After the Manifestos: Building a New Reform Movement in Higher Education

Peter Wood

Edward Lorenz, the father of chaos theory, died this week at age 90. Lorenz was a meteorologist and mathematician who investigated what are called “nonlinear dynamic systems.” Even those of us who can’t follow the mathematics are familiar with Lorenz’s basic idea of physical systems so precariously arranged that infinitesimal changes at one stage can unleash gargantuan outcomes at another. Lorenz, who could be as deft with a metaphor as he was with an algorithm, gave a lasting image of his theory in the title of his 1972 paper, “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”

We critics and would-be reformers of American higher education may lay claim to insights into chaos as well. Our critiques, after all, generally take the form of explaining how higher education once ordered by a small number of abiding principles has, within a few decades, fragmented into a million little multiculturalisms; vanished into the Cheshire Cat grin of postmodernism; erupted into truth-denying relativism; spread its ideological fog of race, gender, and class reductionism; dynamited the very basis of rational inquiry through deconstructionism and other anti-foundational pseudo-philosophies; and transformed the university from a steward of civilization to its spendthrift. Where colleges once attempted to shape character, they now more often attempt to shake students loose from whatever cultural, religious, or familial moorings they arrived with. I am thinking here especially of the projects enunciated by the residence life programs at the University of Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, and others that have seized the idea that higher education should commence freshman year with programs that help tear down their received prejudices and replace them with a new more socially-conscious identity.

We critics of contemporary higher education sometimes err, I think, in trying to find a single cause in this chaos, a primary pathology that pictures the rest as opportunistic infections. Every few months at NAS, I receive an unsolicited manuscript from some thoughtful academic who, ruminating over the ruins, has constructed a dire theory of everything. Says one, it all comes down to postmodernism. Says another, the root dementia is the diversity doctrine. Yet another, the mass enterprise of the modern university. Each of these has a certain plausibility; still others veer into strange territory. Recently a college provost sent me an essay explaining our miseries as the unintended consequence of the invention of the “credit hour.” In his view, this bureaucratic convenience had led to the commodification of the college course, hence the decline in the respect for teaching, the rise of ideologies that extolled empty alternatives, and hence, well, the decline of civilization.

Think of the credit hour as the butterfly wing in Brazil.

I chose not to publish that piece, but I did take a more circumspect essay on the unhappy consequences of Bloom’s taxonomy. The Bloom in this case was not Allan of The Closing of the American Mind, or Harold, the Yale critic who celebrates Shakespeare’s Invention of the Human. No, Bloom in this case was Benjamin, a psychologist whose taxonomy of knowledge published in 1956 put more factual knowledge at the bottom of a hierarchy that led through comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis to the summit of “evaluation” or as we as now more often hear it, “critical thinking.” The essay we published in Academic Questions was by a philosophy professor, Michael Booker, who points out how frequently Bloom’s taxonomy is used to justify teaching that scants the facts, derogates the work of memory, and skips with insistence to critical thinking, as though we can plumb causes, evaluate theories, and penetrate the thickets of supposition without commanding the facts.

One thing I liked about Booker’s article was its explanatory modesty. He was content to illuminate one path of the tornado—the downed power lines, the strip across the cornfield, and the steeple without the church—without supposing he had the ultimate butterfly in his forceps.

For unlike Edward Lorenz and his nonlinear dynamic systems, we who observe and criticize and seek to reform higher education don’t really have a theory of chaos. We have the experience of chaos, and we know how to duck when the barn door comes flying by, but our chaos has more the quality of Aeschylus’ whirl and Lear’s heath, or Wallace Stevens’ “She strews the leaves / of sure obliteration on our paths.” And I am skeptical that more manifestos can explain it, solve it, or save a coming generation from confronting it.

I hasten to add that skepticism about manifestos is not the end of the story. There is plenty to do. And there is a case to be made—I will try to make it—that we can change the reckless course of contemporary higher education if we can gather into a single reform movement the two dozen or so separate and sometimes competing proposals and nascent initiatives that now lie scattered like carpenter’s tools.

I say a single reform movement, but I’ll allow that such a movement cannot accommodate every reformer. Let’s consider the two great phyla of would-be reformers of higher education. Phylum A consists of those whose essential aim is to reform from within. Phylum B consists of those who consider that task hopeless and advocate instead the creation of new institutions.

The reformers of Phylum A include the activist trustees of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the at-large trustees of Dartmouth College, elected over the opposition of Dartmouth’s president. Phylum A also includes the 30-some programs founded in the spirit of Robby George’s Madison Institute at Princeton. These are “beachheads” in Steve Balch’s view: little programs of Western civilization planted on the shores of the alien empires that universities have become. Each is centered on an individual faculty member who has the grit and imagination to buck the system. Patrick Deneen’s Tocqueville Center at Georgetown University; Robert Koonz’s Center for Western Civilization at the University of Texas; Dan Lowenstein’s Center for Liberal Arts and Free Institutions at UCLA; University; and John Tomasi’s Political Theory Project at Brown University are some of the successful ventures of this type.

The National Association of Scholars has, of course, played a significant role in promoting the trustee and faculty versions of this kind of reform. We helped to create ACTA, and Steve Balch is deeply involved in efforts to create more such beachheads of Western civilization. We’ve been involved as well with another Phylum A reform: the creation of scholarly associations that offer alternatives to the politicized disciplinary bodies. So far, we have the Historical Society as an alternative to the American Historical Association; the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics as an alternative to the Modern Language Association. I don’t suppose you could call the Federalist Society an alternative to the American Bar Association, but it stands in what might be considered yet another taxonomy in Phylum A: the emergence of avowedly conservative or dissenting academic organizations. The Association of Private Enterprise Education, whose annual conference in Las Vegas I just attended, is another.

Are we through with Phylum A yet? Not hardly.

We have to include here the emergence within the last few years of organizations focused on supervening the flow of foundation and individual gifts to colleges and universities. The idea, first put forward I think by Adam Meyerson at the Philanthropy Roundtable, is that conservative and traditionalist donors are often taken for a ride by colleges and universities that promise to use their gifts for one purpose but end up spending them for quite other purposes. Meyerson argued that by funneling gifts through an organization that would have the capacity to discover the funding opportunities best suited to the donor’s wishes, reformers could gain a great deal more influence. Out of this idea has come the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, headed by Fred Franzen; but also similar initiatives such as the Veritas Fund at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University, headed by Jim Pierson; and the new Jack Miller Freedom Center.

Phylum A reformers also include the Association of Core Texts and Courses, among others who put the battle for coherent curricula and worthy courses at the head of the reform agenda. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education – FIRE – has been a scourge of campus speech codes and censorious administrations. NoIndoctrination.org invites students to post publicly their complaints about faculty members who confuse teaching with political advocacy.

We can round out Phylum A with all the other less organized proposals for reform: those who call for the abolition of tenure; for the appointment of less fluttery and lightweight college presidents; for the restoration of sobriety on campus, and so on.

I will, in due course, suggest one more addition to Phylum A. But perhaps here I should add the exposition of ills in academe. Every year it seems we have several new books, and Academic Questions itself is intended as an instrument of suasion. We publish it not as higher education’s extended epitaph but in the hope it will change some minds.

What then of Phylum B? A good many critics of the contemporary university believe that, more or less, it is doomed. Its faults are past remedy, and the best we can hope for is the speedy rise of a good alternative. Advocates of this view are sometimes perplexed and a little frustrated that the old institution seems to be taking its time on the way to the mortuary. But they see hope on the horizon. The latest cause for cheer is the student loan fiasco.

Introducing Phylum B reformers this way is slightly unfair, for I am going to include in Phylum B some reformers who do not see themselves as burn-it-down-and-start-again types. But their reforms are so drastic and depend so heavily on the imposition of outside authority that I think they properly belong in Phylum B.  The kind of reform that envisages American higher education stripped of its autonomy in key areas would transform the institution profoundly.  For the better?  Perhaps.  For the moment, I am only interested in distinguishing the efforts to work within the traditional structures of authority in the university that make up Phylum A, from the external impositions that make up Phylum B.

I mentioned a bit ago that I recently attended the annual meeting of the Association of Private Enterprise Education. APEE consists mostly of free-market economists, followers of Milton Friedman, Hayek, Von Mises, and in some cases, Ayn Rand. The attendees at the APEE meeting numbered some 400 and they had a dim view of the economic literacy of American students from K-12 through college. I had several good conversations with APEErs, all of which went in the same direction. They expressed their perplexity that the American public continues to support our colleges and universities by paying high tuitions. The quality of education students receive at these institutions, said my interlocutors, is low and getting worse, but so far the market – perhaps that should be capitalized – the Market had not seen fit to punish the purveyors of shoddy goods.

Why not? Who could say? Sometimes there are lags in information or the development of substitute goods.  But, said these APEErs, it is a matter of time before students flock to the alternative to today’s colleges and universities—the alternative consisting of online degree programs, or, as one APEEr offered, the return of apprenticeship as a worthier path than the college degree for entry into many professions.

Letting what Hayek called “creative destruction” run its course will inevitably mean the decline of the contemporary university and all its foolishness. This was certainly not the first time I have heard this prognostication, but it was the moment that crystallized for me that the millennial hope for online education is a significant obstacle to almost everything that the reformers of Phylum A seek to accomplish. Why concern yourself with attempting to improve an institution destined to go the way of the icebox and the rotary telephone?

Phylum B also includes the founders of new colleges and universities who see their endeavors as the creation of radical alternatives to the status quo. Most of these are religious in impulse. Ave Maria in Florida is probably the best-funded. Patrick Henry in Virginia stands out for its combination of strict evangelical piety with its avowed purpose of preparing students to enter politics. Before becoming executive director of NAS last year, I spent two years as provost of The King’s College, based in the Empire State Building. Its president, Stan Oakes, likewise promoted the college as a new beginning for American higher education, which he castigated as trading in “spent ideas.”

I admit that I feel the attractions of both the libertarian and the sectarian repudiations of contemporary higher education. “Let it burn” has a bracing clarity, but ultimately, not much plausibility. The faults of our educational system may be grievous, but they probably are not mortal; and in any case, our colleges and universities are important and powerful institutions that do some things extremely well.

Let’s consider the softer side of Phylum B: the reformers who argue external compulsion can bring higher education around. This is where I would put David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights, which would use state legislatures as the instrument to prompt state colleges and universities to become more attentive to faculty hiring practices that somehow end up excluding most candidates who are conservative, Republican, or otherwise than declared liberals. The threat of this legislation makes campus officials cry out in indignation—an indignation they never seem to feel when contemplating a hiring system that can produce in the humanities and social sciences disproportions of 9 to 1 or 10 to 1 in favor of liberals.

And the truth of the matter is that honest, true, and good scholarship doesn’t wear a political boutonniere. We should be contesting the battlefield to get political partisanship out of the classroom and out of faculty hiring; not the battle to have new and improved partisans.

Margaret Spellings’ effort begun two years ago to impose a version of No Child Left Behind on higher education now appears to be grinding to a stop. But it is worth mentioning as another species in Phylum B. In this case, Secretary Spellings proposed to use her authority to grant recognition of accrediting bodies as a way to force the accreditors into a nationwide regime of “outcomes assessment.” In plain language, colleges would be forced to test students at the beginning and end of their college programs to see how much they learned.

This raised—and still raises—questions about the questions. Who gets to decide what the benchmarks for knowledge are in any given field? How much improvement and what kinds of improvement would be necessary to show that a college was performing adequately? Spellings has lost much of her clout on this issue because of the disaster unfolding in student aid, but her initiative has taken a life of its own and is continuing to unfold in the activities of the regional accreditors. We don’t know what this will bring, but it is important to see its trajectory.

Spellings grounded her proposed reform in the idea that college students are not getting the kinds of education that American business says it needs in its future employees. The “knowledge” that her accreditation reform pushed to the fore was not Western civilization, or the core humanities, or the cultivation of character, or even advanced disciplinary knowledge. It was rather the utilitarian calculus of how much business-ready knowledge college students could be proved to possess.

I am surely not against students acquiring marketable skills in college, but if that is the key purpose, we hardly need four years of college to attain it. The APEE vision of online courses and apprenticeships would surely suffice.

Another Phylum B reform consists of those ballot initiatives aimed at bringing an end to public preferences based on race, sex, or ethnicity. Proposition 209 in California in 1996 was the template, and its success was replicated in Washington State and in 2006 in Michigan. It is now likely to go on the ballot this fall in four more states. These initiatives are not aimed just at universities, but higher education is a conspicuous battleground over racial preferences, and changing the rules over racial favoritism is a powerful check on the control ideology of diversity that reigns on most campuses.

The ballot initiatives point to the courts as another source of external authority over higher education. We live in the long shadow of Justice Powell’s 1978 opinion in the Bakke case and the shorter shadow of Justice O’Connor’s 2003 opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger that licensed one major component of what has gone wrong in American higher education over the last three decades.   The use of racial preferences to advance classroom “diversity” is at its core an anti-intellectual dogma that advances the idea that individuals are best treated as ambulatory units of group identity.  Although the diversity doctrine is often just a pretext for those who want to deploy racial preferences in admissions criteria to advance their own notion of social justice, Powell’s Bakke opinion, elevated to law by O’Connor’s Grutter opinion, ensures that colleges and universities must pretend to thirst for the supposed intellectual benefits of diversity when what they really thirst for is the capacity to reform American society by using race and ethnicity to decide who gets into college. 

This forces a hypocrisy on many academics on the Left, who would gladly embrace racial preferences without the patent nonsense of the diversity doctrine.  But diversity has its true believers as well who, in the thirty years since Bakke was decided, have convinced themselves that there really are intellectual benefits that mysteriously emerge when we treat people not as individuals joined in common intellectual pursuit but as instantiations of social groups that each have a distinct history of suffering under social injustice.  The call-it-diversity-if-you-must crowd nor the diversity-makes-me-smarter crowd together form a substantial obstacle to actual reform of higher education, but for that I’ll refer you to my book, Diversity:  The Invention of a Concept.  

As with Phylum A, Phylum B has a residual category of odds and ends that don’t seem to have any broad institutional support but are still part of the discussion. For example, the campaign to amend Title VII of the Higher Education Act to create more federal oversight for funds spent on area studies centers falls here. It is an exogenous reform aimed at forcing universities to do proper accounting.  Another is the demand, which NAS supports, that colleges and universities obey established law by divulging the amounts, sources, and purposes of substantial foreign gifts.

And what of the student loan fiasco? This was nobody’s idea of a reform but it is as likely as anything I’ve mentioned this evening to drive major changes in higher education. In January 2007, Andrew Cuomo, attorney-general of New York State, announced that he was looking into allegations that Sallie Mae, the student loan vendor, may have improperly influenced some campus financial aid officials. From that thread in the months that followed unraveled a widespread scandal in which it turned out that many lenders, many universities, and many college officials were caught enriching themselves at the expense of students who ended up with loans at higher interest rates and worse repayment terms than they could have otherwise had.

One result of all this was a bill passed in Congress in September and signed by President Bush that greatly increased student financial aid—by greatly decreasing the fees and offsets that private lenders could claim by participating in the program. Some private lenders immediately withdrew.

The timing by coincidence put this shake-up in the student loan industry in the shadow of the sub-prime mortgage mess. Credit markets were already troubled but in late October, investors found something new to worry about. It turned out that student loans had been monetized just like mortgages, and investors found themselves holding bonds that represented an indecipherable mixture of good and bad debt. The notion’s premier re-packager of student debt, First Marblehead, offered a $20 billion bond offering in October—and found no takers.

Since then, the student loan industry has been in a steep downward spiral. Sallie Mae tried and failed to sell itself to a consortium of private investors, and one by one, the major lenders behind both private and personally-guaranteed student loans have announced their decisions to get out of the business. The latest, this week, is Chase.

What does this mean to higher education? And to the reform of higher education? Well, we don’t yet know what steps Congress and the Department of Higher Education will take. But in general it means that it will be much more difficult for students to finance college education with loans. Given that higher education as an industry has built its house on the premise that students would borrow their way to meeting high tuitions, many colleges and universities may be facing a liquidity crisis this fall, or next spring.

This could be the bad news that the doomsayers have been waiting for, or it could be a vulnerability that Phylum A reformers can seize. Alternatively, it could be used to advantage by the vested interests in the status quo to win still greater government support.

I venture no prediction beyond the prospect of tumult, unhappiness, cries of distress from students, and a political scramble to stabilize the situation. If we are wise, we will plan now for our own role in the denouement.

I have taken all this time to paint a picture for you of contesting sides in the reform of higher education. I don’t mean to suggest this is a complete account. I’ve said nothing about reformers on the academic left—such as the AAUP—and nothing about a long list of topical areas in which higher education is visibly troubled: sports programs, legacy students, misuse or nonuse of endowment, student plagiarism, grade inflation, and epidemic of eating disorders, the overuse of learning disabilities, the thinning out of the curriculum by remedial courses, service learning, and other dodges; faculty with fraudulent credentials, fake research, misused grants. I’m sure you can think of more.

The free market folks I recently spent some time with like to argue that competition improves quality. But it is clear that in some circumstances, competition is a race to the bottom. If the reason a student goes to college is to get a degree rather than an education, the college that figures out how to award degrees with minimum inconvenience to the student and maximum leisure and entertainment may well reap a market advantage.

Truly the picture is more complicated than that, because we are not just maximizers of one utility. We want many things, and somewhere among the items on the list are education, wisdom, and self-respect. Because of that, the race will never be entirely to the bottom. Somewhere, in most of us, is an urge for something better.

This is the urge that I would like to put forward as the best basis we have for reforming the university. I don’t mean this is an alternative to all or most of the reforms I’ve discussed, but as a better way to put them forward.

Recently, NAS announced what we are calling our “Argus Project,” after the creature in Greek mythology who was covered in eyes. If that sounds unpleasant, you can think of the creature that Hera eventually metamorphosed Argus into: a peacock. In any case, Argus was an excellent guardian because when some eyes slept, others were always open. It seems a fair image for a national movement aimed at bringing judicious scrutiny to colleges and universities—scrutiny not in the sense of regulation or oversight, but in the sense of thoughtful, informed attention.  After two decades or more of urgent criticism, what difference could such scrutiny possibly make?

There’s the question. The answer is this. We have spent far too long analyzing and debating the follies of higher education. While in this debate we have entertained and enlightened each other, we have not touched the pulse of the country frequently enough. What we propose now is to give people a chance to be part of a movement by engaging the public directly.

I don’t view this as stoking support for a program already built, like a tract house awaiting its occupants. A true reform movement has to emerge from a true dialogue and relationships with people who care about the fate of the university because they care about the intellectual and cultural values it instantiates.

In my view, the only reform movement that has a chance of actually reaching the matters we habitually debate is a movement that risks identifying itself with an airy generality. We favor a form of higher education that has integrity, rather than one that embraces chaos, however exciting it may be to venture into that void.  Integrity and what? Truthfulness? Transparency? A conception of the Good?

We’ll be told that the philosophers of chaos killed those simplicities long ago, split them open like melons, and ate their pith. We’ll be told that, and we’ll feel sort of sorry that anyone could get himself so mixed up in a tar baby of chaotic error.

I would, in other words, appeal to the better nature of Americans. Americans are not naturally nihilists. The “diversity” that appeals to us is the genuine variety of life, not the pinched and measured quantities of the diversiphiles. If we are drawn to relativism, it is because we seek to be accommodating, not because we hate truth. Reformers who learn to accommodate each other’s differences can steal the better part of multiculturalism’s agenda.

It could be said that I want to defeat the chaos by joining it, but that’s not it at all. A reform movement has to be moved by one big idea that can contain the stresses and fractures among its participants. The big idea we have to offer is that higher education can be as good as we want it to be.  Higher education belongs to us, the people who believe education in a meaningful sense is possible, not to those who, commandeered by chaos, consent to a university that is a mere whirl of empty forms.  The university by its nature is ours, not theirs.  But restoring it will bring a certain chaos of its own.  Out of that little flap of a butterfly’s wings we will heave hurricanes.

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