanities; even so, one occasionally comes across sophomores trying to make sense of assignments on semiotics and hermeneutics. Such knowledge may be important and illuminating; unfortunately, not enough teachers have found ways to bring it to life in their classrooms.

My own experience persuades me that students want a serious education, and are grateful when they get it. They do not ask that their subjects be popularized, nor do they insist they be made “relevant.” Indeed, they soon become aware of the adulteration and dilution alluded to by Bennett. At the same time, undergraduates should not be expected to take readily to material more appropriate to the graduate level. Similar problems arise with science. We can all agree that an understanding of science should be part of a liberal education. Still, most colleges settle for “distribution requirements,” which can usually be satisfied by a single science class. Generally, it will be a course like introductory chemistry, where the instructor feels he has done his duty if he deals with the rudiments of the subject. Unfortunately, few professors are willing or able to provide a broader perspective that might give their students a feeling for the scientific approach to knowledge.

Two recent books provide useful information on college faculties. American Professors, by Howard Bowen and Jack Schuster, is based on interviews with 352 professors at thirty-eight campuses, ranging from Ann Arbor and Swarthmore to Joliet Junior College. Martin Finkelstein relies on already existing studies for his The American Academic Profession, which he calls “a synthesis of social scientific inquiry.” From Bowen and Schuster we learn that the typical humanities professor has an IQ of 128, whereas chemists average 136, and physicists 143. (Social scientists, I fear, score 124.) Sixty-four percent of all faculty members consider themselves “deeply” or “moderately” religious, and 48 percent attend services once a month or more. The professors claimed an average work week of 45.8 hours, of which 8.6 hours were devoted to “public service,” and 3.7 to “professional enrichment.” In addition, Bowen and Schuster note the aging of college teachers. In 1962, professors were relatively youthful, with 44 percent in their twenties or thirties. By 1981, fewer than a quarter were under forty. They estimate that by the year 2000, more than half of all tenured teachers will be almost or over sixty.

American Professors is a book with a message. Its authors call the academic profession a “national resource imperiled.” The most promising college graduates no longer wish to be professors. Among Rhodes Scholars selected in 1950–1954, almost half joined a university; among the 1975–1977 group, fewer than one in five chose college teaching. For Phi Beta Kappas, the proportion fell from 23 percent to 7 percent. “Working conditions in the academic profession,” they write, “have been gradually deteriorating since about 1970.” Financially, “sharp declines in real and relative salaries combined to…lower the morale of college and university faculty members.” According to the Department of Education, the purchasing power of professors’ pay has declined by 16 percent since the early 1970s.

However, other research in Bowen’s and Schuster’s book would suggest that morale is high. They report that 82 percent of all teachers say they are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the course of their careers. If 86 percent of the full professors feel this way, so do 73 percent of assistant professors. The interviews are even more affirmative:

Where else could I have as much freedom to do what I love to do?

This is the greatest life and job that one could have.

Twelve-hour teaching loads, the tenure system and academic freedom. Not a bad deal!

(Twelve classroom hours a week, it may be noted, is twice the teaching load at elite universities.) It would seem that faculty life is still pretty good, even with a 16 percent drop in pay.

“The American academic profession,” Finkelstein says, “is essentially a teaching as opposed to a scholarly profession.” More than half of all professors devote fewer than five hours a week to research, while upward of a third admit to none at all. It has been argued that the pressure to publish has led to the publication of far too many books, more than a few of which might better have appeared as articles. Similarly, making tenure decisions hinge on publication may explain much of the inattention to teaching. In actual practice, however, research is not always expected. A recent survey of some five thousand faculty members found that 60 percent had never published, or even edited, a book in their field.9 This can be as true of full professors as of their junior colleagues, since by no means all deliver on the promise that won them their promotions. “Over the course of an academic career,” Finkelstein notes, “faculty tend to gradually lose interest in teaching and research.” As one professor put it:

You get on committees. You don’t have access to a library for research in your field. Things slip away from you. Time passes, and you must deal with the reality of not having published for a great number of years.10

But most of these statements come from or apply to people already secure in their jobs. During the Sixties and early Seventies, professors gave one another tenure with a lavish hand. So much so, as Table C shows, that permanent appointments now account for upward of 80 percent of some faculties.


Moreover, most of these people are now in their midforties or fifties, which makes them middle-aged but still some distance from retirement. Unfortunately, it will be at least a dozen years before faculties will be able to hire younger people on a large scale. In fact, the wait may be even longer. Given the likelihood of legislation banning age-based retirement rules, senior members with undemanding schedules may choose to continue in the classroom.

The last decade has been bleak for anyone embarking on an academic career. As Emily Abel puts it in Terminal Degrees, there is a lost generation of “disposable dons,” many holding Ph.D.’s, who spend single years at successive institutions, never knowing until late summer where they will be next. According to the NIE report, faculty who teach part-time rose from 23 percent in 1966 to 41 percent in 1980, and the current figure may be higher. “We string them along,” a chairman admitted, “yet we have not hired a single fulltime person in my department since 1969.”11 Some teach simultaneously at several places, sometimes as far as a hundred miles from their home base. Abel suggests that at least part of the blame rests with graduate professors. Their desire for specialized seminars and personal disciples led them to keep recruiting doctoral candidates even though they were aware of the shrinking job market.

In fact, there could be more openings for junior faculty. Most places are top-heavy with full professors who absorb as much as three-quarters of the academic payroll. Drawing on a sample of schools (Table D, opposite page), I found a total of 6,022 full professors and only 2,375 at the assistant level.


I also computed how many more assistant professors each institution could hire—at its prevailing rates—if their full professors agreed to take a 10 percent cut in pay. These colleges could add 1,090 assistant professors, an increase for that rank of 45 percent. As a professor myself, I offer no opinion on whether professors are over-or underpaid, but merely display the distribution of the academic pie. I might add it is far from self-evident that all those $50,000 salaries—for thirty three-day (at most) work weeks—are responses to market forces. Even at the most distinguished institutions, not all professors are stars who must be lavishly paid lest they be lured away. Indeed, were cuts imposed, most faculty members would remain in place, since no other university wants them. As it happens, the mobility of teachers among colleges is currently at an all-time low.

Not only is education a labor-intensive industry, but academic payrolls contain more upper-middle-class salaries than most other institutions. Thus far, parents and taxpayers, many of whom earn considerably less, have not objected to paying these bills. For the current academic year, tuition alone at Harvard totals $11,340, while for Brown the figure is $11,155. These figures do not include books, travel, or room and board, which come close to doubling the cost. Compared with Bowdoin, Wellesley, and Stanford, all with tuitions over $10,000, Duke looks like a bargain at only $8,500. It should be added that students are paying much of their own way through loans. Whereas the family income of students who took the Scholastic Aptitude Test this year averaged over $40,000, parents typically contributed only $3,500 toward college costs. Currently, some 3.3 million young people are borrowing $9 billion, which they hand over to bursars’ offices. Many will graduate as much as $30,000 in debt, with repayments slated to begin when they receive their first paycheck.


It is not easy to generalize about the current undergraduate generation, if only because they tend to be laconic about their thoughts and feelings. One hears a good deal about their concern with careers; but that need not mean there have been basic changes in their values. Just how many are exercised over what is happening in Central America or South Africa, for example, is difficult to discern. Still, if they are more conservative, they are less so than their elders. Fifty-one percent of full-time students supported Ronald Reagan’s reelection, compared with 59 percent for the rest of the country. At the same time, most professors sense there is less idealism in the air. For the last sixteen years, Alexander Astin of UCLA has been polling college freshmen on their attitudes and goals. His most recent survey, for the fall of 1985, found that only 44 percent hoped college would help them “develop a philosophy of life,” compared with 85 percent with such a faith in 1968.12 Needless to say, defections from the liberal arts may have contributed to that change.

Fewer of the women students said that being well-off financially was for them a major goal. They are more liberal on such issues as racial integration, military spending, and homosexuality. Apparently they were drawn to these sentiments before they went to college. Indeed, the docile daughter is fast disappearing. A recent study of high school students reveals that on politics and religion and ideas about family life, girls differ from their fathers more often than boys do. 13

Indeed, women are now a major presence on most campuses. Currently they make up over half of all undergraduate enrollments, and also a majority of all bachelors’ and masters’ degrees. (Among black students, women account for almost 60 percent of these totals.) They are now receiving 32 percent of academic doctorates, along with 25 percent of those in medicine and 33 percent in law.

A 1980 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 40 percent of high school girls received mostly As and Bs, compared with a quarter of the boys. While we have no similar figures for college, we know that women undergraduates are more likely to finish, whereas the dropout rate for men has recently been rising. Informal evidence suggests that outside of the sciences women do at least as well as men. Yet last year the top graduate at Annapolis, essentially an engineering school, was a woman. One no longer hears professors saying that women type neater papers but show less intellectual flair. In 1963, almost half of all of women undergraduates majored in education; twenty years later, only 15 percent were doing so. Now their most frequent major is business administration.

So far as the academic profession is concerned, the 32 percent of Ph.D.’s women currently receive is up from 11 percent a quarter century ago. Still, the figures in Emily Abel’s Terminal Degrees suggest they have had little luck on the academic ladder. Five times as many women Ph.D.’s remain unemployed; and if they manage to get jobs, the odds are it will be part-time work. In addition, Abel contends, almost twice as many women have positions that hold no chance for promotion. And when they are candidates for permanent appointments, she says, they “are far less likely than their male colleagues to attain tenure.”

Is discrimination still rampant in academic hiring? The most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that women comprise 37 percent of the nation’s 620,000 college and university teachers. At first reading, this figure looks relatively equitable, higher than the 16 percent for lawyers and physicians. But it will come as no surprise that most of the women hold junior positions. The only breakdown for academic ranks is in a 1981–1982 National Center for Education Statistics study covering some 400,000 full-time faculty members, a somewhat selective group, as it does not include part-time people, most of whom are women. As Table E on the following page shows, over three-quarters of the women are at or below the assistant professor level, and only 10 percent hold full professorships.


Analyzed another way, men still occupy nine out of ten of the full professor positions, and eight of ten at the associate rank.

Still, to put the matter in perspective, we need to know how many women were available at the time today’s faculty members were hired. Academic norms being what they are, persons holding doctorates provide the pool from which professors tend to be recruited. As it turns out, women received 11 percent of the Ph.D.’s in 1963, which parallels their share of today’s full professorships. In 1973, they were awarded 18 percent of the doctorates, whereas their representation among current associate professors is somewhat higher. And their present proportion of assistant professorships exceeds their share of Ph.D.’s awarded in 1983. These figures would suggest not only that efforts have been made to appoint women. It could even be argued that at least some men with recent doctorates have been passed over for this reason. Table E also shows the percentage of women at the assistant professor level at a sampling of schools, plus their share of doctorates in various fields. In fact, their edge may be greater than appears, since they are seldom candidates in science and engineering.

It is undoubtedly true that there would be more women in the higher ranks today if careers had not been discouraged in earlier periods. Until recently, graduate schools did not take women students seriously, dismissing them as dubious investments, as did many other professions. At the same time, most women who did persevere found academic positions or ones of comparable status.14 Clearly, they had to show greater dedication than was required of men. Young women today say they are committed to their careers, and many seem willing to make the requisite sacrifices. Insofar as they are willing to postpone marriage and children, or to live apart from their husbands, they should receive equal consideration for current vacancies.15 The real question, of course, is how many positions and promotions will be available for younger teachers of either sex. As I have noted, most faculties are already top-heavy with professors with tenure. Some schools even have orders from regents or trustees that regardless of how promising the candidate they may not increase that ratio.

Academic women face yet another difficulty. Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner assert that each year one million women students face some form of sexual harassment by male professors. They arrive at this estimate by extrapolating from their own interviews with some four hundred students, instructors, and alumni. Their book describes an atmosphere of intimidation few women can escape, although some women might not consider themselves harassed by some of the behavior they denounce. Harassment for the authors can range from “leering or ogling” to overt propositions and actual rape. (“Constant brushing” comes somewhere in between.) Nor, the authors say, does harassment work both ways. Women students may pester professors; however, given the way power is allotted, they “simply do not have enough power to harass.”

Most of The Lecherous Professor consists of accounts volunteered by victims. In some, the students reject the overtures, which are almost invariably coarse (“You’d think someone his age would at least have a little class”). In others, they succumb unwillingly (“I had to close my eyes and pretend that I was with my boy-friend”). Harassers are also obtuse, unable to realize their targets may feel other than honored. Only in one interview did a student say she found the teacher attractive, and he happened to be relatively young. All the rest are described as “ugly,” “rude,” or “obnoxious.” Dziech and Weiner note that the teachers tend to be middle-aged, beset with the usual crises. Indeed, the frequency of assaults may be yet another side effect of aging faculties.

The authors make no mention of ungrounded accusations, or the part fantasies have been known to play. Nor do they grant that at least some campus encounters involve mutual consent, or that with women graduate students intellectual affinity with a teacher can lead to a liaison. The Lecherous Professor suggests that the best way to fight back is by publicizing misconduct whenever it occurs, including naming names—which this book has a disquieting habit of doing.


In addition to all their other problems, colleges must now compete for students. Between 1984 and 1996, Lester Thurow has calculated in his new book, the number of college-age Americans will decline by 28 percent. This June the last of the baby boom generation will be receiving their degrees. Also younger Americans in the future will include more blacks and Hispanics, with more from single-parent families: groups less likely to continue beyond high school. About the only bright side is the increased enrollments among Asian-Americans, many of whose parents emigrated during the last twenty years and are now in a position to send their children to college. They now account for 5 percent of the students taking the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, over double their share of a decade ago. At MIT Asians comprise a fifth of the current freshman class; and at several California campuses, they account for a quarter of the students. Also, more older people are enrolling as undergraduates. Even so, they and the Asians will fill only a fraction of the empty places in colleges across the nation.

Thus far, few colleges have closed. However, many, both public and private, are in vulnerable positions. Between 1974 and 1984, enrollments at the Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts and the Pocatello campus of Idaho State University dropped by almost 30 percent. At Beloit and Bethany, both good private colleges, registrations have dipped even further. New York’s Stony Brook center, making a policy of necessity, plans to take in 23 percent fewer undergraduates by 1990.

“Selective” now has a double meaning. In the past, the term referred to the colleges themselves, indicating the percentage of applicants they chose to admit. The figures in Table F, from Edward Fiske’s excellent guide to colleges, show that truly selective schools such as Amherst, Stanford, and Yale accept only one in five applicants.


Duke, Columbia, and MIT accept one of every three. However, a top-flight college like Bryn Mawr has an opening for more than half of the people who apply. As the student shortage grows, colleges will reach even further. Even respected colleges like Kenyon and Reed let in at least 70 percent; while at Beloit, at least four of five applicants can count on a place.

Selectivity also operates on the students’ side. An equally revealing index, also derived from Fiske’s figures, is how many of the people a school admits actually attend. While Harvard continues to lead with a 73 percent arrival rate, at Dartmouth and Yale only three out of five show up. (Multiple filing of applications obviously is a cause.) Half of those admitted by Northwestern go elsewhere, while Kenyon and Reed count themselves lucky if more than two in five enroll. No more than fifty or sixty schools continue seriously to winnow students. Most are trying to recruit enough freshmen to balance the college budget.

Thurow argues that state systems, in particular, have been overbuilt. The only solution is to “eliminate entire colleges or universities” within those networks. At the least, “good departments have to be moved from bad universities, and bad departments in good universities shut down.” Thurow calls this “damage control.” Unfortunately, he does not remark on what kind of education a college could give if it no longer had, say, a department of history. He would also allow market forces to operate. If students stop applying to a school, they may have a good reason: like having heard that other places provide a better product. I am not clear how much importance students give to the quality of teaching when making their choices among colleges. Even so, it might be argued that a college’s chances of survival would improve if its students were known to enjoy the education it offers.

Unfortunately, all three of the reports on higher education found the quality of college teaching unsatisfactory. Unlike in a lot of high schools, ignorance of one’s subject is seldom an issue. The problem, rather, is that undergraduates find themselves bewildered or bored—or both—in too many of their courses. Colleges assume that anyone certified in a discipline can walk into a room and do something called teaching.

Graduate schools provide little or no aid, since they regard their mission as training scholars who will not be judged as educators. Even teaching assistants, Rudolph says, are “thrown into a classroom of undergraduates” without advice or supervision. On the whole, college teaching is self-taught. Only rarely will a tenured professor be told that his or her performance can stand improvement. Students do complain, for a variety of reasons; but hardly ever because their courses are dreary.

Can good teaching be taught? Bennett seems to think so, and calls on graduate schools to give at least equal attention to preparing effective educators. “Much of our teaching will remain mediocre,” he says, “unless our graduate schools reexamine their priorities.” However he does not suggest who would carry out this training, or what forms it might take. Special seminars on how to teach may look good on paper but offer little help. Not the least problem is that graduate professors themselves know little about undergraduates, seeing them only in large lecture rooms or advanced courses.

The NIE report says that colleges should “increase the weight given to teaching in the processes of hiring and determining retention, tenure, promotion, and compensation.” One difficulty here lies in identifying top teachers. (Schools face a similar hurdle in allocating “merit pay.”) If a faculty member proves popular, snide remarks are often heard about easy grading or showmanship, or that his or her syllabus does not live up to professional standards. How much undergraduates have learned is certainly a gauge of teaching quality. As might be expected, multiple-choice tests have been proposed to measure faculty proficiency. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to note which professors have excelled at challenging the minds of their students.

Still, for faculty members who want to do better, Joseph Lowman’s Mastering the Techniques of Teaching is useful. His title affirms an important point. We cannot expect that everyone who enters a classroom will be a “natural” teacher, but people can still do creditable jobs if they take the trouble to develop techniques that work for them. Lowman argues that “the college classroom is a dramatic arena first and a setting for intellectual discourse second.” Knowledge must be presented in “an involving and memorable way” if only because most students are not inherently interested in the subject being taught. Indeed, even better schools are looking for ways to rouse student interest. In a Harvard course in evolution, teaching assistants clad as insects act out the pollination process while Tchaikovsky is played over loudspeakers. Whether this will cause a dilution of academic content is a serious question. At the same time, too rigorous a syllabus may induce somnolence rather than absorption.

Mastering the Techniques of Teaching is filled with helpful hints, some of them quite simple. For example, Lowman suggests arriving in the classroom several minutes before the session starts. As often as not, students will approach you with questions they feel are not important enough to bring to your office. He offers advice on dealing with complaints regarding grades; and the advantages and drawbacks of visual aids. He gives examples of using several kinds of presentation within a single hour, varying them to match student reactions, which can be sensed by reading their expressions. There is even a section on “voice improvement exercises.”

These are obviously not cure-alls. However even a teacher with an uninspiring personality can compensate by building a battery of techniques—like arriving early and answering questions. While much of what Lowman says may resemble the kind of “pedagogy” dear to teachers’ colleges, the fact remains that too many faculty members do not even think about improving their teaching. Lowman thinks professors can profit from student evaluations. Contrary to faculty fears, undergraduates seldom give high grades to entertainers. Rather, they respect instructors who succeed at explaining difficult material. One value of this wise book is that it may induce even successful teachers to take a fresh look at what they have been doing. One important question the author, a psychology professor at Chapel Hill, leaves unexplored. I wish he had extended his reflections to the not always evident differences between men and women students. Given the increasing proportion of women on campuses, such insights would be useful, particularly for all those middle-aged male professors.16


While everyone can agree that undergraduate education needs more support and attention, that consensus dissolves once talk turns to the actual curriculum. The National Institute of Education report tends to skirt this question; however, Zelda Gamson, the principal author of Liberating Education, took part in its preparation. Her own position, as elaborated in her book, is that the aim of higher education should be to “liberate” students, intellectually and politically. Hence she uses phrases like “becoming empowered,” “what it means to be human,” and “waking up to life.” The book outlines programs at several colleges, with descriptions of some classes in operation. Most of them encourage free-form discussions in which all the participants are praised, including some students whose chief concern about Paradise Lost was that it ignored the “women’s viewpoint.” Despite the enthusiasm of the reports, it is difficult to tell how much education—liberal or otherwise—takes place in these programs; and the absence of any careful evaluation of what the students learned does not inspire much confidence in them. One lesson from the Sixties was that students are not helped when all issues are related to personal experience or made to seem simpler or more conclusive than they actually are.

Frederick Rudolph’s study concludes with a summary of the skills and fields of learning that undergraduates should be asked to master. In addition to art and science, it includes “abstract logical thinking,” “critical analysis,” “historical consciousness,” “values,” “understanding numerical data,” and “international and multicultural experiences.” In fact, many colleges could claim they are already implementing his prescription, requiring courses in computers or statistics, along with work in a non-Western culture. Even so, questions remain about how to develop capacities like logical thinking and critical analysis. For example, should they be a special province of instruction? As it happens, most professors like to believe this is what they do in their classes every day, whether they teach in engineering schools or at Pentecostal colleges.

Nor is it clear that people who do well at school end up more adept in analytical skills. Edward Bennett, soon after becoming secretary of education, proposed an interesting experiment:

Let’s take some students of the same social class and IQ, and compare those who go to college with those who don’t, four years down the road. Let’s see how they stack up on things like values and reasoning ability.17

Such research as we have supports Bennett’s proposal. Follow-up studies have found that “success in school work is not related to success outside of school” and academic talent tends to be “of limited consequence in the real world.” Indeed, the only thing academic success predicts is “other forms of academic success.”18 Moreover, having done well financially is only one of several measures in these studies, which include professional recognition and other attainments.

At a minimum, “skills” can mean the kind of literary and arithmetic competences we now assess by standardized tests. Lester Thurow notes that following the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik in 1957, “the United States embarked on a program to upgrade human skills,” which resulted in an episodic rise in SAT scores. At the same time, implicit in debates over the content of the curriculum is a distinction between mental and intellectual competences. We can usually agree when the former have been achieved—such as being able to write a coherent paragraph or interpret a set of statistics. Intellectual ability, on the other hand, will always be more difficult to define, since evaluations of a person’s mind can be affected by the conclusions that a person reaches.

Bennett makes a distinction akin to this, since he explicitly states that “content” rather than “skills” must form the basis of any serious curriculum. While skills are certainly essential in his view, he sees them as means to an end; otherwise, we are left with agnosticism or relativism. Undergraduate education, he argues, should impart “the best that has been thought and written about the human condition.” And by this, Bennett means the classics of the Western world; he offers a sample syllabus, ranging from Thucydides and Hobbes to The Federalist and Faulkner. This is of course the conception framed by Mark Van Doren for Columbia in the 1930s, later installed at the University of Chicago by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler and introduced in modified form by President Conant at Harvard. It holds that there is a tradition of learning, derived from the central texts, which must be transmitted for moral and historical reasons.

Rudolph and Bennett both see values as involved in higher education, but in rather different ways. For Rudolph they are another skill, expressed in “the capacity to make informed and responsible moral choice.” Thus courses should provide opportunities to discuss ethical dilemmas: as examples, he cites Captain Vere’s choice and the Vietnam War, or the question of who should own the Elgin marbles. For Bennett, morality is not so much a matter for study as an aspect of character that is formed by analytical reading. If he believes a traditional curriculum will induce students to accept conservative positions, he never says so directly. This is just as well, for radical no less than conservative thought has been informed by the study of history and classical ideas. Such prescriptions as those made by Bennett and Rudolph sound as if they could be the basis for good college programs—until we try to visualize just how they would be carried out in the classrooms, and by whom; and here neither writer gives much help.

This may be the worst of times to try to resuscitate the liberal arts. One may urge, as the NIE report does, that “all bachelors’ degree recipients should have at least two full years of liberal education.” However with young people feeling so insecure about their economic future, many are looking for programs that will pay off in jobs and they are often right in suspecting that employers will be more impressed by narrowly specialized degrees. Even if, as James Fallows has recently pointed out, “what is rewarded is excellence in school, which is related to excellence on the job only indirectly and sometimes not at all.”19 Nor is it easy to reply to vocational departments, which claim that doing justice to their specialties requires more time than ever. And, of course, there is the competition for students. Even Bennett cites a common reluctance “to reinstate meaningful course requirements for fear of frightening away prospective applicants.”

I am certainly prepared to grant that young people today do not read as much or as deeply as their elders would like. The world they inhabit revolves around popular music, television watching, and other jagged experiences that seem to encourage short attention spans and to attenuate vocabularies. Still, it would be a mistake to discount the intelligence and awareness of young people because many fail to express themselves coherently. They do possess a body of knowledge and understanding, and a politics as well, that will have to be uncovered and inspired if higher learning is to survive with any vitality in America.

This Issue

February 13, 1986