American universities once attracted students from around the world. Prestige places like Harvard and Caltech did so, but it also happened at good state schools like the University of Illinois, University of Texas and even my own alma mater, the University of Colorado.
The scientific education was second to none. Even outside of science, a broad-based humanities program thrived. As an engineering student at CU, my required curriculum included two full years of “Great Books” where we studied Socrates, Homer, Virgil, Chaucer and Milton.
But then some interrelated things happened.
First, our culture mistakenly came to believe that being an educated person requires college. Today, many businesses require a college degree for everyone on the payroll.
Colleges were happy to go along with this. It meant more customers.
It also meant dumbing down the curriculum, and you might think colleges would resist that. They did in principle but not in practice. After all, teaching easier stuff is easier.
This sentiment permeates all levels of the education industry. Self-serving high schools perversely pride themselves on how many of their graduates go to college, as if there’s not a single one in the graduating class who would be happier in military service, or in a trade or in a restaurant. Meanwhile, those same high schools fail to teach these college-bound youngsters the basics that they used to teach.
Second, our leftward-drifting society began rejecting Western ethics and values such as work and objective truth. Those things are too hard. A work ethic demands work, and many people don’t like work. Objective truth requires hurting the feelings of those who believe in things that are false.
Our culture was so rich that we could afford frivolity. The engine of enterprise created by industrial and technological revolutions harnessed to free market economies was powerful.
Laziness and falseness were drags on the economy but the economy still generated phenomenal riches for almost everyone. Our poor people are considered middle class in most of the rest of the world.
In the colleges, this feel-good luxury translated into a disregard for their mission of educating students. Why should they imbue students with knowledge, if we’re so rich that knowledge is not necessary anymore? And how could they, if there’s no objective truth anymore?
Stripped of their legitimate mission, the colleges found another. They became cultural talismans to the point of parody.
Colleges used to tolerate unconventionality. Fine, being exposed to unconventionality is part of growing up. Then they started to celebrate it, then they demanded it, and now they won’t tolerate any opposition to it.
They’ve made a fetish of tolerance except tolerance for those with whom they disagree.
Ah, but now we have the COVID crisis. As Hillary Clinton might say in a different context, and did, let’s not waste it.
It’s true that colleges were in tough financial times even before COVID, largely due to oversupply of their product, high prices and a demographics-induced shrinking of their customer base.
The internet – the most powerful invention since fire – undercuts their business model just as it undercuts every other business model that relies on monopolizing information.
Why pay $40,000/year to go to a third rate school in a fourth rate town to hear a fifth rate lecture from a sixth rate ponytailed professor who gets summers off and a month for Christmas while lambasting the suburban parents who are footing the bill, when on the internet you can watch and re-watch for free at your convenience a brilliant talk from a fantastic speaker who’s at the top of his game?
From the standpoint of the student, the only answer to that question is, because the second option doesn’t get him a certificate called “college degree” which he needs for the cubicle job downtown.
This won’t last. Driven by something they hate, competition, colleges are beginning to offer online degrees. Some such degrees are indistinguishable on their face from the on-campus degrees. And employers are increasingly willing to test for knowledge, not simply trust a degree to prove it.
Ah, you say, but that approach would miss the pot parties and keggers. Yes, I suppose it would. But $40,000/year (double that at private colleges) would buy a lot of parties elsewhere.
We can no longer afford six-figure, four-year expenditures for institutional pot parties that serve only to enrich the educational industrial complex while delaying adulthood.
Harvard with its $40 billion endowment was caught with its hand in the COVID cookie jar. Think of the unabashed greed behind that. Faced with an outcry, Harvard put the money back.
But hundreds of other schools are dipping in, from ordinary state universities whose financial responsibility should be with the state that runs them, to Harvard-wannabe private colleges with their own endowments. They do so even as they hire new diversity czars, clamp down on freedom of speech and deny due process to the criminally accused.
I submit that before taking taxpayer handouts they should engage in a little introspection. A little veritas.
A truthful institution of learning run by civic minded professionals – what we used to call “the academy” – would consider how to help society, not just how to milk it. Many of these tawdry but exorbitantly expensive scams should close their doors forever.