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The Best of All Possible Worlds

The Ivory Tower's resistance to meaningful change is its greatest danger.

By Jay Schalin


October 18, 2012

The growing chorus of higher education critics calling for change is eliciting some public resistance by the academic establishment. But if the reasoning in a recent rebuttal to such criticism by John Tierney, a former Georgetown University and Boston College political science professor, is representative of how the Ivory Tower thinks, the need for reform is even more urgent than previously imagined. Educators need to be clear-thinking to train the young, not muddled and illogical.

In an article in the Atlantic, “Let’s Calm Down About Higher Education,” Tierney took issue with critics who question higher education’s utility, citing articles entitled “How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America” and “Is College a Lousy Investment?” He wrote that higher education is doing just fine financially and intellectually.

He offers two explanations why higher education criticism is proliferating. One is that calls for reform are merely incessant clatter; Tierney considers such critiques to be little more than background noise as it has been for centuries.  The other is that critics of academia are often driven by political agendas. He even suggests that there is something nefarious and inappropriate about reformers’ objections: they are “meant to scare, not to inform; to back agendas, not to enlighten or improve.”

In the incessant-clatter case, he asks, “What accounts for the recurring anxiety and inflated rhetoric?” He suggests that underlying the perpetual furor is confusion about what higher education can actually accomplish rather than real problems:

No small part of the agitation is because we are not certain what it is people need to know to succeed individually, for our society to thrive, and our economy to be competitive. And we never have known.

There is some truth to his observation—such complex and fundamental questions defy easy solutions. Yet Tierney follows it with an example that rebuts rather than supports his premise; rather than showing that past critics’ complaints were deemed irrelevant over time to justify his claim that they were just “recurring anxiety and inflated rhetoric,” he instead showed how keenly past critics identified colleges’ shortcomings and their potentially beneficial roles. Two centuries ago, critics demanded that colleges end their focus on Latin and Greek and pursue more profitable subjects: “’To spend four years or more in learning two dead languages,’” Tierney quoted from Benjamin Rush, “’is to turn our backs upon a gold mine.’”

Obviously, Rush’s view became widely adopted and proven correct over time, a point in favor of higher education critics in general.

Tierney’s subsequent discussion includes the following paragraph that best reveals his head-in-the-sand perspective and false logic:

Of course, controversy also arises regularly over what subjects are legitimate matters for academic inquiry. In the early 1800s, many critics derided the idea that college students should study science or modern languages. In recent decades, critics similarly have argued that our universities are in decline because they offer majors in subjects such as black studies, women's studies, or LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) studies.

The first error in his reasoning is equating the most practical field—science—and social studies with no practical side—the “studies” departments. It is difficult to see how studying the LGBT community will bring about applications that are the equivalent of putting a man on the moon, creating the Internet, or curing polio.

But Tierney goes much further than that; he unwittingly draws equivalence between the push for greater objectivity—the study of science—and the rejection of objectivity represented by gender and ethnic studies. For those programs have political rather than academic foundations; they were not prompted by new discoveries but by political demands in the 1960s and 1970s. These disciplines, if they may even be called that, were not meant to pursue the truth objectively in any direction but to confine themselves to narrow politically drawn boundaries.

The above paragraph contains another important fallacy. He compares two cases, suggesting they are the same. The first scenario—back in the 1800s—states that entrenched interests “derided the idea that college students should study science or modern languages” put forth by more forward-thinking scholars.

The other, more current situation also describes entrenched interests defending the status quo from critics. But this time the entrenched interests are defending the curriculum he favors,  “majors in black studies, women's studies, or LGBT studies.” He equates the two, even though, in the first case, he sides with the critics and in the second case he is against them.

Either his logic is wrong, or he is so out-of-date that he still thinks we are back in the 1960s or 1970s when ethnic and gender studies were first making their way onto the American campus over the objections of traditional thinkers. That was 40 or 50 years ago—campuses today are overwhelmingly governed and staffed by supporters of “studies” majors. They are now the entrenched interests, not the forward-thinking critics.

He depicts critics of higher education’s political bias as not merely wrong or misguided, but dastardly for merely voicing an opinion. He suggests there is something conniving and disingenuous with the following:

Behind their remedies are their preferences for how things should be. They hope to define the problem in a way that leads the audience towards the political or policy "solutions" the authors prefer.

Is there anything wrong with that? It appears to be a description of the ordinary act of persuasion. He then suggests that such critics are creating false “narratives” to prey on people’s fear of impending “breakdown, collapse, or doom.” And, of course, this is all done largely on account of the self-interest of the critics:

Many of these narratives come from journalists and academics who hope to enhance their visibility and professional reputation by being the first person on the block to identify some "new" threat, fresh scourge, or imminent disaster in the world of higher education.

Yet the perspectives that he suggests are fever swamp, Chicken Little scare tactics are increasingly accepted by people on all sides of the political aisles. Even his examples of supposedly irrational criticism come not from the fringes of the blogosphere, but from mainstream liberal publications, including the New York Times, Newsweek, and his very own The Atlantic.

Perhaps Tierney is the one who is grasping for a plausible narrative in order to fend off the calls for reform. It may be that his Panglossian perspective on higher education reflects the fact that the Ivory Tower, for academics, is indeed pretty darn close to the “best of all possible worlds.” Faculty like Tierney have tenure, six-figure salaries, influence, acclaim, and their research, if they choose, can be as much hobby as it is a pursuit of knowledge.

Of course they don’t want change; who wouldn’t want such a life to go on forever? There are a few problems, however. For one, higher education exists primarily to serve students and society, not to provide academics with idyllic lives. The failure to serve the proper constituencies is driving the widespread criticism, not the underhanded aims of a few self-interested scoundrels.

The facts favor the critics, not Tierney, who reduces the claim that “graduates incur intolerable debt to secure a future filled with underemployment” to mere “hand-wringing.” Such dismissals are incomprehensible, given that outstanding student debt is approaching a trillion dollars and that default rates are soaring. When fewer than 50 percent of recent graduates have full-time jobs, is it wrong to question the value of a degree?

In another example, Tierney scoffs at the idea that students are “taking easy or trivial courses, avoiding study, and partying all the time.” But that is exactly what is happening: studies show that the average amount of time students spend studying outside of classes dropped from 24 hours per week to 14 hours in a 40-year period. In such a scenario, questions concerning standards and seriousness of purpose are perfectly reasonable.

Tierney’s missive does provide some valuable insight, albeit unintentionally: higher education is in bad need of reform and faces a potential fiscal cliff because it has increasingly been dominated by people who think like himself. Such denial and intransigence in the face of drastically changing circumstances undermine  academia’s claim to intellectual primacy and wisdom beyond that possessed by the average man—or even equal to the wisdom of the average person.


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