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.
Dr Beaton, It’s time for the government to get out of the college and education business. They drive up prices. They use it to control children and parents. They enslave people to debt for years, which drives up tuition. Bernie would have eventually told people what degree to get. They mislead people into believing 17th Century French Literature is a degree and career instead of a hobby. They ruined social sciences by giving them grants to study things that are crazy and blame the US for everything. They fund studies for stupid scientific crap that provide no benefit. They fund sports minor leagues while giving degrees to athletes who cant use them or maybe even deserve them. Their graduates end up asking stupid questions at White House press conferences. … “The purpose of government is to do that for the people which they cannot do for themselves.” — A. Lincoln …. We can educate ourselves.
You have produced just one more great analysis, this one about one of my favorite subjects, which I call the American anti-intellectualism.
And here is the nugget in your piece: “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.”
So, you keep up the great work, and Aspen Times go to the dickens.
I have to add to my previous post that the government-backed student loans contributed to the colleges and universities getting fat, administration top-heavy, and so only able to offer courses with little or no intellectual value, and on top of that with few requirements for hard work.
Right on target. I retired from 30+ years in the education trenches. The only reason that I needed a BA to teach is that the state department of education required it before they would give me a certificate which, in turn, allowed the district to hire me. My wife, a Mexican national, was also an elementary teacher when we met. In those days she had an elementary education (1-6), then a secondary (7-9) certificate and then three years of ‘normal’ or teacher’s college (10-12). I can tell you without hesitation that her education classes were more extensive than anything I got in my education classes in college, yet there she was, teaching elementary kids with 12 years of education.
Nowadays they want everyone to have a Master’s to teach. Not worth it. Not even needed. BTW, my wife went to college here in the US and wound up getting a Master’s. As a grad student she had several athletes in her classes. She told me stories about how their tutors did their work for them. About how they had special dorms just for the jocks and how these dorms all had doors that opened outside the building so they could come and go as they pleased as well as bring other people in as they pleased without having to go past any residence hall ‘monitors’ like everyone else. This was at a major university, too, not some podunk place in the boonies.
We would be much better off as a nation and society if we cut the number of public colleges and universities in half and required college entrance exams which are so comprehensive that the general education courses in college could be cut out as well. We would also be better off if we banned all remedial classes in college.
It’s interesting how the educational-industrial complex featherbeds itself by giving raises to employees for getting another degree. In business, they don’t generally do that. They instead pay you what they think you’re worth, not on the basis of how many degrees you have.
At the extreme, school superintendents always have PhD’s these days, and go by “Doctor.” As if a PhD adds value to what is basically an administrative job. And then they get paid a quarter mil.
Dr Elizabeth Warren has the economic formula:
1) You take out a $50,000 student loan.
2) You pay me $400,000 a year.
3) It is unfair for the government NOT to forgive your loan.
4) I keep MY money.
You don’t want to know how my Dad paid for one year of his College at US, Bolder by selling a discarded radio in rural La Jara, but this was 1934. He got a Chemical Engineering Degree and so much more.
LOL. In college, I had jobs as a pot and pan washer in the dorm, a retail clerk, a paper-grader and a clothes model. (No, not underwear.)
The 2008 meltdown was caused because the government stepped in and made banks loan to anybody with a heartbeat and a minimum wage job so they could buy a house. Housing prices went up and up and up. And the whole house of cards crashed when a lot of people working McDonalds could no longer afford to pay for their McMansion when their adjustable rate mortgage skyrocketed. The same thing is / has been happening with student loans. The government has stepped in and given student loans to anybody and everybody who wants to go to college and party for 4 years. That’s why we have students getting degrees in “Women Studies” graduating with $60000 in student loan debt. It’ll eventually come crashing down. A big problem – all these graduates with $10s of thousands of student debt will be ripe for the picking for a Sanders or Warren who promises to write their debt off.
Behold the man:
I was graduated from high school in 1961 and went to college to avoid adulthood. I then went to graduate school to avoid the draft. Throughout it all I studied “English,” a subject that hadn’t been an academic discipline until the 1920s, when it was offered as the liberal replacement for theology, since it dealt with “values” and stuff.
Fortunately, at that time I was still fed a diet of all the philosophers and poets you mention, plus Shakespeare, and I did get a “education” — a Latin word for drawing knowledge out of one’s inner being that had been there all along. I have concluded, for example, that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic aristocrat. Who knew? We certainly weren’t taught that, but it’s all there in his writing.
Since this useless education prepared me for nothing else, I wound up teaching “English” for 42 years. Life could have been worse, to be sure, but what the hell? It’s been a tale told by an idiot, without much sound and fury. To young people today I would say, find another way.
Oberlin College’s interaction with Gibson’s bakery shows the evil that infests higher education in the USA.
It all started with 3 black students who shoplifted 3 bottles of wine and were arrested by police. Somehow the college decided that the black students were victims of racism and Gibson was racist. They cut off purchases from Gibson’s and organized student protests led by Oberlin staff. The 3 black criminals plead guilty and stated that Gibson’s wasn’t racist. But that didn’t stop the protests. Finally, Gibson’s filed a lawsuit against Oberlin and won a $44 million judgement against Oberlin. Oberlin refuses to admit fault and is appealing the judgement.
I think an old-fashioned English education is valuable. But my sense is that such an education is rare these days. Shakespeare is replaced with crap.
Speaking of Shakespeare, I think you should write an essay about your theory that he was a closet Catholic.
Clair Asquith did that with Shadowplay, as well as Joseph Pearce’’s several books on the subject. All are good and more could only be better. We can only hope that some day the theories will also be taught in schools.
Good to know, Adrienne. Thanks.
I retired from the Army in ’94 and then taught in Philadelphia high schools for 24 years. I knew hundreds of kids who could barely do high school work being admitted to colleges because the colleges wanted their money. Fellow teachers were genuinely surprised that these kids were bitter that they couldn’t do the work and dropped out in their first year. Oh BTW, the kids were deeply in debt.
I love this article and this writer. I was cheering at every paragraph. His analysis has me thinking we really should not let this education crisis go to waste. We should take up the crusade and make our bad public institutions face the pain, so that the real colleges can help those really hungry for Truth. Once the subsidized gravy train is taken away, maybe people will appreciate classical and independent learning all the more.
Thank you again, Glen, for you wonderful columns! I am so glad Joe Buck suggested I read you!
Higher education is a business like any other, marketing its product. Each marketer has to differentiate itself from the competition but they all end up selling the same thing.
My local friends and I were discussing this very thing a couple weeks ago, and one of them forwarded this piece. Some friends on social media are promoting the classics for the masses because, as you aptly point out, the internet can and will render college institutions obsolete: we simply don’t need to waster resources on what has eroded to a simple “rite of passage”.
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Not have had a Liberal Arts Education, I’m a Tradesman and only got to 12th grade in education. It took many many years but due to the smatterings and bits and pieces thrown at us in Grade School, Music Appreciation in Junior High while the Beatles were getting going and such but by my early 30’s I started reading to quench curiosity of issues or subjects. I learned to greatly admire the Liberal Arts Education that gave the Engineer some background in the Human Condition through having to take required courses other than engineering. The current push to eliminate “Extra” parts of education for expediency to a trade craft such as Engineering, if they only learn the math and physics they may not come up with the why. I thought the point of University was to produce a well rounded thinker in a particular field. My Father graduated U of Colorado, Bolder as a Chemical Engineer and had a life long love of Shakespeare, what would we get without such rounding i suppose that is what we are seeing in today’s Graduates of deep thinkers who seem more like a chorus than independent thinkers.
Fire was not an invention, it was a discovery.
The author would do better to say “since the invention of the wheel” or perhaps sliced bread
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