Why Johnny’s College Isn’t What It Used to Be


Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have written a lucid, passionate and wide-ranging book on the state of American higher education and what they perceive as its increasing betrayal of its primary mission — for them, the teaching of undergraduates. That both are academics — one a well-known professor (Mr. Hacker) and the other consigned to the adjunct, or what they call “contingent,” faculty (Ms. Dreifus, who is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times) — provides them with memorable, often acerbic anecdotes that neatly offset their citations of statistics and (it must be said) their sometimes rather sweeping generalizations.

These anecdotes take the edge off the polemical intensity a reader might expect from the book’s title, “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It.” That may be because these anecdotes display insiders’ familiarity, and often an implied intimacy, with distinguished academics and the elite institutions in which they reside.

This is not a book for those seeking a social-scientific explanation of how American higher education, from its simple beginnings as a training ground for gentlemen clergy, has evolved into a diverse industry that, whatever one thinks of it, is unquestionably the envy of the world and an integral, arguably indispensable part of the United States economy. But in a series of well-structured and strongly argued chapters, the book does pose searching and sometimes troubling questions about the degree to which the social utility, personal benefits and philosophical ideals promoted by admissions and publicity offices are overstated, overpriced, subordinated to extraneous purposes or distorted by self-perpetuating bureaucracies.

As with many indictments, one must distinguish the crimes the prosecutors merely mention from those they really care about. Mr. Hacker and Ms. Dreifus list a host of crimes, or at least flaws in the system, some in the control of universities and others built into the external political, cultural or economic environment, or indeed into human nature. These include the narrow self-interestedness of academic departments; the greed of faculty members and administrators alike; the near-universal hypertrophy of “the athletics incubus”; unfunded government mandates; lifetime employment for pampered professors (thanks to the combination of tenure and Congressional abolition of mandatory retirement); and the demands of students and their parents for frivolous extras (driving what the authors call “the amenities arms race”).

But the target to which they most often and most radically return — radically in the sense that they regard it as the root of all the other evils and propose to root it out — is captured in a single word: research.

There was a time, in their telling, when universities saw their mission as education; now even small colleges compel their faculties to publish (at the expense of teaching) for the sake of an institutional stature that teaching alone cannot confer. The authors’ deepest scorn is reserved for the claim that good teaching depends on research, and their most extreme proposal is that universities drastically reduce the amount of research they support, by “spinning off” medical schools and research centers, discontinuing paid sabbaticals and abolishing the current system of promotion and tenure, a system that tends to reward research productivity more than effective teaching. (The authors raise interesting questions about tenure and its alternatives. Like many critics of tenure, though, they have a keen eye for abuses of power but are remarkably sanguine about the capacity of the First Amendment to shield scholars from pressure exerted by those with the power to fire them.)

The rest of their prescriptions are scarcely controversial. Who can quarrel with a call to reduce student debt, “engage all students,” “make students use their minds,” employ technology with care or “end exploitation of adjuncts”? I do not mean that what the authors have to say on those subjects is bland or uninformative; on the contrary, I hope their analyses and prescriptions will be widely read and pondered. But when it comes to the role of research in universities — and, yes, even in colleges — their insight and imagination appear to fail them.

Consider, for instance, the proposal that universities divest themselves of medical schools: they are, the authors think, too distracting and costly, if not in dollars, then in their demands on a president’s attention. A tempting suggestion, many a president will agree!

But what an odd suggestion from the pen of authors who lament the self-enclosure of traditional academic disciplines. This is an era, after all, in which some of the most searching inquiry — and most exciting teaching, including the teaching of undergraduates — is taking place precisely at the intersection of medicine and other fields, not just engineering and physics but also fields like anthropology and history. It is a time when some of our most engaged undergraduates are fascinated by fields like global health, which brings medicine and the social and human sciences together in ways more rich and subtle than students of my generation could have imagined. And where are the humanities more alive, right here and now, than in seminars in bioethics that expose undergraduates to searing and quite possibly unanswerable questions about the beginning and end of life?

A similar point could be made about the educational value of working at the frontier of discovery in one of the research centers that Mr. Hacker and Ms. Dreifus decry. Have they spoken with undergraduates who have enjoyed the privilege of assisting a top investigator in an active, federally financed laboratory? In my own anecdotal experience, the best of those students, far from shutting themselves away in a narrow specialization, are very likely spending their time outside the lab in life-expanding service activities that, again, were quite beyond the ken of undergraduates in earlier generations.

In short, the dichotomies on which Mr. Hacker and Ms. Dreifus rely — between teaching and research, liberal arts and “training,” humanistic reflection and advanced inquiry — do not quite match the reality they seek to describe, with the always salutary aim of reforming it.

Steven Knapp is president and professor of English at the George Washington University