21.11.10

PROFSCAM AFTER TWENTY YEARS. Charlie Sykes's denunciation of coreless curricula, pointless research, and excess access was among the opening shots in the twenty years war on, and in, higher education. At the time, Mr Sykes was in recovery from an early liberalism, and Higher Education could shrug off some of his observations, much as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers could shrug off the Association of American Railroads lobbying for repeal of the full crew laws.

Now comes Andrew Hacker, a professor at Queens College of CUNY, public intellectual, regular reviewer in The New York Review of Books; and Claudia Dreifus, with Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, "Science Times" columnist for The New York Times, collaborating on Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids -- And What We Can Do About It. Short form of Book Review No. 29: the Academic Establishment will have a harder time shrugging off a criticism from within, even if, as Peter Sacks (who also reviewed The Five-Year Party) notes,
[T]oo many chapters that regurgitate the many well-worn complaints about higher education: Students are subjected to uncaring and unsupportive professors -- if they are taught by full-time faculty members at all, since most college instructors are part-timers, adjuncts and graduate students; professors themselves are overpaid, underworked, and preoccupied with the "virus" of research that is consuming colleges of all stripes; and colleges have become simply too expensive relative to the diminishing value that institutions actually provide students.
Perhaps so.

On the other hand, a book that notes (p. 108) "We've met former business majors, now nearing middle age, who say they regret not having studied philosophy while at college. We have yet to meet a philosophy major who felt he or she should have chosen business" appeals to the right sympathies. And I like a book that at page 88 makes Three Simple Suggestions (Monitor Laptops, Stop PowerPointing, Preventing Plagiarism) and on page 89 serves up a gem.
But instead of attacking the liberal arts as a bourgeois diversion, as a previous generation did, an easier route was to retain that label but decant the contents. Out went Aristotle and in his stead came Althusser, while Dickens was replaced by Derrida and Locke by Lacan. Many sincerely believed that subjecting text to deconstruction would undermine the foundations of corporate capitalism. But for teaching undergraduates, the quest for theory is not only misdirected, it warps the whole ambience of education.
The foundations of the humanities were self-undermined, whilst corporate capitalism farmed out the entry-level training to what the authors call vocational degrees.

The authors attempt to distinguish a genuine liberal education from something else. Turn to pages 98-99.
So let's pay a visit to New Mexico State University, a thriving public institution in Las Cruces, some forty miles from El Paso. In Breland Hall, you'll find students majoring in philosophy, immersed in classes in Epistemology, Formal Logic, and Philosophy of Mind. To our thinking, this is the heart of higher education, and it can be pursued in Las Cruces, New Mexico, as well as Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Yes, and with a passage at page 66 quoting Esther Dyson: "Dad, we're not [at Harvard] for those classes. We're here to meet each other," perhaps the value added is greater at Las Cruces. The point of higher education is precisely to fine-tune your jive detector. The authors fear some students are being shortchanged.

Over in Thomas Hall on the same campus, you'll meet undergraduates who have chosen hotel, motel, and resort management. Their classes include Quantity Food Production, Gaming Operations, and Beverage Management, for which they will receive a bachelor's degree. If epistemology ranks as higher education, our view is beverage management does not.

It isn't education. It is training. At best, it should be a sequence in a community college or in a professional program at the post-graduate level. Nor is beverage management an exotic example. Most campuses now devote more resources to vocational concentrations, since their majors now outnumber those in liberal arts fields. In 2008, the most recent figures as we write, degrees in the "hospitality" sphere surpassed those awarded in philosophy.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, if hospitality majors experience a proper core curriculum in their first two years, something that most four-year institutions honor in the watered-down form of gen eds. (And before I go on, note the distinction between a four year college and a community college or vocational school. The Five-Year Party also cautions readers not to conflate a subprime party school with a community college: open access does not equate to open kegs.)
In fact, vocational training has long been entrenched in America's colleges. Even now, more students at MIT major in engineering than in the sciences. [The school's sports teams are the Engineers and you're surprised?] The Ivy League's University of Pennsylvania welcomes undergraduates to its business school, and it is their most popular choice (and we'll be saying more about it). The federal government sponsors four vocational academies to serve as grooming grounds for future officers.
The service academies might expose cadets to the finer points of calculus and political philosophy more effectively than New Mexico State or Harvard do, and I challenge the authors to explain why we should all pray with our butts in the air because West Point and Annapolis put in a multiculturally sensitive curriculum in place of Clausewitz and Longstreet. Agriculture and engineering, as the authors note elsewhere, came to campus as part of the 1862 Morrill Act: pork-barrelling is nothing new, but during the Southern Rebelllion we got what became the Big Ten universities and the Pacific Railroad.
So there wasn't a Golden Age when everyone chose fields like history and literature, or for that matter, astronomy and physics. On the contrary, for many years, preparing schoolteachers topped the list. [Reading, writing, arithmetic: the trivium?] Still, until the mid-1960s, there was essentially an even balance between vocational training and the liberal arts. Even if some students would go on to law and medicine, they weren't preoccupied with those professions from their freshman year.
Nor should they be now: but with the core curriculum offering matriculants an opportunity to discover their strengths and weaknesses before declaring a major giving way to distribution requirements that look like impedimenta to get out of the way, combined with fifty years of "to get a good job, get a good education", and the inclusive rot affecting the high schools, does it come as any surprise that students pursue what appears to be the safe course. Turn to page 101.
Since 1960, the proportion of young Americans attending college has essentially doubled. This expansion has meant that more students would be the first in their families to enroll. It's not surprising that many of them would pick vocational majors. After all, the stay-in-school message they've heard is that a degree brings higher earnings and status.
That those degrees might simply reinforce social stratification makes Peter Sacks angry.
At the same time, the least selective institutions -- the "party schools" that Brandon denigrates -- are turning into educational reservations for the poor and working-class -- people who are being trained to serve the leadership class. Indeed, the higher education system over the past generation has become more deeply stratified between colleges that primarily serve low-income and minority students and selective institutions that serve affluent students.
We're all in the same business, and as Hacker and Dreifus note in their coda, The Purpose of Higher Education is Education.

Indeed.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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