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February 21, 2005 [feather]
On what college is--and is not

Writing for The New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco has published the first of two review articles on the decline of undergraduate education in the U.S.. It's worth reading in full, but here's a particularly pithy excerpt:

By the end of the nineteenth century, the professionalized university had absorbed schools of medicine and law that had typically begun independently, and was acquiring teacher-training schools, along with schools of engineering, business, and other professions. It was on its way to becoming the loose network of activities that Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, famously called the "multiversity." When Kerr coined that term in 1963, in The Uses of the University, he remarked on the "cruel paradox" that a "superior faculty results in an inferior concern for undergraduate teaching," and he called this paradox "one of our most pressing problems."

Since Kerr wrote, the problem has gotten worse. Today, as David Kirp points out in Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line, New York University, which has lately made a big (and largely successful) push to join the academic front rank, employs "adjunct" faculty--part-time teachers who are not candidates for tenure--to teach 70 percent of its undergraduate courses. The fact that these scandalously underpaid teachers must carry the teaching burden--not just at NYU, but at many other institutions--speaks not to their talent or dedication, but to the meagerness of the institution's commitment to the teaching mission. At exactly the time when the struggle to get into our leading universities has reached a point of "insane intensity" (James Fallows's apt phrase), undergraduate education has been reduced to a distinctly subsidiary activity.

Under these circumstances, one might expect to see students fleeing to colleges whose sole mission is teaching undergraduates. Fine colleges such as Swarthmore, Amherst, and Williams, which have significant endowments and high academic standards, do indeed have considerable drawing power. Yet these are small and relatively fragile institutions, and even the best of them are perennial runners-up in the prestige game, while other impressive colleges --such as Centre College in Kentucky or Hendrix College in Arkansas--must struggle, out of the limelight, to compete for students outside their region.

The leading liberal arts colleges will doubtless survive, but they belong to an endangered species. Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College, and Morton O. Schapiro, president of Williams, report that even now "the nation's liberal arts college students would almost certainly fit easily inside a Big Ten football stadium: fewer than 100,000 students out of more than 14 million." In today's educational landscape, barely one sixth of all college students fit the traditional profile of full-time residential students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. One third of American undergraduates now work full-time, and more than half attend college part-time, typically majoring in subjects with immediate utility, such as accounting or computing. These students, and their anticipated successors, are targets of the so-called electronic universities that seek a share of the education market by selling Internet courses for profit. A few years ago, the president of Teacher's College at Columbia University predicted that some wily entrepreneur would soon "hire well-known faculty at our most prestigious campuses and offer an all-star degree over the Internet...at a lower cost than we can."

As for the relatively few students who still attend a traditional liberal arts college--whether part of, or independent from, a university--what do they get when they get there? The short answer is freedom to choose among subjects and teachers, and freedom to work out their own lives on campus. Intellectual, social, and sexual freedom of the sort that today's students assume as an inalienable right is never cheaply won, and requires vigilant defense in academia as everywhere else. Yet there is something less than ennobling in the unearned freedom of privileged students in an age when even the most powerful institutions are loath to prescribe anything—--except, of course, in the "hard" sciences, where requirements and prerequisites remain stringent. One suspects that behind the commitment to student freedom is a certain institutional pusillanimity--a fear that to compel students to read, say, the major political and moral philosophers would be to risk a decline in applications, or a reduction in graduation rates (one of the statistics that counts in the US News and World Report college rankings closely watched by administrators). Nor, with a few exceptions, is there the slightest pressure from faculty, since there is no consensus among the teachers about what should be taught.

The history of American higher education amounts to a three-phase story: in the colonial period, colleges promoted belief at a time of established (or quasi-established) religion; in the nineteenth century, they retained something of their distinctive creeds while multiplying under the protection of an increasingly liberal, tolerationist state; in the twentieth century, they became essentially indistinguishable from one another (except in degrees of wealth and prestige), by turning into miniature liberal states themselves--prescribing nothing and allowing virtually everything. Anyone whose parents or grandparents were shut out from educational opportunity because of their race, ethnicity, or gender is thankful for the liberalizing trajectory of higher education-- but as in every human story, there is loss as well as gain.

Also worth reading: Scott McLemee's equally timely fiftieth anniversary review of Richard Hofstadter and Walter P. Metzger's The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States. Noting that "the deepest implication of [the] work is that academic freedom does not, in fact, have very deep roots even in the history of American higher education--let alone in the wider culture," McLemee offers some provocative sidelong stabs at the manner in which debates about academic freedom have come to shape some of the more pressing ideological and political issues facing academe today (both Ward Churchill and David Horowitz take a beating).

Reading McLemee's piece alongside Delbanco's is instructive--among other things, doing so suggests that defining the problem with contemporary academe as a problem of expressive freedom (as many pundits, commentators, bloggers, and watchdog organizations on both left and right are wont to do) is to miss a much larger, much more salient point about how and why higher education is in decline today. Comments are open to readers who are interested in collectively parsing these articles further.

posted on February 21, 2005 9:07 AM


Has there ever been a moment when higher education was not in decline?

Posted by: Michael at February 21, 2005 1:56 PM

My comment is directed only at "design-your-own major" programs, not on the inversion of pedagogical responsibility between instructors & professors (which I witnessed firsthand as well, and is definitely a problem):

When I was choosing colleges in the late 80's, as costs for tuition were skyrocketing, prestigious schools and liberal arts colleges began to compete furiously for students. One of the selling points I was bombarded with was the indulgent idea of "designing your own major."

At the time I remember thinking: this is great, but doesn't the school have strong opinions as to what we *should* be learning? But compared to the prospect of building my own degree program, degrees like English, Classics and Chemistry looked boring. What to do?

I ended up at a technical institute and thereby avoided the dilemma. Classes were dictated and precious little choice was given. I never got to the bottom of the selling point: was there a valid pedagogical underpinning, and a sound academic or professional objective, behind the new concept?

My guess at the time was that the idea rested on the arrogant presumption that the student knew better than the teacher (and the institution). I always thought that an idea like this worked better as an earned privilege than a right, but as a 17-year-old I wasn't going to judge this question for others.

Like all applications of the bell curve, the presumption wasn't necessarily an "arrogant" stretch for all students. I know of one student who used the freedom to great benefit and excelled spectacularly in college (and life) because of it. He had the maturity and the wisdom at an early age, and the old-school self-discipline, to carry it off. I count him as a shining success story of the new model.

The other experiments I heard about through the post-graduate grapevine were abject failures. Parents were bitter from having spent years' salaries with no benefit to their precious children. A couple of prep-school "A" students I remember withdrew in shame (from Princeton and other venues) as the easygoing early days inevitably turned to questions of credits, graduation requirements and minimum standards for grad school (and employment). They were not readily accepted by other institutions of the same caliber. Middle-of-the-road state schools started looking like the good options at that point.

What has happened since that time? Have American institutions taken a stand on how they feel about these programs? Have they empowered students to excel as professionals to a greater degree than in the past? Or has the trend been to flatter erstwhile students and tell them they're doing okay, only to release them into the wider world primed for failure? I don't talk to college students (or their teachers) much so I don't know.

Posted by: RD at February 21, 2005 1:56 PM

I'm one of those adjuncts, although I did once enjoy a stint in the "big leagues" as a non-tenure track full time faculty member. Man, it was sweet. I had benefits, decent salary, taught 6 classes a year, had good students, and actually still believed in myself as an up and coming scholar/academic.

But those days are over and I was unceremoniously dumped back into the adjunct pool. And now ... well, now I am quite dead as a scholar. What's the point, is my general outlook. Why should I bother to write essays or work on a book that has a snowball's chance in hell of landing me a job?

While I used to regard working as an adjunct as a stepping stone, now I approach my adjunct work simply as a job. It's certainly not much of a job, but sadly it is about all I am qualified for in this world of ever-new credentials and necesary professional certifications. I am responsible, I'm affable and polite, and I do what is called upon, but no more. However, I expend zero in the way of emotional capital. When the metaphorical bell rings, I'm done for the day. And because my teaching does not eat up an entire week, I work as a real estate agent in between classes and on weekends to add about $15K to $20K per year in income.

Interestingly, I got the idea to do this from another "career" adjunct.

Soon, I may be able to afford medical insurance, albeit out of pocket.

Welcome to the brave new world of casual employment.

Posted by: Chris at February 21, 2005 2:16 PM

I just commented on this at my new blog:

Posted by: Prof Synecdoche at February 21, 2005 5:54 PM

Is Delbanco credible on the subject of academic freedom? From a Brothers Judd (yes, a blogger!) review of Delbanco's The Death of Satan:

"Mr. Delbanco is infamous for a statement he made in The New Republic several years ago, that '[religious] belief is really not an option for thinking people today.' The contempt and close-mindedness evident in that snide remark unfortunately end up deforming this book too and prevent him from following where his own analysis has led, leaving the reader with a serious sense of anticlimax."

The decline of higher education in the U.S. and elsewhere may be the point, but I'd hate to be the brunt of Mr. Delbanco's freedom of expression if I were a Christian student in one of his classes.

Posted by: Bob at February 22, 2005 8:14 AM

Willa Cather's novel The Professor's House, published in 1925, contains some very pertinent jabs at academia, with the protagonist complaining about the increase in funding for athletics at his university and the decline of the quality of his students. There is indeed nothing new under the sun. I first entered University in 1992, and the complaints from professors, especially in the humanities, have remained constant and almost identical, right up to the present.

Posted by: Legal Alien at February 22, 2005 10:49 AM

Bob -- You've got to be kidding me. Delbanco's entire output is basically a lament for the decline of theological inquiry in American intellectual life. This is an example of someone taking a statement wildly out of context and reading it in the most sinister way possible.

On a more personal level, I have been in Prof. Delbanco's classroom and he treats every student with an unimpeachable fairness. I find it unbelievable that anyone -- especially anyone who has read his work -- could believe otherwise.

Posted by: Prof Synecdoche at February 22, 2005 3:11 PM

Prof Synedoche,

Just how can one read that statement out of context? If religious belief is not an option for thinking people today, then where is the lament for theological inquiry possible? Either you can inquire without thinking or you can think without religion but you cannot believe in religion and not think and at the same time conduct theological inquiry.

Posted by: dick at February 22, 2005 7:50 PM

I can see how the statement could be out of context. Maybe he meant that religious people are discouraged from asking questions at church or whatever, and that they are also disrespected amongst the self-designated thinkers. In fact, looking at this article I'd be willing to bet that is what he meant.


Posted by: Laura at February 22, 2005 10:02 PM

Leaving aside whether Mr. Delbanco gives sufficient weight to the origins of the university and the light it might shed on the current discussion (for example, compare and contrast the Paris U. of Villon's time and the Columbia of Allen Ginsberg's), it seems the contemporary university contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. I'm not thinking primarily of the decadents, who bring to their teaching if not hatred of their subjects then insufficient love, but of the teachers universities produce, particularly those destined for positions in primary and secondary schools. And it has been my direct experience and that of many others that leads me to to the conclusion that the situation can get much worse before it gets better.

When one witnesses, as I did in a graduate English lit class open to all master's candidates, the agressive ignorance of some master's of English education candidates - "I don't like reading," "This book is too long," "Why do we need to read this?" - all of whom took their degrees and are now presumably teaching what will be the next crop of college freshman, then one is forced to the insescapable conclusion that in some not-too-distant time there simply won't be enough students who comprehend English to justify the employment of even the best university teachers. Or are we there already?

Posted by: Bob at February 23, 2005 6:41 AM

Oh, my. You are exaggerating, aren't you? My child thought she left that attitude behind when she went from honors English to AP.

Posted by: Laura at February 23, 2005 8:07 AM

Home Schooling will cure a lot of this. These children and young adults are used to being in charge of their education and will have a solid background in self-directed study.

My children will have a perfected goal they will work to attain in undergraduate school. Also they will be working within their field of study before they leave home for University.

Posted by: Ted Sbardella at February 26, 2005 10:27 PM

Contra Delbanco, not all undergraduate-oriented universities are fragile. While they oversell their undergraduate commitment a tad, my alma mater (Princeton) manages to perenially land at the top of the U.S. News rankings while treating undergraduates as the raison d'etre of the institution.

I won't argue with the complaint that there's too much curricular freedom; I would have preferred a lot more guidance from the school when I was there, instead of their solution of letting us pick just about anything that looked interesting.

Posted by: David Nieporent at February 27, 2005 3:07 AM

The best university in the world is the public library and a close group friends whom to discuss ideas with. You will find that smart people are not bounded by location to institutions. Instead they are spread amongst the world, some in the shadows of the towering institutions and rock star academics and bustling journey to nowhere. I have nothing to say of an education in that it is a process and a lifelong one at that. You can't buy the intangible, but only a tokens.

Posted by: Timothy at March 13, 2005 4:46 PM