This winter, a windstorm snapped the trunk of a chokecherry tree and left it hanging twenty feet over my driveway in Vermont, like an ax poised to split a log—or a car. I hastened to saw the tree off at the base, but an odd thing happened. It didn’t fall. When I had cut clean through the trunk, it remained vertical, held aloft by neighboring trees. So it is indeed possible to cut a tree off from its roots without having it fall. Contemporary higher education, of course, has already mastered this trick but it was nice to have an arboreal example.
Sheryll Cashin’s Place Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America (Beacon Press, 2014) is a brief book well summed by its title. Cashin would like to ensure that blacks and other underrepresented racial minorities are admitted to good colleges in substantial numbers. But she recognizes that race-based affirmative action is vulnerable to political and judicial opposition arising from “racial resentment.” A “backlash” looms from “Tea Party purists.” The trouble is that racial preferences are “increasingly untenable” not because they are really untenable but “because of politics.” It is “politics” that explains the 64 to 75 percent of respondents in various polls who say they oppose racial preferences in college admissions. It is not clear why Cashin thinks this opposition can be finessed with the subterfuge of using place of residence rather than declared race as the basis for affirmative action.
Cordially and with the Usual Succinctness
Julie Schumacher is a faculty member in the creative writing department and the English department at the University of Minnesota. Her short novel, Dear Committee Members (Doubleday, 2014), consists of sixty-seven letters from Jason Fitger, a divorced and grumpy old English professor who earlier in life had published an acclaimed novel. The letters run from September 2009 to August 2010 and variously urge the merits of candidates for fellowships or job applicants; or address individuals ranging from a dean, an interim department chair, his ex-wife, a former girlfriend, a literary agent, and so on. In outline this sounds like a rather unpromising entrant in the crowded category of academic satires. But Schumacher warms Fitger to life. He is called on repeatedly to write recommendations for students who scraped by in his courses and are now scraping by in an unpromising job market. (“The dialogue consisted primarily of agonized groans and screaming,” he says of the short story submitted by one of his many Lovecraft-obsessed creative writing students. “The chronology was relentlessly clear.”)
Fitger devotes a good portion of his epistolary project to advancing the prospects of an advisee, Darren Browles, for whom he has high literary hopes. Seemingly no one else sees the gleam of gold in Browles that Fitger has spied in him, and the novel begins to turn on how much we can trust Fitger’s judgment.
Schumacher has a deft touch. The pathos of Fitger’s life is nicely balanced with the high comedy of his letters of recommendation and his futile protests against the crumbling infrastructure of the English department.
William G. Bowen, the former president of Princeton, and Eugene M. Tobin, the former president of Hamilton College, collaborated on a book that seems somehow self-cancelling. Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2015) tells the story of what is usually called “shared governance.” They dislike the term as too vague and ambiguous but are unable to find another. “Faculty roles” is vaguer still and even more ambiguous. That said, the book is valuable as history and for its case studies of the University of California, Princeton, Macalester, and CUNY. It also provides a conspectus of the factors that weigh against traditional norms of shared governance. “The key point is that lines between content, technology, and pedagogy have blurred,” they write in italics, in case “key point” eluded the reader. A broader “sharing of perspectives” across departmental lines is needed, but “final decision-making authority…needs to be located unambiguously in the hands of senior administrators.”
The book is an inversion of sorts of the argument of Melvyn Fein’s Redefining Higher Education (which I reviewed in the Fall 2014 Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest). Fein looks at the same problems and sees a need for a radical reduction in college administrators. Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty makes a similar point. Bowen and Tobin do not engage either book.
Anthony Aveni’s Class Not Dismissed: Reflections on Undergraduate Education (University Press of Colorado, 2014) is a memoir of his fifty-year teaching career at Colgate. Aveni was an astronomer whose interests broadened over the years to encompass a title as Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy, Anthropology, and Native American Studies. His memoir is charmingly anecdotal. Aveni is no rival of the fictional Jason Fitger for disappointed and dyspeptic academician. His memory is crowded with sunlit fortuities and smiling colleagues. He seems like that rarity among memoirists, a genuinely happy man, but his story is no less engaging for lack of angst. It is, rather, a portrait of the scholar as a man in concert with the spirit of his time and place. What makes this especially interesting is that Aveni’s career coincided almost perfectly with the epoch that many of us regard as a period of relentless retreat from academic standards and liberal educational ideals. How does a man find such bliss in the midst of cultural collapse?
Aveni’s joie de vivre reflects his enthusiasm for nearly every wrong turn higher education and Colgate University made. A few weeks into his first appointment at Colgate in 1963, he begins to catch the excitement of teaching in a cross-disciplinary core curriculum. He became “a convert to the case study, cross-disciplinary method,” and to curricular experimentation. “New methods, new techniques” captured his imagination. Core courses for freshmen, of course, now sound old-fashioned, but for Aveni in 1963, the key thing was the discovery that he could pursue questions of how science proceeds rather than teach the “basic body of contemporary astronomical knowledge.” Aveni lightens this story with an account of his classroom mishaps, but the story is also an early warning of his susceptibility to approaches that, over time, would begin to crowd out the cultivation in students of disciplined and systematic inquiry in favor of loose intellectual entertainment.
Aveni considers himself a proponent of liberal arts education and “the unity of knowledge,” but for him this leads to a deep distaste for disciplinary boundaries. Those boundaries exist for good reason: the ways in which biologists learn about the world differ from the ways physicists do, though both conduct themselves under the general rubric of natural science. And both differ in crucial ways from the ways historians, anthropologists, or music professors conduct their various pursuits of knowledge. The “unity” of human knowledge is a lodestar towards which the undergraduate student, like the rest of us, should orient his efforts. But it is definitely not a ripe plum waiting to be picked. Aveni, however, views the disciplinary differences as merely a trap, where practitioners become “suspicious” of one another. He calls this “academic xenophobia,” and views the liberal arts as “striving to reconnect the silo disciplines.”
What does such interconnection look like? He cites the example of teaching his students that Stonehenge “may have functioned as a prehistoric astronomical observatory and computer,” which also allows him to explain how radiocarbon dating works. This speculation no doubt captures the attention of students, but is the alignment of megaliths with the celestial seasons best interpreted as an “observatory and computer?” This is less a demonstration of the unity of knowledge than it is of the misleading nature of metaphors.
Aveni progresses through his career more or less in step with the spirit of the times. As the focus of Colgate’s core shifts from great books to “critical thinking,” from moral formation of students to self-discovery, and from general education to specialization, Aveni finds his footing as a supporter of a “more activist-oriented curriculum, one advocating that each of us must define and interpret our own set of moral values.” He views the old curriculum as a “graveyard,” and accepts an administrative appointment in which he plays a role in bringing “gender issues, colonialism, and perspectives on race relations” into the curriculum as well as women’s studies and environmental studies.
Aveni acknowledges a little friction with “traditionalists,” who present a “conservative backlash,” but Allan Bloom’s great critique is dismissed as “a cold slap in the face of the professoriate.” Aveni doesn’t engage with the substance of Bloom’s critique, though it bothers him enough that he brings it up again, irresolutely, in the final chapter. Putting paid to Bloom: “In the closing decades of the twentieth century, turmoil in the American professoriate passed well beyond the issue of curricular content.” Aveni’s concluding image is an arresting version of the old metaphor of college as a marketplace of ideas, in this case “a vast open-air market” where ideas are “fervently hawked by avid pitchmen” and students benefit from being knocked off their paths and becoming truly “disoriented.”
That’s one idea of happiness and one picture of education, but not mine.
Lani Guinier’s The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America (Beacon, 2015), like Cashin’s Place Not Race, is almost finished by the time you have read the title. It is a 139-page restatement of Guinier’s oft-repeated view that America could and should resolve its racial perplexities by means of a vast expansion of racial preferences. Guinier is abundantly aware that such preferences entail lowering academic standards and she has the virtue of forthrightness in her academic-standards-be-damned declarations. The Tyranny of the Meritocracy proceeds by an attempt to deconstruct and discredit the idea of “merit” itself. Merit gets in the way of “a student’s capacity to collaborate and to think creatively.” The SATs and other such devices are the great enemy.
Critics of racial preferences ought to make a point of keeping up with books like this. No matter how strange Guinier’s arguments may appear on their face, it is likely that we will be seeing them again in briefs before the Supreme Court and, sad to say, in some of the opinions drafted by Supreme Court justices. It is better to take her points in early and prepare to refute them. The basic line of her argument is that we belong profoundly to groups (especially racial groups) and the pursuit of “diversity” is the key to successful democracy. Guinier contrasts “democratic merit” to “testocratic merit” (watch for that term!). “Merit” of any sort involves making a “choice about which characteristics” are deemed valuable. Democratic merit selects for “peer collaboration, leadership, [and] drive.” Guinier values these qualities over intellectual ability, self-reliance, accountability, and quite a few others one might think bear on aptness to contribute to democracy.
Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates (University of Chicago Press, 2014) is the sequel to their acclaimed 2011 book, Academically Adrift. The latter gave us important new data on how meager the intellectual benefits of American higher education are for nearly two-thirds of students who graduate. In this new volume Arum and Roksa follow the graduates (“the same cohort”) into their post-college years. The picture does not brighten. Aspiring Adults Adrift builds on extensive survey data and statistical analysis as well as interviews, and requires far closer consideration than I can give it here. I simply call it to the attention of AQ readers of unflinching determination to read the bad news in depth. Or the good news, if you consider that, despite the quality of American higher education, 26 percent of college graduates who finished on time have full-time employment earning more than $40,000 per year two years after graduation.
The jacket copy of Wikipedia U: Knowledge, Authority, and Liberal Education in the Digital Age (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) explains that author Thomas Leitch “regards Wikipedia as an ideal instrument for probing the central assumptions behind liberal education.” In like spirit, I regard the jacket copy as the ideal instrument for probing the argument of Wikipedia U.
I suppose it would be mean to leave it at that. This is a book from Johns Hopkins University Press, which earns it at least some thoughtful consideration. It commences with a short discussion of “liberal education” that instantly blurs into one indistinguishable mess six or seven distinct conceptions. The liberal arts are variously whatever liberal arts colleges do; John Henry Newman’s “knowledge which stands on its own pretensions”; education associated with the humanities and/or “humanistic values”; “critical thinking, problem solving, and coherent communication”; quoting Louis Menand, “the disinterested pursuit of knowledge in the service of an often unwilling public culture”; and quoting Derek Bok, preparing “undergraduates to be democratic citizens.” Each of these views deserves to be sifted. Some can be fit together. But Leitch, professor of English and director of film studies at the University of Delaware (and co-editor of A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock) appears to be a practitioner of the jump cut. Having summarized liberal education in a few bold strokes, Leitch moves along to the Internet, videos on how to install showerheads, and Game of Thrones.
One can sense pretty quickly why the author finds Wikipedia an immensely constructive aid for liberal education. He is thoroughly at home in the world of instantly connecting disconnected fragments. This is not to say the book is itself un-argued or incoherent. Leitch sets out numerous distinctions that warrant attention. We get to Wikipedia, for example, via a distinction between “knowledge” and “epistemic authority.” And from there into a short discussion of Max Weber’s ideas of authority and its relation to bureaucracy.
The argument of Wikipedia U is not so much dense as it is abbreviated. Leitch pretty clearly understands how Wikipedia works—and therefore how often it fails in tests of accuracy, completeness, and fair representation. But he takes from this that there is a grand opportunity to teach students to distrust sources and to inquire more deeply into why they say what they say. For those to whom “liberal education” is essentially a matter of instilling the habits of distrustful “critical thinking,” Wikipedia is a great thing, “an ideal instrument” so to speak, “for probing the central assumptions behind liberal education.”
The invaluable Robert P. George has published Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2013). It is not a book about higher education per se, but it includes several important chapters on the university, especially “Liberalism, Liberation, and the Liberal Arts” and “Some Hard Questions about Affirmative Action.” The former deals with the “unbridgeable chasm between the idea of liberal-arts education as classically conceived and the conception some influential academics promote today.” The new conception is “liberation from traditional social constraints and norms of morality.” And, “beyond this” is the attempt to make students “authentic” by prompting them to listen to and act on their “desires.” The older vision of liberal education as a path to self-mastery and self-restraint has been jettisoned.
It is perhaps worth noting how George’s basic distinctions are completely absent from the summary of liberal education provided by Aveni and Leitch, and are so remote from the concerns of Cashin and Guinier that George’s book might as well have been written in Linear B. The chasm is real.
George’s few pages on academic freedom deserve special note. He reprises the firing of a human resources officer at the University of Toledo, a black woman named Crystal Dixon who was dismissed for writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper in which she expressed her view that “sexual orientation” should not be included in antidiscrimination laws. He mentions the firing of Larry Summers from Harvard for his unwelcome remarks on the unequal distribution between men and women of extremely high levels of mathematical talent. And he retells the story of G. Bradford Wilcox, the University of Virginia sociologist nearly denied tenure because of his conservative views, who received a last-minute reprieve by then UVA president John Casteen. The cases are a little dated and all the better remembered for that. George’s conclusion: academic freedom is not absolute. It is “freedom for excellence, the freedom that enables us to master ourselves.” Which is to say, not the freedom to escape social restraints and to reduce oneself to mere appetite.
Q & A
Goldie Blumenstyk’s American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everybody Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2014) is a useful compendium of information arranged as seventy-four questions and fairly succinct answers. Blumenstyk is a senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education who embodies that publication’s progressive sensibility. The book commences with a story about Moses Kennedy, a black teenage track star from a D.C. public school who is enrolled in a College Bound program. Blumenstyk ruminates about Moses’s aspirations as she begins a Duke University MOOC on “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.” The next night President Obama gave his State of the Union address in which he said he wanted to do more about “families who feel trapped by student loan debt.”
So which of the many possible crises is the crisis in Blumenstyk’s title? She rules some out: not science funding, not the Ph.D. glut, not sexual assaults, not binge drinking, and not athletic scandals. She also drops out of the Duke MOOC and seems to take a detached view of the challenge posed to higher education by new technologies. If there is a crisis in the house, it is hard to pin down. She observes, “Colleges face mounting pressures to do more with less,” though that sounds more like a challenge than a crisis. But the first question in the body of the book is, “Is American higher education in crisis?” Blumenstyk says yes: “Higher education is most assuredly in crisis.”
But it is a peculiarity of the book that we are never quite sure what this crisis really is. It is not for lack of Blumenstyk mentioning numerous issues, beginning with the dizzying run-up in the price of college. But price is followed by student debt, public doubt, cuts in state support, fragility in the financial models of colleges, racial and income inequities, the shift from liberal arts to career-focused training, and new technology, etc. Blumenstyk, in other words, is not the kind of analyst who is especially eager to look for root causes or key factors. She takes the sprawl of problems in higher education as her subject, denominates it as a matter of “price, quality, [and] responsiveness to changing conditions and new populations,” and moves along to report on the details. Still, if forced to say what “crisis” her book is mainly about, I would settle on “college costs.” That’s the longest section of the book and takes up thirty-two of the seventy-four questions. “How much does America spend on higher education, and how has that changed over time?” ($500 billion; 7 percent per year). “What impact do donations have on college revenues?” (depends; revenue from gifts and endowments comes to $39,000 per full-time student at private research universities, $17,000 at private bachelor’s colleges, $150 at community colleges). “How big is the student-debt burden?” ($1 trillion in 2011).
Other sections deal with students: “Will the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case make it less likely that colleges will actively recruit minority students?” (possibly; “at the very least it will require universities to be more diligent in documenting their rationale for using affirmative action in admissions to increase racial diversity”).
With leadership: “How are colleges run?” (governing boards, administrators, faculty). “What role do adjunct professors play in this system?” (70 percent of the professoriate; they are exploited).
And with “What’s Ahead”—“‘Disruption’ may well be the key buzzword.”
Blumenstyk’s book is chockablock with interesting information lucidly presented. While it has nothing much to offer the reader who is searching for a deeper explanation of the discordances in contemporary higher education, it is a well-stocked vending machine of relevant data on topics that fit a certain liberal view of the academy. The undefined “crisis” of the title apparently includes nothing about speech codes, disinvitations, trigger warnings, microaggressions, or other parts of the apparatus aimed at curtailing intellectual freedom on campus. Likewise the book is silent on curricular follies. Political correctness is never mentioned. On racial issues, Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr.’s “mismatch hypothesis” is never acknowledged, but Blumenstyk devotes a section to “undermatching,” in which talented minority students choose to attend local colleges rather than more competitive national institutions. The hookup culture and sexual debauching of students by colleges that make “consent” the be-all and end-all of relations between men and women are likewise absent from this picture. In short, there are profound things amiss in contemporary American higher education that are either invisible or off-limits to Blumenstyk.
What Lies Between
The Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies explores “the human condition in light of Christian understanding.” It is one of several journals that arrives at the National Association of Scholars unbidden. Its cover adds that it is international as well as interdisciplinary and interested in “interfaith dialogue.” I can’t discern a denominational connection, though it is cosponsored by the International Christian Studies Association, which seems to emphasize Catholic-Protestant ecumenical community. The association and the journal were founded by Dr. Oskar Gruenwald, who takes a particular interest in higher education. The 2001 volume of the journal was titled The Idea of a University: From John Henry Newman to the Multiversity and Beyond, and the 2014 volume takes up the theme “Re-Imagining the University.”
Gruenwald’s introduction to this reimagining begins where Blumenstyk begins, “The Crisis of the University.” He likewise sees a confluence of many troubles but their overall character differs sharply from Blumenstyk’s list. If “cost” is her central concern, “wholeness” is his. “Departmental compartmentalization of knowledge hinders new discoveries in the natural sciences and ‘connecting-the-dots’ in the social and historical sciences, while humanities are relegated to irrelevance.” Gruenwald picks up nearly everything Blumenstyk overlooks: speech codes, sensitivity training, political correctness, and failures of character formation. His goal—and that of his journal—is to overcome “the fragmentation of knowledge” and to bring about “the integration of knowledge or the education of the whole person.” The ideal of “interdisciplinary studies” that Gruenwald upholds sounds rather similar to Aveni’s, but perhaps this is more apparent than real. Aveni, the astronomer who sees Stonehenge as a combination observatory and computer, does not find his grounding in Newman’s idea of a university; fails to see much need for what Gruenwald calls “renewing the dialogue between Athens (Enlightenment reason) and Jerusalem (religious faith)”; and sees liberal education as the path to endlessly inventive self-discovery, where Gruenwald sees “an understanding of the motivations, nature, and purposes of human beings.”
What is arresting is that both use the talismanic phrase “unity of knowledge,” and both harken to “interdisciplinary research.” But they seem to mean entirely different unities and somewhat disparate interdisciplines. For Aveni, the pursuit of such unity requires dispensing with the “graveyard” of the old curriculum, which he holds responsible for making artificial separations. For Gruenwald, the unity comes from the pursuit of transcendent truths. Both men are such strong advocates of interdisciplinary studies that I suspect they would encourage the same sorts of curricular crossovers, but to quite different ends.
How much of the deterioration of aesthetic standards and artistic achievement in the arts over the last century can be traced to the academy? That’s a question that I would like to take up in a themed issue of Academic Questions in the next year or so. But it was brought to mind again by Michelle Marder Kamhi’s Who Says That’s Art? A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts (Pro Arte Books, 2014). Kamhi is an art historian who did her thesis on Piero della Francesca’s Uffizi diptych and who was an editor for Columbia University Press before becoming an editor of the journal Aristos, which “owes much to the ideas on the essential nature of art offered by…Ayn Rand.” Be that as it may, Kamhi’s book is a thoughtful and well-informed tour of the principal art movements and celebrated painters and sculptors of the modern era as seen through eyes of someone who finds nothing persuasive in the underlying premises of modernism. Those are eyes adjusted to the light of Piero della Francesca (or Thomas Eakins—she isn’t stuck in the Renaissance) rather than to the glare of Andy Warhol’s celebrity portraits. Who Says That’s Art? occupies some of the same debunking gallery space as Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, except that Kamhi seems less interested in puncturing pretension than she is in teaching us how to look.
What brings her book into this column is her chapter, “Rethinking Art Education.” Her key criticism is that educators concerned with the arts these days are more “bent on establishing what they deem to be social justice” than on developing either the creative or critical capabilities of students. The social justice emphasis leads to the teachers making much of contemporary works that “are often nothing more than political gesture under the guise of art.” It is an observation difficult to dispute, but that is perhaps only to say that art education has conformed to the principle that now more or less pervades the university: politics first. The pursuit of beauty, like the pursuit of truth, is rightfully at the root of higher education. We have achieved the academic equivalent of the spectacle of the chokecherry tree suspended upright despite being severed from its roots.
What will happen when the wind picks up?