In Search of an Interesting College Student . . .

Exactly how ineffective is higher education? How much is wrong? Please, please, let me count the ways. A book a week, a screed a fortnight and an expose daily seem to be populating the media, each of which take a different tack highlighting the many woes of American higher education. In this melange of negativity is a provocative and unsatisfying book by crotchety team, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, titled Higher Education? How colleges are wasting our money and failing our kids – and what we can do about it. The tone is snarky and the follow-through weak, but tucked into this volume are some trenchant takes on life in and about the academy.

Hacker and Dreifus’ question mark is meant to accompany the reader throughout the book. Are what colleges and universities doing truly education, they wonder, and is any of it higher? Their litany of wasted time and money, poor alignments and questionable values somewhat begs the question. But before we look at the authors’ goals and suggestions, a little time with their complaints, captured under the heading “What Went Wrong?” is in order.

The professoriate, they write, are out of touch with normal life. The 320,000 tenured faculty members in the highest caste, or joined with the 170,000 assistant professors, have allegiance to their disciplines and departments, not their institutions or students. Scholarship is mostly irrelevant or ignored, we are told. Salaries are generous, nonetheless, and bear little relationship to meaningful work. In fact, the authors note, much of the professoriate’s time is devoted to meaningless tasks. Administrative bloat is rampant as a culture of shared governance has lead to faculty involvement in all manner of non-academic activities. As for the administrators themselves, their numbers grow like mushrooms in a damp environment. The rise of the multiversity and the competition for students, and corresponding student satisfaction, demands ever-greater numbers of staff. All of these expenses have little to do with education, Hacker and Driefus argue. Further, no real leadership seems to flourish in this technocratic environment, though college presidents enjoy hefty salaries. Further, the authors spend time on the hapless plight of the adjuncts and other contingent faculty, such as graduate assistants. Cost-cutting is rampant, they claim, while institutions exploit the unrealistic hopes of aspiring doctoral students and trapped adjuncts. It is, they claim, a “race to the bottom.”

Teaching at most institutions, especially those that emphasize research, is often indifferent the authors assert. Few faculty are engaging young minds, they tell us, for faculty are too often engaged in scholarship. Publishing is a “virus” that makes the authors uneasy. There could be benefits, but faculty would resist the shift.

At the top of this pyramid are twelve institutions the author’s dub the “golden dozen.” Consisting of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Penn, Stanford, Duke, Amherst and Williams, these dozen are widely considered to be the best. It is a fairly audacious claim – and one that is then gleefully undermined. In a laughably unscientific manner, Hacker and Driefus pick a class at Princeton (1973) and then are unable to find the national leaders that the institution claims to educate.

The problem, the authors claim, is that training has taken the place of educating. While vocational training has long been a significant component in American higher education (witness more engineers at MIT than science majors), in the past few decades vocational majors have overwhelmed the traditional liberal arts. One reason for this, the authors argue, is the expansion of college education to the masses do not want their sons or daughters to study useless subjects. On the other hand, they do not believe that vocational education, such as engineering, enriches young minds. To prove their point, they skewer a section of Management 101 at Penn’s Wharton School, as well as a global marketing course and a marketing strategy course taught at Florida Gulf Coast University. The students and the professors lacked a clear understanding of the relationship between the classroom and the world of work – or so our authors opine – therefore all of business education must be confused business training. After all, they have not found any meaningful skills imparted by an undergraduate business curriculum.

Sweeping generalizations are easy when unaccompanied by research, data or hard thought.

The goals, then, and the accompanying strategy are simple, straightforward, and very much off the wall. The goal of a college education, they affirm, is to make more interesting people. I do not know how many young people Mr. Hacker and Ms. Dreifus meet with, but most of the college students I know already consider themselves interesting. Many of them have parents who are fascinated by them. “Interesting” is a handy phrase, but it is a byproduct of a much more complicated and thoughtful series of processes. To be worthy of serious consideration, the authors should have given a great deal more consideration to the reasons behind their wants and values. Why should their priorities be society’s priorities? Or even the priorities of a college students?

What Hacker and Dreifus want are colleges that ignore the race for amenities and instead struggle with questions of student learning in the liberal arts. They would like to see tenure abolished – it has no connection with academic freedom, they argue – and they would like to see academics themselves proposing alternative modes of employment. They want to see athletics trimmed or removed. Provocatively, they also affirm real benefits of true diversity and wonder what would happen if an institution chose its entering class randomly, drawing names from a bowl.

It is not all bleak, however; some institutions are singled out for favor. Ole Miss, for its culture of integration; Raritan Valley Community College, for its focus on small class size and student learning; Notre Dame, for its academic values; Cooper Union, for its commitment to mission and avoidance of distractions and frills; Arizona State University, for its dynamic culture; University of Maryland, Balitmore County for its priority of undergraduate learning; MIT for its treatment of part-time faculty; Western Oregon University, for its low cost and high quality; and Evergreen State College, for its constant innovation.

All are good institutions – and each chose a path that had little to do with the aim of making interesting students or avoiding “training.” The creation of an effective institution of higher education demands much more than affirming ideals with the certainty that good teaching in the liberal arts will lead to effective outcomes. Many of the criticisms in Higher Education​? have merit. In this case, however, the criticisms do not point to a higher “yes.”

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