Monday, August 2, 2010

Bauerlein on the Hacker Dreifus Book

"Higher Education?" (Wall Street Journal Book Review)

There's a new sheriff in town... In the form of a book that will be very influential in shaping a dialogue about what is wrong with higher education entitled "Higher Education?"


Higher education may be heading for a reckoning. For a long time, despite the occasional charge of liberal dogma on campus or of a watered-down curriculum, people tended to think the best of the college and university they attended.

Recently, though, a new public skepticism has surfaced, with galling facts to back it up. Over the past 30 years, the average cost of college tuition and fees has risen 250% for private schools and nearly 300% for public schools (in constant dollars).

Meanwhile, tenured and tenure-track professors spend ever less time with students. In 1975, 43% of college teachers were classified as "contingent"—that is, they were temporary instructors and graduate students; today that rate is 70%. Colleges boast of high faculty-to-student ratios, but in practice most courses have a part-timer at the podium.

At the same time, the administrator-to-student ratio is growing. In fact, it has doubled since 1976. The administrative field has diversified into exotic specialties such as Credential Specialist, Coordinator of Learning Immersion Experiences and Dietetic Internship Director.

In "Higher Education?" Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus describe such conditions in vivid detail. They offer statistics, anecdotes and first-person accounts— concerning tuition, tenure and teaching loads, among much else—to draw up a powerful, if rambling, indictment of academic careerism. The authors are not shy about making biting judgments along the way.

As for one of the most prestigious universities in the world, "the mediocrity of Harvard undergraduate teaching is an open secret of the Ivy League." Much of the research for scholarly articles and lectures is "just compost to bulk up résumés." College presidents succeed not by showing strong, imaginative leadership but "by extending their school's terrain." Indeed, "hardly any of them have done anything memorable, apart perhaps from firing a popular athletic coach." For all the high-minded talk, Mr. Hacker and Ms. Dreifus conclude, colleges and universities serve the people who work there more than the parents and taxpayers who pay for "higher education" or the students who so desperately need it.

A lot of criticism of academia hasn't stuck in the past, Mr. Hacker and Ms. Dreifus imply, because people have almost unthinkingly believed in the economic power of the degree. Yes, you didn't learn a lot, and the professors blew you off—the reasoning went—but if you got a diploma the job offers would follow. But that logic may no longer be so compelling. With the economy tightening and tales of graduates stuck in low-paying jobs with $50,000 in student loans, college doesn't look like an automatic bargain.

We need some hard cost accounting and comparisons, Mr. Hacker and Ms. Dreifus argue, and so they end "Higher Education?" with capsule summaries of, as they put it, "Schools We Like"—that is, schools that offer superior undergraduate educations at relatively low cost. The list includes Ole Miss, Cooper Union, Berea College, Arizona State and Western Oregon University. "We think a low cost should be a major determinant in any college decision," the authors wisely conclude, for "a debt-free beginning is worth far more than a name-brand imprimatur."

Mr. Bauerlein, the author of "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future," teaches at Emory University.

Perhaps Hacker/Dreifus, Bauerline, and Eva von Dassow should be invited to hold a Great Conversation (adminspeak) with President Bruininks?

Our nimble President is currently flacking Jonathan Cole's book
, the "Great American University," because it says what he would like to hear. He has invited Cole to have a Great Conversation with him this fall. (I wonder if Dan Wolter will be there to speak for him?) Cole is a former administrator at Columbia, a private university with a large endowment. Hard to fathom what relevance his views might have at our public land grant institution that is deep in financial difficulties.

As a Harvard [sic] economist said of Cole's book:

But a 150-page inventory like the one Cole provides here tells us as much about why some universities are “great” as a list of names of accomplished people in a large family shows us why their family is “great” relative to others. Moreover, it does nothing to illuminate whether universities did it alone and what kind of incentives were used to enhance researcher productivity.
Today, the greatest threats to American higher education probably do not concern any of the things Cole discusses. Rather, they relate to the openness of the system and the academic preparedness of its students, who, as Cole acknowledges at the outset, play almost no role in this volume.

But I guess there is always the Strategic Propaganda Initiative beast to feed.

Fiddle on, Bob.


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