12 January 2012
They are all three on trajectories that are financially unsustainable.
When an industry—like a person, a household, a company, or a whole country—is on an unsustainable course, one of three things must happen. It must either increase its income, or reduce its expenses (or both), or else face total ruin. There is no fourth option.
For now, the nation’s colleges and universities are mainly raising tuitions to offset rising costs, declining enrollments, and retrenchment in government subsidies. But this cannot go on indefinitely.
This surely means that serious cutbacks are in the offing in academia. This will be a highly contentious matter, for an interesting reason.
If a company needs to shed jobs to remain economically viable, it is usually not too difficult for management to figure out which jobs are the most expendable. The problem with higher education is that some its goals are intangible. Therefore, what is crucial and what is expendable are less clearly ascertained.
What, then, are the goals of higher education? Why do people go to all the expense and trouble of getting a college degree, anyway?
Higher education serves at least four very different aims, and any discussion of its reform—or how crucial programs are to be distinguished from expendable ones—must take the four different purposes into consideration.
(1) Higher education provides necessary training for the professions, and the work force generally, by virtue of which it is an important engine of the economy.
(2) Colleges and universities facilitate fundamental—though not-yet-profitable—research in the natural sciences that benefits society as a whole, both intellectually and often ultimately economically.
(3) Higher education provides the possibility for self-cultivation in the higher aspirations and achievements of civilization—what I shall call the “Great Tradition”—by virtue of which it is handed down to future generations.
(4) Colleges and universities facilitate reflection upon, and addition to, the Great Tradition.
Few, I think, would argue that (1) and (2) are not essential functions of modern societies. There is perhaps some question whether (2) ought not to be separated off from (1), and whether those areas of fundamental scientific research that cannot yet attract private financial support ought to be directly subsidized by the government. But I leave that question aside for now.
I want to focus here on aims (3) and (4), because it is becoming increasingly common to hear suggestions from conservative commentators that these purposes of higher education can and should be sacrificed. I want to argue that this would be a mistake, and while much in academia is in need of reform, we mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
The sort of critique I have in mind is well represented by a recent op-ed column by Marvin Olasky, called “Advice to Parents: Explore Non-College Options.”
Olasky is a well-known conservative journalist with a long list of impressive credentials to his name, including editor of World magazine, former provost of The King’s College, NYC, and author of numerous books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion (Regnery, 1992), Compassionate Conservatism (Free Press, 2000), Unmerited Mercy (World & Life Books, 2010), and Telling the Truth (Wipf & Stock, 2010). He is often credited with inspiring President George W. Bush’s embrace of the notion of ”compassionate conservatism.”
First, let me say that Olasky makes many good points in this article. Here are some passages that are right on target.
Looking ahead at the next bubble to burst: higher education. Costs keep going up at traditional four-year colleges, in part because—with the notable exception of some Christian colleges and a few others that are student-oriented—professors do not make teaching their prime activity.
Examples are numerous. Here’s one: This past year the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) released a study showing that 80 percent of the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin receive full-time pay for teaching an average of 63 students per year, the equivalent of three classes per year of 21 students each.
The joke used to be that tenured professors with too much time on their hands sold real estate on the side, but this past year a New Jersey physics professor went to extremes. Police arrested him, along with a distinguished former president of the University of New Mexico, for allegedly running an online prostitution ring. . . .
While students write poorly, professors prattle instead of teach. Meanwhile, parents pay tuition because it’s socially the thing to do—and they’ve also bought the talk that college graduates earn much more than non-graduates. That’s true, but Richard Vedder, an education economic expert, estimates that two-thirds of superior earning comes from the intelligence and character of the earner rather than the degree itself.
That raises another question: Do colleges help or hurt character formation? Some students work hard, particularly when they add a part-time, bill-paying job to their classes, and some colleges demand hard work, but many students have an implicit deal with many professors: Neither will work hard.
The blog Gonzo Town describes college years, with some hyperbole, as a “four-year window in which to master the fine art of drinking beer,” with “cheap tickets to Division I football and basketball games and their fantastic after parties?…?a bottomless trough of free time to play computer games in your apartment, eat pizza, [consume] lots of beers, drugs, sports, parties, games, sex.”
All of this is all too true, I’m afraid. But what is Olasky’s recommendation? Quoting further from Gonzo Town, he says this by way of conclusion:
“Learn a trade and become a ‘skilled worker.’ Here is a truly revolutionary concept, so radical in fact, the entire U.S. and European modern economies were built upon it. Question: Who earns more than a lawyer, a resident physician, or most company directors? Answer: a plumber.”
I’m not at all suggesting that those called to be lawyers, doctors, professors, etc., should not go to college. I am suggesting that work as an electrician, landscaper, or X-ray technician, or in hundreds of other occupations that don’t require a four-year college degree, also glorifies God and should be honored by all of us. Many high-school graduates should spend their time that way instead of incurring huge loans for the opportunity to be unemployed and resentful.
Again, let me stress that there is much good sense in the points Olasky makes. Certainly, we ought to beef up our vocational-technical training, both at the secondary and the community-college levels. And he is absolutely correct that there is great dignity—in addition to real monetary reward—in mastering a manual trade.
But it is highly misleading for Olasky and other commentators to leave the argument there—for two reasons.
First, by seeming to reduce higher education to nothing more than training and remuneration, Olasky risks losing sight of aims (3) and (4) altogether.
Second, by framing the problem in purely material terms in the way he does, Olasky also avoids coming to grips with the real problem afflicting higher education in relation to aims (3) and (4)—the false, secular-liberal philosophy of relativism that has infected the humanities and the social sciences, and which is actively subverting those aims, and with them, the Great Tradition itself.
Of course, Olasky is well aware of the fundamental problem. In the article, he even mentions a wonderful spoof of “postmodern theory” called the “Postmodernism Generator.”
You just feed a topic into this wonderfully witty piece of software, and it randomly generates a complete essay written in the echt-pomo, gobbledygook, academic style that is indistinguishable from the real thing—and much less labor-intensive than physicist Alan Sokal’s famous 1996 hoax paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries.”
So, here is clearly one place where universities could cut costs: Fire all the pomo professors and procure the same benefit that their research provides to society at much less cost by means of the Postmodernism Generator!
While we’re at it, maybe we could convince some enterprising young programmer to render a similar service for evolutionary biology. All you’d need would be a “Darwinism Generator” to come up with a plausible-sounding, unfalsifiable Just So Story for any given biological trait, and you could eliminate a whole line item from the NSF’s annual budget. Another huge savings to the taxpayer.
But all this good fun at the expense of the pomo professors overlooks one thing: Aims (3) and (4) are absolutely critical to civilization. Without them, aims (1) and (2) would be hollow—mere life support for an irreversibly comatose patient. For, a vibrant economy supporting a brain-dead civilization would be a travesty of human existence.
So, please, let us be careful to distinguish the illness—junk scholarship—from the patient—the Humanities, whose task it is to hand on the Great Tradition to future generations.
Individual students ought to consider why they wish to pursue a college degree. For most, of course, the reason will be primarily pecuniary. And those for whom that is the case are indeed well-advised to think twice about what they are undertaking, as Olasky suggests.
But the few who go to college, not primarily to earn a living, but rather to learn—in the words of Matthew Arnold—”the best which has been thought and said,” are shortchanged by such a hit-and-run analysis of the trouble with higher education.
For their sakes—and for the sake of the future of civilization itself—let us all reflect upon this difficult problem more earnestly and more deeply than that.