Biting the Hand: A Commentary on Academe’s Books About Itself



A new literary genre seems to be booming—book-length critiques on the state of American higher education. While a few celebrate American exceptionalism, most lament the decline of higher learning. Whether exuberant or depressed, their tone is rarely tempered. The authors’ demographics suggest why—they are generally at the twilight of their own academic careers, taking one last shot at the state of things as they see it, harkening back to times past, turning to (or, in many cases, turning on) the environment they think they know best, and tempted to generalize from their own context, values, and times to higher learning broadly. As with the Buddhist parable of the elephant and the blind men, they focus on what they know and willingly extrapolate.

These authors often overlook the rich diversity of what higher education encompasses in our society. They fail to get their heads around that variety to appreciate the complexities, contradictions and overarching trends that make American academe truly unique. Their approach is often self-referential and anecdotal, settling old scores and getting in the last word on what it means to be truly educated. Writing as much as a memoir as methodical analysis, these authors make sweeping generalizations with words that convey hopelessness and despair as universities sink further into their graves. We are in “crisis,” “decline,” at a “tipping point” and so on. The flipside of the muscular idealism of American higher education is the cynical self-bashing that has such a large audience in academe.

Given the range of institutions, models, and missions, and with so many of our universities too intricate in themselves to be neatly characterized, these authors have a Rorschach test of an opportunity to free associate, exaggerate and pontificate on what they think they see and what they believe should predominate.

Offspring of previous major thinkers, many of these authors write in either the tradition of the University of Chicago’s long-serving president, Robert Hutchins—with an emphasis on purifying undergraduate liberal education—or writer, reformer and administrator, Abraham Flexner—celebrating advanced graduate teaching and basic research (and blasting the intrusion of “make-believe professions” and disciplines)—or, having it both ways, Clark Kerr, the transformative president of the University of California, whose multiversity miraculously encompasses all of the above, as it serves society in ever broader ways.

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s recent polemic focuses on making undergraduate education more open, affordable and focused on the liberal arts. Like muckraker Upton Sinclair did almost a century ago, they trekked across the country in search of examples of the best and the worst. They would purge the vocational, and eliminate tenure. Higher education is too deferential to senior faculty, too exploitative of contingent faculty, too solicitous of students through materialistic and extraneous frills (especially athletics), too padded with superfluous administrators, too accommodating of social fads and vocational training, too willing to mimic corporations by appointing executives with expansionist dreams and lavish lifestyles, and too willing to abandon core academic principles and compromise rigorous undergraduate education.

For Hacker and Driefus, the descent into decadence commenced when Clark Kerr created the University of California system in the early sixties which took the university off in many different directions at the same time and place: “He coined a new idiom, multiversity: an institution willing to take on any assignment related to knowledge, no matter how remote the association.” They, instead, would focus on quality teaching, de-emphasize irrelevant faculty research, spin off medical schools and research centers, explore “techno-teaching” and demand that America’s elite schools deliver on their promise.

Peter Smith, author of Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent, founding president of Community College of Vermont and former Vermont congressman now with Kaplan, focuses on the opportunity costs of poorly serving much of the nation’s people. America’s universities are not equipped to respond to the workforce education needs of the population. He embraces the catalytic role that universities play in preparing students for vocations—the very element that Hacker and Driefus find so corrupting.

Harvard’s former undergraduate dean, Harry R. Lewis, laments the soullessness of his elite university, and blasts his colleagues for just going through the motions rather than reaching new heights of holistic undergraduate intellectual and leadership development. Ellen Schrecker doesn’t mince words where she apocalyptically proclaims the “end” of the American university in her book title. Her “lost soul,” in sharp contrast to Lewis’s, results from the pressures to invest in materialistic campus amenities rather than core academic faculty and facilities. In her view, full-time, research-oriented faculty need to restore their hegemony.

Mark C. Taylor, Columbia University’s religion chair, draws much from his own unique experience and perspective to lament what he sees as declining educational quality. But Columbia’s former provost, Jonathan R. Cole, takes a more triumphant, nuanced, and systematic approach in his epic story of the American research university.

The litmus test for America’s academic greatness, for Cole, is the production of fundamental knowledge and relevant research—as measured by international academic rankings, Nobel Prize winners and academic journal articles. The top one hundred or so research universities are the envy of the world and worthy of their reputation, autonomy, and investment. With the founding of institutions like Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago, and codified in the hybrid model created and celebrated by Clark Kerr, Cole enthusiastically embraces the multipurpose, highly resourced Gessellschaft—that succeeds despite its many functions, and as a far better place because of this breadth. The quest for a singular unity of purpose—so cherished, even in diametrically opposite ways, by Hutchins, Flexner and their intellectual descendants—conflicts with the internally contradictory and externally diverse nature of our non-system of higher learning.

Imagine you were from another country unfamiliar with American higher education and dependent on these books to comprehend how academe functions—or dysfunctions. Each presents a few tiles in the otherwise rich, intricate, and elusive mosaic we fondly embrace (or, more commonly, harshly berate) as our colleges and universities.

Jay A. Halfond is dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University.

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