Andrew Rossi’s documentary Ivory Tower prods us to think about the crisis of higher education. But is there a crisis? Expensive gambles, unforeseen losses, and investments whose soundness has yet to be decided have raised the price of a college education so high that today on average it costs eleven times as much as it did in 1978. Underlying the anxiety about the worth of a college degree is a suspicion that old methods and the old knowledge will soon be eclipsed by technology.
Indeed, as the film accurately records, our education leaders seem to believe technology is a force that—independent of human intervention—will help or hurt the standing of universities in the next generation. Perhaps, they think, it will perform the work of natural selection by weeding out the ill-adapted species of teaching and learning. A potent fear is that all but a few colleges and universities will soon be driven out of business.
It used to be supposed that a degree from a respected state or private university brought with it a job after graduation, a job with enough earning power to start a life away from one’s parents. But parents now are paying more than ever for college; and the jobs are not reliably waiting at the other end. “Even with a master’s,” says an articulate young woman in the film, a graduate of Hunter College, “I couldn’t get a job cleaning toilets at a local hotel.” The colleges are blamed for the absence of jobs, though for reasons that are sometimes obscure. They teach too many things, it is said, or they impart knowledge that is insufficiently useful; they ask too much of students or they ask too little. Above all, they are not wired in to the parts of the economy in which desirable jobs are to be found.
A fair number of the current complaints derive from a fallacy about the proper character of a university education. Michael Oakeshott, who wrote with great acuteness about university study as a “pause” from utilitarian pursuits, described the fallacy in question as the reflection theory of learning. Broadly, this theory assumes that the content of college courses ought to reflect the composition and the attitudes of our society. Thus, to take an extreme case that no one has put into practice, since Catholics make up 25 percent of the population of the United States, a quarter of the curriculum ought to be dedicated to Catholic experiences and beliefs. The reflection theory has had a long history in America, and from causes that are not hard to discover. It carries an irresistible charm for people who want to see democracy extended to areas of life that lie far outside…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.