Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest

Peter Wood

I had already decided to let my subscription to The Weekly Standard run out when news came in December that the conservative news analysis and cultural commentary magazine was folding. The magazine had become sour and cantankerous in the last few years, but despite my disenchantment with it, I regret its passing. The Standard was, among other things, one of few mainstream publications that gave serious space to critiquing the follies of higher education. It also offered lively coverage of culture and the arts, focusing on matters that were seldom covered in The New York Times, and only intermittently addressed by The Wall Street Journal.

We orphaned subscribers received an issue of the Washington Examiner with a note explaining that it would take the place of The Weekly Standard. Judging by its first issue, however, the Washington Examiner is featherweight. Its glances at culture and ideas in that issue are chatty and superficial. We are offered a few hundred words by Jamie Dettmer on his recent visit to Moscow after many years. Paul Bedard reflects on his hunting with his new crossbow, the Assassin. Eric Felton comments on his performing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” at his jazz club. Trent Reedy, a combat engineer serving in Afghanistan, praises a 1978 children’s fantasy novel, Bridge to Terabithia. Nathan Wurzel laments that the author of the books on which the TV serial Game of Thrones is based hasn’t finished it yet. Daniella Greenbaum Davis praises the TV series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, now in its second season. And Jay Caruso evaluates some of the pro football quarterbacks who are currently racking up winning yards.

Unobjectionable stuff, but to me not that interesting. Most of the pages of the The Washington Examiner are filled with political opinionizing, which I find even less interesting. I hope the new magazine develops a stronger voice, but I just may not be part of the target audience.

Where will we now go for thoughtful, well-informed essays on serious topics? Online publication doesn’t favor essays that run upwards of 2,000 words, let alone the 10,000 words or more that The Weekly Standard would often devote to a significant cultural matter. To be sure, other opinion journals are available: Commentary; The Claremont Review of Books; First Things. But The Weekly Standard leaves a weekly gap. Benjamin Wallace-Wells presents an Agatha Christie account of its demise, “Who Killed The Weekly Standard?” in the January 3 issue of The New Yorker, which is of course the Galapagos Islands of long-form print journalism—a refuge for exotic life that could exist nowhere else. (https://www.newyorker.com/news/the-political-scene/who-killed-the-weekly-standard).

Back Then

John R. Thelin is a University Research Professor at the University of Kentucky, who went to college in the 1960s and has now published Going to College in the Sixties (Johns Hopkins, 2018). It was by general assent a pivotal decade for the country as a whole and for higher education in particular. Nearly everything that ails higher education today has its roots in that decade, and it would be hard to find a pernicious ideological movement on a contemporary college campus that doesn’t celebrate the era.

Which is to say that Thelin’s new book addresses a topic which is ripe for at least two substantial audiences: those who regard the 1960s as a precipice over which we fell and those who regard the 1960s as the fertile crescent that gave rise to the splendors of today. Thelin is not a full-time resident of either camp, though his sympathies plainly lie with those who sought to transform American higher education in the direction of “fair treatment, equity, and social justice.” (168) Those sympathies, however, do not get in the way of Thelin providing a broad historical canvas that gives as much attention to admission standards, research programs, institutional finances, residence halls, and college sports as it does to protests and activism.

Moreover, Thelin’s verdict on sixties’ activism is cautionary. “The disputes and controversies at colleges and universities during the 1960s did not constitute a coherent reform agenda,” he writes. (168) And “The gains in student financial aid, curricular reform, and extended initiatives for accessibility and affordability” we have today “represent at best a partial fulfillment of the hopes and ideals associated with the 1960s.” (168-169) He notes the “paradox” that the goals of the master planners of the 1960s have been met, but “within the cosmos of the college, the inequities of academic privilege and family prosperity tend to trump numerous other programs and strategies to expand the combination of access, admission, and affordability.” (169-170)

This is well short of Thelin acknowledging that those “hopes and ideals” were founded on impossible economics and delusory views of human nature. The pursuit of prestige does not vanish no matter how often and how loudly people extol “social justice.” And piling more and more students into colleges and university classrooms, with little regard for their abilities and preparation, was never likely to make either the students or the colleges better.

But Going to College in the Sixties is well worth reading, as a richly detailed, relatively short (171 pages) evocation of the decade that launched mass higher education in America.

California Dreaming

Steven Brint is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside. His new book, Two Cheers for Higher Education comes with the prolix subtitle, Why American Universities Are Stronger Than Ever—and How to Meet the Challenges They Face (Princeton, 2018). A version of this book seems to be published every decade. The last I remember is Jonathan Cole’s 2009 tome, The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence Its Indispensable National Role Why It Must Be Protected. Cole was a Columbia University provost and dean with what might be called a psychological stake in believing the magniloquent but punctuation-deprived title he put to his ruminations on the value of research universities. Brint is likewise a true believer, but one confronted with a whole additional decade of discouraging data. “Crushing student debt, rapidly eroding state funding, faculty embroiled in speech controversies, a higher education marker disrupted by online competition,” begins the publisher’s jacket copy.

The P. T. Barnum impulse to sell the reader on the splendor of contemporary higher education confronts the awkward reality that the Fiji Mermaid and the Two-headed Dog aren’t looking quite so splendid these days. Brint deals with this setback by acknowledging “the crushing weight of student debt” and other like quandaries as “challenges.” Well yes, careening off the highway into the ocean below is a challenge. But take heart: “the narrative trajectory of higher education as an institution is utterly different from the one these bleak pictures convey.” The italics are his, and they point to his central claim that the university, whatever its faults, has since 1985 become the main driver of two forms of progress. One is “economic development through the invention of new technologies” and the other is “providing opportunities to members of previously marginalized groups, including women, racial-ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community.”

Brint thinks these movements somehow combined in “a special kind of dynamism because of the strength of partisan commitments to them, backed up by high levels of patronage.” The reader is offered some 400 pages to see how Brint develops this implausible thesis. I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun, though he gives some clues at the outset. He acknowledges Richard Florida’s 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, as a major inspiration. Florida’s argument, (subsequently recanted. See “More Losers Than Winners in America's New Economic Geography, Citylab.com, Jan. 30, 2013), was that cities with significant gay subcultures had become hubs of enterprise because they offered hard-working entrepreneurs a rich cultural and artistic environment.

Or as Brint develops the idea, “the commitments of colleges and universities to diversity and inclusion have been fuel for the advance of American higher education.” (158)

I would call this a distinctly Californian daydream, but I imagine a sizable market of diversicrats who will readily turn to Brint as the scholarly authority who has demonstrated the high value of their contributions.

Yesterday

Richard B. Schwartz, professor of English and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri, Columbia, has published Postwar Higher Education in America: Just Yesterday (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018). Of the many recent histories of American higher education, Schwartz’s is by a good margin the best—not so much for its narration of the bare-bone facts as for the sensibility of the author. He writes in first person and often draws on his own experience. In portraying the computer revolution he jumps from Turing’s computer at Bletchley Park to his own undergraduate course in computer science at West Point in 1968. But these personal appearances are quietly informative and never disrupt the flow.

Schwartz is among the few who continue to regard higher education as an end in itself rather than a way of expediting social reforms. At the end, by way of defending his policy proposals, he comments, “I concur with Thorstein Veblen on the university’s proper stress of the disinterested search for knowledge, on the deleterious use of businessmen on boards of trustees, on the valorizing of vocational education, and on the grotesque overemphasis on athletics, notions firmly articulated in 1918.” (246)

Schwartz’s observations are often tart. “I was astounded when one of our local liberal arts colleges reshuffled its structure and its curriculum. The then-president announced that her college would highlight professional opportunities for women. She then closed the political science department. Obviously, one professional opportunity for women—attending law school—had been overlooked.” (107)

Occasionally, he overreaches, as when he lampoons busy college administrators as doing little beyond attending meetings and explaining things “to some other bureaucrat who is either thick or simply too inexperienced to understand.” (229) Higher education is awash in supernumerary bureaucrats, but many college administrators are busy for good reason.

Good Value

Richard Vedder, professor emeritus of economics at Ohio University and member of the National Association of Scholars board of directors, has published a new book, Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America (Independent Institute, 2019). It bears immediate comparison to fellow economist Bryan Caplan’s widely noted The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, (expertly reviewed here by Daniel Bonevac, Winter 2018). Both books are thick with charts and offer arresting economic analysis. But Caplan is a cynic who sees little in college education beyond a system of signaling to potential employers that a student is sufficiently conformist and tractable to make a dutiful employee. Caplan offers an abundance of evidence that most students learn little of enduring value for the time and money spent acquiring a degree.

Vedder starts elsewhere and finishes on more constructive principles—which is not to say that he bears any resemblance to Pollyanna. Vedder too thinks that many students waste time and money, and he spares none of the idols that writers such as Brint are eager to protect. But his book is not another sky-is-falling pronouncement of doom on colleges and universities that have become unaffordable, unaccountable, and intellectually mediocre. Rather, he takes the failures one by one and shows how we as a nation could solve them though practical policy choices.

His answers frequently cut against current policies. He suggests, for example, that government financing of higher education is unnecessary. Student self-financing would be best because it focuses students’ attention on the essentials. He supports university research but notes that “research, like nearly everything else in life, is subject to diminishing returns at some point.” (22)

Vedder’s tone is temperate even if his conclusions will surely dismay those who are complacent about how we are preparing the next generation for leadership. In contrast to Schwartz (and Veblen!) Vedder upholds the importance of the “vocational” side of higher education but, unlike Caplan, he also upholds the intangible benefits of promoting the American Dream, inculcating virtue, and binding students to our civic ideals.

Who Are You?

I am running low on “items of academic interest” with which to put a finial on this quarterly column. What comes to hand is the conference name tag. Something prevents me from throwing them out. I have a box of little transparent plastic envelopes, some with clips, some with ribbons or cords, and some with pins—though the pinned variety strike me as low end. Still lower and never saved are the gummed variety, which invariably curl at the edges and peel off before the conference is over.

In more than one case, the name tag has outlasted my memory of the conference, including those that proudly proclaim me as “Speaker.” This is the academic life writ small, as alas much of academic life is writ.

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