Higher Education and its Discontents

Higher education is a site where a lot of disputes, tensions, disagreements, irreconcilable opposites and incompatible goals meet and clash. Proxy battles are fought there rather than in the marketplace or the courts or government because the stakes are so much lower, having comparatively little to do with profit, prison, laws, or bloodshed. So silly or perverse or evidence-free ideas get a stage to rehearse on, and sometimes drown out better ideas – and Fashionable Nonsense is born.

We have a hard time even deciding what education is for. Many people, probably most, think it’s purely vocational. People go to university because if they don’t they’ll have to do dreary boring difficult low-status jobs for no money all their lives. The more idealistically inclined prefer to think the purpose of higher education is to teach people the right attitudes, thus making the world a better place. University is where you learn to respect the Other, to scorn Eurocentrism and elitism, to valorize other ways of knowing, to repudiate scientism and positivism and the totalizing narratives of modernism, to transgress the boundaries and question hegemonies and problematize phallogocentric discourse. And a tiny vestigial remnant thinks higher education is a good in itself, that improving one’s understanding of the world, even though it does also have vocational and political effects, is a valuable goal all on its own.

But of course no one pays any attention to them. People don’t go tens of thousands of pounds or a hundred thousand dollars into debt for the sake of furnishing their minds. Poetry and history and classics are all very well but they don’t pay the mortgage or the children’s tuition at their elevator up the social ladder. So MBAs outnumber humanities degrees and students decide, however reluctantly, to read law or medicine rather than literature or philosophy.

Murray Sperber, a professor at Indiana University, says a “beer-and-circus culture” has permeated much of public higher education, often substituting for solid intellectual growth among undergraduates. He traces this phenomenon, in part, to an attitude prevalent in society that college is merely a means to a well-paid job. “It’s always anti-intellectual when the most important thing in life is making money,” Dr. Sperber says. [Chronicle of Higher Education 21 January 2003]

It is, but resisting that attitude can seem like a very steep uphill battle when even Charles Clarke, the Secretary of ‘Education and Skills’ in Tony Blair’s government, thinks the idea of education as a good in itself is ‘a bit dodgy.’

And then there’s the university’s part in the wonderful world of entertainment. To many people in the US, the local university is a football team and nothing else. Thomas Arnold no doubt meant well when he put manly field sports at the center of education, but his success has been all too complete. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor illustrates the point:

For Hrabowski at UMBC, anti-intellectualism in higher education was summed up perfectly in the response to a recent speech he gave to a group of academics. “I was making the case that universities should be celebrating the student who is accomplishing a lot in English literature as much, or more, than the student who’s a great basketball player,” he says. “Well, when I said that, they just laughed. They laughed! That’s the problem we face.”

So higher education is either vocational training, or attitude adjustment, or an athletic camp, rather than what it should be: where people go to provoke, stimulate, upset, and furnish their minds.


External Resources

  • A Sucker’s Game
    The New York Times Magazine on college football.
  • Anti-Intellectualism at University
    ‘America is not a deeply intellectual culture,’ says Anthony Grafton, a history professor at Princeton. ‘[Intellectualism] is a countercultural value, not one that most people embrace. It’s not what life in the suburbs is about…’
  • But the Grass is Greener
    Article that originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, on the factors that work against intellectual challenge at Duke University, including fraternities and sororities, sports, and non-academic admissions.
  • Cabinet Secretary and the Historians
    Charles Clarke thinks the idea of education as a good in itself is a bit dodgy, but perhaps not all his colleagues would agree.
  • College as Entertainment Lite
    Mark Edmundson’s essay from Harpers magazine, on college students as consumers and their teachers as more or less amusing stand up acts.
  • Grade Inflation
    Harvey Mansfield in the Chronicle of Higher Education blames therapeutic notions of self-esteem for upward pressure on grades even at Harvard.
  • Grade Inflation Page
    Useful references.
  • Grading the Teacher
    ‘On the whole, professors know more than a first year undergraduate. How can wisdom and learning “not” condescend when confronted with vacant ignorance?’
  • Review of Beer and Circus
    Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post reviews Murray Sperber’s book on the decline of undergraduate education.
  • Teacher versus Basketball Fans, Teacher Loses
    Insults and even threats. How dare a mere English teacher express a criticism of a basketball coach? Who does he think he is? Doesn’t he know what the university’s priorities are?
  • University Football Coaches are Paid Millions
    Are universities just fleas on the body of football?

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