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May 1, 2009 [feather]
The content of higher ed's character

NAS president Peter Wood is an anthropologist by training and by instinct. In recent years, he's been turning his skills to higher ed and to the American public sphere, watching patterns unfold in real time, and writing about it along the way. If you have not read Diversity: The Invention of a Concept or A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, it's time you did.

Lately, Wood has been watching public reactions to public policy, particularly when it comes to education. He's also been thinking hard about the ever-expanding vision--powerfully propagated by President Obama in his exhortative statements about how every American should spend some time in college, and about how we should aim to have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020--of who should go to college. On the face of it, what's not to love? Isn't that the logical and humane and natural wish of anyone who truly believes in equal opportunity and improved national standards of living? Shouldn't universal college be part of the American dream?

Idealism has a way of bumping up hard against immovable realities, though, and Wood has some very interesting things to say about it all:

I don't see our history of mass education leading to careers for many as clerks, baristas, and dog walkers as an indefinitely sustainable pattern. It is, of course, built on hope. Those college graduates have had little tastes of intellectual nihilism in college, but these were always sweetened with the sugar of social justice preaching. So they have Obama-sized "hope" of changing the system along with their own very American hope of personal advancement. Flood this system with 15 or 16 million additional students, many of them basically uneducable, and will we maintain this delicate combination of illusory social "hope" and semi-realistic personal ambition? I doubt it. The system somewhere has a tipping point at which the university becomes a giant holding pen for young people who have few other options and no real future.

One advantage is that such a system would temporarily lower the unemployment rate by taking people out of the job market. But the disadvantage is that people are quick to sense futility. Turning the university into a massive system of dependency for the young just isn't a good idea. Those who favor the massive expansion seem to believe the seldom examined notion that a college education is something like a conveyor belt that turns high school graduates into highly skilled, employable, "knowledge workers." Indeed, higher education can approximate that model when we have a robust economy, a supply of generally capable and ambitious students, selective admissions standards, and some sort of sane curriculum. These conditions, however, are not fixed, and even before our current economic crisis it had become clear that much of American college education is misaligned with both the job market and the prospect for life-time careers.

While I say the conveyor-belt-to-prosperity model of higher education is seldom examined, it is in fact the subject of a lively debate, just not a debate that gets much attention from the broader public. Last year Claudia Dale Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz published The Race Between Education and Technology (Harvard University Press), a book that argues a close "co-evolution of educational attainment and the wage structure in the United States through the twentieth century." But since 1980, say Goldin and Katz, an "educational slowdown" has led to falling wages and "rising inequality." This is fuel for the College Board, the Lumina Foundation, and President Obama's view that more and still more students should earn college degrees. The other side of the story is best represented by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, which generally presents the view that the federal government has unwisely expanded higher education through massive subsidies in the form of student loans. The Center's director, Richard Vedder, for example, strongly disagrees with President Obama's 2020 goal. He writes:

And, let us return to the goal of becoming number one in the proportion of adults who are college graduates. First of all, is that necessarily a good objective? I know many many college graduates taking jobs for which a high school diploma is perfectly adequate, or perhaps a high school diploma plus some specialized post-secondary vocational training. But even if the President's goal is somehow a good one, we would have to have a revolution in education at the K-12 level as well, one that the president would never support because it would offend his union allies. When 30 percent or so of kids do not make it out of high school, it is hard to be number one in college graduates. When over 40 percent of those who do go on don't make it out of college, it becomes impossible. The president is concentrating on the one-third or so of high school graduates that do not go on to college, ignoring the larger other problems that keep 4 of 5 high school freshman from getting a bachelor's degree within a decade of entering high school.

The criticism of higher education as overgrown and deleterious to the lives of some students doesn't sit well with either side of the American political spectrum. Clearly Obama and the progressive left think higher education is an engine of prosperity (as well as votes) that can be scaled up indefinitely. Conservatives often concur in the idea that higher education generally advances the nation's economy. But there are also dissenters on both sides--people who think higher education simply is not doing its job very well.

Wood goes on to wonder about the long-term effects of academia's political homogeneity--which translates, indirectly but very definitely, into a narrowing of intellectual variety, an impoverishment of debate, and a strong pressure, for students as well as faculty, to conform in order to succeed. That conformity, it should be noted, extends beyond political beliefs and even ideas; it leeches into things like procedure and practice and behavior and culture, and includes learning such vital survival skills as "going along to get along" and soul-emptying, chameleonic feats of self-determination in which one becomes who others want them to be--and then matches one's inner being to the outer surface being presented to others for approval. Cynicism, narcissism, resentment, entitlement, and deadly personal passivity result.

So is the character of students shaped by our system of higher education best summarized as conformist? To a large extent, yes. The progressive left, as witnessed by the Center for American Progress' report, New Progressive America, is counting on a vast, quiescent consensus among the college-educated, a consensus sufficient to end the culture wars and usher in a reign of one-sided agreement on all important issues, a sea of leftist tranquility. As I've said, I don't have any strong reason to deny this proposition. The left's near total domination of education at all levels, including colleges and universities, has given it ample opportunity to instill its basic values. These include a settled hatred of Western civilization, an elevation of identity groups and corresponding devaluation of common humanity, and a preference for the homogeneous group over the free-spirited individual.

Along with the conformity comes a warmth-seeking, affirmation-thirsty need for the therapeutic. College graduates today have been used to a life of self-esteem-enhancing bromides. They seldom see difficulty as valuable in its own right. Any Everest that faces them won't be climbed by someone laconically explaining, like Edmund Hillary, "because it is there." It will be climbed, if it is climbed at all, by a social justice recycling alliance "to draw attention to our issues." Grandstanding comes more easily to these folks than doing; and accomplishment without an audience is almost unthinkable.

The character that contemporary American education seems most to foster is also a person unmoored to any abiding sense of reality. He or she--more often she given that about 58 percent of the students are young women--is ambitious, dissatisfied, and vaguely angry. College has made it a settled fact that America is a profoundly unfair society, but that the "structural inequalities" run so deep that there is little that can be done about them. This allows the alternatives of resentful passivity or frenetic pursuit of symbolic protests and acts of atonement. Often you see both in the same person. Lethargically pessimistic one day, stridently assertive the next.

That education leaves people dissatisfied is not necessarily a bad thing, but dissatisfaction comes in different flavors. This isn't the kind of dissatisfaction that often reaches the point of prompting someone to say, "I would actually like to know something about the history of my civilization other than that it was a tale of torment for oppressed minorities." Rather, it is the dissatisfaction of inveterate grumblers. The really pernicious premises of postmodernism seem to sink in and take root. Life becomes a game of appearances and gestures. Materialism may be despised, but it is at least available as a lifestyle option.

No generation is without its vanity. In this case, the growing cohort of sub-educated, not-very-ambitious, forever dissatisfied consumers of sustainability agitprop see themselves pretty much as Richard Florida sees them: profoundly creative and "open to experience." That's a nice way of saying they don't know what's valuable and what isn't, and they are baffled by the problem of how to draw lines.

This is, unfortunately, a picture of lassitude, waste, and false ideals that are pretty much immune to disillusionment since being disillusioned is part of the creed. Genuine enthusiasm is available mostly in celebrating cultural themes that are (or are imagined to be) from outside our own exhausted traditions. But where genuine enthusiasm fails, feigned enthusiasm is readily summoned. This is a generation as well without an actual existential threat. The communist behemoth is gone, and the best that this generation can do by way of monsters under the bed is the fantasy of global warming brought on by people living too well.

The character sketches here make me think of Meadow and AJ Soprano. I don't know if Wood knows The Sopranos, but I do know that The Sopranos knew American culture. I missed the series in real time, and only recently watched the entire series on DVD. It took months. But it was well worth it. Much of the hype surrounding the show centered on the character of Tony--is he a sociopath or not? Can Dr. Melfi help him? Isn't he really just a yuppie in mob's clothing? Or, conversely, isn't the character of modern American life strangely illuminated by--and compatible with--that entity that is so often described as antithetical to it, the mafia? But in the middle of all that, the show conducted a quite interesting exploration of contemporary education--particularly progressive, privileged, private education--and its impact on the lives it shapes. And, interestingly, that exploration has much in common with the line of thought Wood develops here.

posted on May 1, 2009 7:52 AM

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From James Bowman's book Honor: A History:

"Francis Bacon pointed out four hundred years ago that one reason for sedition and mutiny in any polity was "breeding more scholars than preferment can take off"..."

Posted by: david foster at May 1, 2009 1:26 PM

The left's near total domination of education at all levels, including colleges and universities, has given it ample opportunity to instill its basic values. These include a settled hatred of Western civilization, an elevation of identity groups and corresponding devaluation of common humanity, and a preference for the homogeneous group over the free-spirited individual.

Is this generalization about the curriculum really fair? Has anyone tried to aggregate data on core/gen-ed enrollments in traditional Western Civ/literary history/etc. courses vs. those in ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, etc.. My suspicion is that a surprising number of universities are still pushing Western Civilization. See, for example, this blurb from UC Berkeley:


A highlight:

No matter how advanced our society, we never lose the need to reflect on life, to distinguish good from evil, justice from injustice, and what is noble and beautiful from what is useful.

The tradition of asking questions and reflecting on such issues has its origin in the classical thought of Greek philosophers. But it was during the Age of Enlightenment that the scope of liberal arts expanded and turned into a core curriculum that still comprises the broad range of humanities and sciences that provide the moral compass the ancient Greeks sought and that we still strive for.

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at May 2, 2009 1:38 PM

Hi Peter -- Language is one thing; core course requirements is another. Plenty of schools pay lip service to these values. But when you check the requirements, there are no US history requirements and no Western Civ requirements; conversely, there very often is a diversity / multiculturalism requirement. For what it's worth, I went to Berkeley and did not have to take Western civ. Also, for what it's worth, I majored in English there and got a grand grounding in canonical English and American lit.

To answer your question -- yes, people have looked at what is required and not from school to school; they've also looked at who has respectable core curricula and who does not.

See ACTA's studies, The Hollow Core: The Failure of the General Education Curricum and See also NAS' 1996 study, The Dissolution of General Education: 1914-1993.

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at May 2, 2009 2:52 PM

Erin, you might enjoy Peter Drucker's 1969 book "The Age of Discontinuity," which deals extensively with education (esp higher education) and its relationship with the larger society. Sample:

"Exending the years of schooling inevitably extends adolescence. Schools have become, by design, institutions for the preservation of adolescence. They keep the young person in the most unnatural society, a society composed exclusively of his contemporaries. School, even if it builds performance and experience to the fullest extent possible, is finite, certain, predictable. The student who decides to major in Oriental languages rather than in mathematics knows what this means in the way of courses, studies, examinations, and prerequisites. In school one cannot become an adult."


"The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim."

(I would argue that the above assertion about the "unwillingness to accept this claim" is far less true now than it was in 1969)

"It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers...Yet this is the flexibility Europe needs to overcome the brain drain and close the technology gap...And the European who knows himself competent but is not accepted as such-because he is not an "Oxbridge" man or because he did not graduate from one of the Grandes Ecoles and become an Inspecteur de Finance in the government service--will continue to emigrate where he will be used according to what he can do rather than according to what he has not done."

(Again, I think the U.S. has moved closer to those characteristics that Prof Drucker criticized in the European model)

Posted by: david foster at May 6, 2009 7:31 AM