I have been looking at two relatively recent books about higher education, both by successful academics. The first, The Breakdown of Higher Education, came out quite recently. Its author John Ellis, a scholar of literature, has been a vocal and trenchant critic of trends in higher ed in general and the humanities in particular for at least thirty years, contributing frequently to Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars. The second, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, comes from Lani Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School. Both of them argue that higher ed is on the wrong track, but for completely different reasons. Both also propose some solutions. Combined with certain other recent indications, they leave me with a strong sense of where my old profession is going.
Ellis began teaching at UC Santa Cruz early in the revolution, in 1966. Although I think he oversimplifies academia's problems just a bit, I have come to agree with him on the essentials. A left wing ideology, one that I have discussed many times here, now dominates nearly every college and university in the country. It is obsessed with real or imagined power differentials between men and women, whites and nonwhites, straights and gays, and so forth. That intellectual approach--or, as Ellis and I would agree, anti-intellectual approach--not only dominates the humanities and social sciences, but has also spawned a huge bureaucracy of administrators designed to encourage and enforce it. Most important of all, colleges and universities now regard advancing a "social justice" agenda as their primary mission--not studying and trying to add to the intellectual heritage of the past. Ellis also shows that this approach is making inroads into STEM fields as well.
I differ somewhat from Ellis as to exactly why this has happened. He sees it, really, as a vast conspiracy of leftwing scholars trying to transform not only academia, but society at large. In support of his position, he quotes effectively from the founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the 1962 Port Huron statement, which stressed the university's role in spreading values, good or bad. Here is some of what that document said:
"These, at least, are facts, no matter how dull the teaching, how paternalistic the rules, how irrelevant the research that goes on. Social relevance, the accessibility to knowledge, and internal openness, these together make the university a potential base and agency in a movement of social change.
"1. Any new left in America must be, in large measure, a left with real intellectual skills, committed to deliberativeness, honesty, reflection as working tools. The university permits the political life to be an adjunct to the academic one, and action to be informed by reason.
"2. A new left must be distributed in significant social roles throughout the country. The universities are distributed in such a manner.
"3. A new left must consist of younger people who matured in the postwar world, and partially be directed to the recruitment of younger people. The university is an obvious beginning point.
"4. A new left must include liberals and socialists, the former for their relevance, the latter for their sense of thoroughgoing reforms in the system. The university is a more sensible place than a political party for these two traditions to begin to discuss their differences and look for political synthesis.
"5. A new left must start controversy across the land, if national policies and national apathy are to be reversed. The ideal university is a community of controversy, within itself and in its effects on communities beyond.
"6. A new left must transform modern complexity into issues that can be understood and felt close-up by every human being. It must give form to the feelings of helplessness and indifference, so that people may see the political, social and economic sources of their private troubles and organize to change society. In a time of supposed prosperity, moral complacency and political manipulation, a new left cannot rely on only aching stomachs to be the engine force of social reform. The case for change, for alternatives that will involve uncomfortable personal efforts, must be argued as never before. The university is a relevant place for all of these activities."
Fueled by the Vietnam War and the advent of the younger Boom generation, this document became extraordinarily influential over the rest of the decade, beginning with Mario Savio's speeches at Berkeley in late 1964, which I have often quoted, referring to Berkeley students ruled just as severely by college bureaucracy as the black people of Mississippi were by white supremacy. Activism on campus faded in the 1970s and particularly the 1980s, but it has returned over the last decade in particular, and I have to agree Ellis that these paragraphs now resemble the mission statements of many schools. I cannot agree however that all this adds up to a well-organized revolutionary conspiracy like Lenin's Bolsheviks (to be fair, I don't think Ellis actually makes that analogy). Because the new left dedicated itself to self-expression, it repeatedly failed at organization--a tradition continued by its grandchildren in Occupy and BLM. In my opinion, legions of mediocre academics--and the vast majority of today's academics are mediocre--have adopted social justice as a substitute for real intellectual achievement. The most mediocre academics become administrators, and administrators have done this on behalf of their whole institution. Hardly any college or university cares any more about offering a distinctive educational product, but they are all obsessed with diversity, equity and inclusion. I have to agree, however, that the impact of the new academic ideology has now spread into the larger society, since it dominates the elite media, the entertainment industry, and, increasingly, the Democratic Party.
Late in the book, Ellis talks revealingly about his attempts to get both his own university and the UC system as a whole to acknowledge the ubiquity of political indoctrination in the classroom, which violates long-standing regulations. The story he tells parallels many recent incidents of free speech controversies on campus. On the one hand, faculty and administrators try to deny free speech to unfriendly ideas, or propagate specific political stances. On the other hand, senior administrators insist on the record that their devotion to academic freedom remains unshaken and that they oppose politicizing the classroom. That has in fact become their role: to stand between the ideologues on their faculty and in their administration on one side, and the broader public, including their trustees and major donors, on the other.
What is to be done? Ellis hopes that the legislatures of some states--presumably Republican ones--will use the power of the purse to defund politicized administrators and impose some requirements for intellectual diversity on faculties, where Republicans have nearly ceased to exist. Once they have become more traditional and serious institutions of higher learning, he hopes, they can become a model for others. Much as I have always admired Ellis, I can't share his optimism about this course of action. Unfortunately we no longer have a cadre of young academics who could help restore the best intellectual and educational traditions of the west. I was in the last generation of students trained to do this, and the most accomplished of us had little or no impact on the trends of the last 50 years. Instead, I think we should be focusing upon how to preserve the western tradition outside academia--but that is a subject for another day.
Professor Lani Guinier of Harvard Law became known to the nation in 1993, when President Clinton tried and failed to make her the head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Her views on how to increase black representation in government were too controversial for those days even for leading Democrats to push her nomination--although today I doubt they would raise an eyebrow. Her book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America is equally critical of institutions of higher learning, led by her own, but for different reasons, and her solutions are very different as well.
Guinier argues that the SATs, in particular, have created a "testocracy," rule by those who perform best on the SATs. She also claims that the testocracy is the new means of maintaining an oligarchy of the wealthy. That was certainly not the role that the SATs originally played. When they became common in the 1950s they helped democratize higher education, although administrators, fearing that their campuses would be dominated by bright Jewish applicants who in those days were the top performers on them, balanced their impact with quotas and new emphases on "geographical distribution." Guinier doesn't mention that today, Asian students are the top SAT performers--including many who are not from well-off families at all--and that their numbers are now restricted in the same way that the Jews' numbers were. She does have a point that test preparation, which didn't exist when I took them in 1964-5, has given wealthier kids an edge. That problem could largely be solved, I think, by forcing the College Board to put together about half a dozen very different kinds of SAT tests, each using a different approach, so that students wouldn't know which test they would face until D-Day. Few indeed would take the time and money to prepare for every one. But Guinier isn't interested in improving the tests, only in doing away with them. She would put admissions on a completely different basis.
Guinier argues that institutions like her own are wasting the education they can offer on rich, pampered kids who don't really need it because they have already learned so much. They should instead focus on less well off students, many of them nonwhite, who could benefit more. She even criticizes Harvard's affirmative action policies for admitting too many middle-class, biracial, and immigrant black students who do not reflect in her view the average black experience. (I can't help pointing out that Guinier, who was two years behind me at Harvard, was that kind of admit herself--her father became the chairman of the African-American Studies department while she was there.) She also wants to transform how American education takes place by insisting on collaborative work among students, which she says has been extraordinarily successful in certain experimental high schools and individual college classrooms. She uses it herself, allowing her law students to collaborate on final exams. This is the way, she argues, to allow students who do not do well on standardized tests to excel. Finding opportunities for those students, she argues, is crucial for our democracy. She also expects the cooperative approach to transform the way our society grapples with its biggest problems.
Since 1950 or so, several new developments have transformed higher education in the United States. First of all, the student population expanded several times over--and the faculty and administration expanded much faster than the student population. Secondly, television, and now computers, replaced books as sources of leisure. Thirdly, as Ellis points out, higher education became more politicized (and this has happened now in K-12 as well, particularly in elite high schools.) All this has reduced the amount of time that students spend studying considerably. Ellis cites a study finding that students spent about 21 hours a week studying in 1961, but only 12 or 14 hours per week studying in 2010. Course workloads have fallen way down as well. In my opinion, society would have been much better served by holding back the growth of higher education, while continuing the trend of 1933-71 that opened up better opportunities for a decent life for people who had not had it. It also should never have allowed the continuing growth in faculty and administration that has more than tripled the real cost of college since the mid-1960s.
I think that in the current context, the changes Guinier proposes are more mainstream than those put forward by Ellis. The Chronicle of Higher Education is filled with articles on how to throw out more elements of our educational tradition, including one I just read explaining how the author grades students by offering them several options for how much work they want to do, and simply giving the As to those who perform the largest assignments in a satisfactory manner. Higher education, I think, must provide means to identify and nurture the tiny minority of truly gifted intellectuals who can make unique contributions for us all. A lifetime in education has taught me that those individuals come from every economic class, both sexes, and every race--that they are in fact scattered pretty much at random throughout the population. Higher education must also train professionals, including K-12 teachers, and help everyone share in our cultural heritage. Meanwhile, we must make a better life more accessible, once again, to those who do not need four-year college. The current system is now fueled by debt that many students will never be able to pay, and shows signs of collapsing under its own weight. That, rather than conservative legislators, might give a few creative leaders the chance to make higher education more effective again.