Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How Good Are Our Universities?

A number of books have appeared recently criticizing our colleges and universities. Peter Brooks provides a review of these texts and presents some interesting thoughts of his own in an article titled Our Universities: How Bad? How Good? It appeared in the New York Review of Books. We will also look at our universities from another perspective. Richard C. Levin provides a global perspective in an article from Foreign Affairs: The Rise of Asia’s Universities.

The books covered by Brooks are:

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campusesby Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa
University of Chicago Press, 259 pp., $70.00; $25.00 (paper)

Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About Itby Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus
Times Books, 271 pp., $26.00

Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universitiesby Mark C. Taylor
Knopf, 240 pp., $24.00

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanitiesby Martha C. Nussbaum
Princeton University Press, 158 pp., $22.95
One can discern from the titles that these authors are upset and uniformly unhappy with the state of affairs. In the face of such a wall of negativity Brooks seems compelled to try and provide some balance.
“Debating education has always been an American pastime, and choosing the ‘best colleges’ a lucrative business, as U.S. News and World Report has well understood. The debate has long been studded with reformist notions, utopian or practical, but it was sustained by the belief that American universities were something of high quality—indeed, something precious—that were worth the attention they got, and worth striving to enter.”

“The new crisis accuses the American university of failing to educate (variously, failing to train the mind and to prepare for the workplace), of losing its place in international competition, of being an institution top-heavy with administrators and pandering to a faculty that does very little, as well as to students who care more about expensive cars and state-of-the-art fitness rooms than about Socrates. Above all, the university has become unjustifiably expensive, inaccessible, and unaccountable. The subtitle given by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus to Higher Education? sums it up: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It”
Hacker and Dreifus, and Taylor propose wholesale reconstruction of our system of higher education. The proposals are impractical and ill-considered. All demand more emphasis on the liberal arts, and blame an entrenched and pampered “professoriate” for many of the problems. Arum and Roksa seem to wish to impose a grading system on schools via a standardized achievement test (we know how well those have worked out). Brooks gives Nussbaum credit for having produced the book with the only well-conceived and executed theme: the liberal arts have become too marginalized by more narrowly focused pursuits.

Brooks asks us to consider whether or not the schools themselves are in a crisis, or if what we perceive as issues aren’t just reflections of critical societal changes.
“On the whole, one has to say that the relative autonomy of the American university has been far more beneficial than the contrary. American higher education is a nonsystem that is messy, reduplicative, unfair—just like American society as a whole—but it has made genuine commitments to quality and to a greater degree of social justice, to the extent that is within its control, than most other institutions of the society. It has brought new blood into old elitist institutions, and indeed has thoroughly scrambled the hereditary caste it began with. You have simply to walk the paths of any reputable American university today to see that the student population looks like the range of American ethnicities—far more than many other institutions. Universities have taken seriously calls for inclusiveness and affirmative action. The large expenditures on their admissions offices that bring sneers from Hacker and Dreifus have promoted diversity in ways unimagined fifty years ago. Given the long and continuing history of American anti-intellectualism—which today takes the form of a vicious know-nothingism—I am often surprised that America has universities of the quality it does.”
As for the criticism of professors and tenure:
“These studies don’t consider whether the dark days of McCarthyism would have produced even more casualties without it; nor do they anticipate what things could be like in a political culture of Tea Partiers and Palinites. To be sure, tenure can protect the careers of some mediocrities. On the other hand, the selection of faculty by peers empowered by the permanence of their appointments still seems the best way to ensure that they are chosen on the right grounds. And the weightiness of this decision—attaching someone to your institution for an indefinite future—at least means that almost all universities have created reasonably careful and solemn procedures of review.”

“Here, really, is the other argument for tenure, less often heard than the claim that it protects academic freedom. It runs like this: if the body of permanently appointed professors is not to determine who merits appointment as professors, according to peer review of their competence and the prospect of their remaining active and engaged, who will? Who will do the hiring and firing? It would in all likelihood be the administration—presidents, boards of trustees, some of whom have considerable power as it is. Is that really what we want—even what Hacker and Dreifus, who have no love for most university presidents, whom they think overpaid and mediocre, would want?”
The cost of education is an issue, but Brooks is less concerned with the elite private schools—who are merely charging what people are willing to pay—than with the fate of our public universities.
“More telling, I think, is what has happened to the leading public universities, which have been busy raising tuitions at a faster rate than ever before to compensate for the lack of support from the states whose pride and joy they purportedly are.”

“If crisis there is, it surely has something to do with the larger crisis in American society: the increasing gap between haves and have-nots, the retreat from any commitment to economic fairness, the sense that the system is rigged to benefit a tarnished elite that no longer justifies its existence. The affluence gap between Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, plus a few others, and the rest of the universities has indeed increased, and permits a degree of luxury to both students and faculty in those institutions that are the envy of the rest.”
The notion that college education can be quantified by a standard assessment test is anathema to Brooks, who associates it with the unsuccessful “No Child Left Behind” methodology, and refers to it as a Consumer Reports approach.

Brooks has done well in countering attacks on an education “nonsystem” that is worthy of better-armed opponents. I would have wished him to comment more on the issue of liberal arts versus non-liberal arts curricula—what Hacker and Dreifus refer to as a “vocational” school. Similarly, the very notion that one can measure educational achievement at the college level should have elicited more than a smirk. I have already vented my feelings on those issues here, so I will not pursue them further.

I think our education “nonsystem” deserves some positive comments, and the benefit of a broader perspective. Levin’s article provides us with that.

Levin describes the steps Asian countries are taking upgrade their universities. He points out that our system is still the model for others to emulate.
“Not every university can or needs to be world class. The experiences of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany are instructive. In the United States and the United Kingdom, higher education is a differentiated system of many types of institutions, of which the comprehensive research university is merely one. And within the group of comprehensive universities, government support for research is allocated chiefly on the basis of merit, which allows some institutions to prosper while others lag behind. In the United States, fundraising reinforces this differentiation. Success breeds success, and for the most part, the strongest institutions attract the most philanthropy. In Germany, by contrast, government policy since World War II has kept universities from maintaining their distinction. After the war, the government opened enrollment, allowed the student-faculty ratio to rise everywhere, isolated the most eminent researchers in separate institutes but otherwise distributed resources on the basis of equity rather than merit. In doing so, it destroyed the worldwide distinction Germany's best universities once held. Only recently has the government decided to focus its resources on three universities in particular, in order to make them more globally competitive.”
The development of our elite universities is not a trivial accomplishment.
“Developing top universities is a tall order. World-class universities achieve their status by assembling scholars who are global leaders in their fields. This takes time. It took centuries for Harvard and Yale to achieve parity with Oxford and Cambridge and more than half a century for Stanford and the University of Chicago (both founded in 1892) to achieve world-class reputations. The only Asian university to have broken into the top 25 in global rankings is the University of Tokyo, which was founded in 1877.”
These coveted scholars are the much-maligned professors criticized so broadly in the volumes reviewed by Brooks. Why are they so highly valued, and why are they provided with so much leeway?
“Having made tremendous progress in expanding access to higher education, the leading countries of Asia are now focused on an even more challenging goal: building universities that can compete with the finest in the world. The governments of China, India, Singapore, and South Korea are explicitly seeking to elevate some of their universities to this exalted status because they recognize the important role that university-based scientific research has played in driving economic growth in the United States, western Europe, and Japan. And they understand that world-class universities are the ideal place to educate students for careers in science, industry, government, and civil society -- creating people who have the intellectual breadth and critical-thinking skills to solve problems, to innovate, and to lead.”
The suggestion that a greater focus on liberal is appropriate in our schools reminded me of this paragraph from Levin’s article.
“In today's knowledge economy, no less than in the nineteenth century, when the philosophy of liberal education was articulated by Cardinal John Henry Newman, it is not subject-specific knowledge but the ability to assimilate new information and solve problems that is the most important characteristic of a well-educated person. The Yale Report of 1828 -- an influential document written by Jeremiah Day (who was at the time president of Yale), one of his trustees, and a committee of faculty -- distinguished between ’the discipline’ and ‘the furniture’ of the mind. Mastering a specific body of knowledge -- acquiring ‘the furniture’ -- is of little permanent value in a rapidly changing world. Students who aspire to be leaders in business, medicine, law, government, or academia need ‘the discipline’ of mind -- the ability to adapt to constantly changing circumstances, confront new facts, and find creative ways to solve problems.”
One can accumulate a lot of “furniture” at a liberal arts college, and one can acquire a lot of “discipline” studying engineering, accounting—and even basket weaving.

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