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What’s the Answer to Higher Education, Gertrude?” “Alice, What Is The Question?*

August 12, 2010, 3:17 pm

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – And What We Can Do About It. New York: Times Books, 2010). 271 pp., index; $26.00 hardcover.

For those of you have aspirations to publish for a popular market, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s contribution to the contemporary national debate about higher education does a lot of things right. The title poses a question and answers it – enticing you into a text that proposes to tell you the details that link the two. It has been cannily released in what is normally a slack summer book season (in other words, after the Summer Reading List issues of the Nation, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker; and right before these same publications announce what should be on your agenda for the fall.) Best of all, it is designed to freak out all the parents who are about to write their first $25,000 check (or some combination of cash and I.O.U.’s) to the college of their child’s choice, and the parents of rising seniors who are about to begin the College Admissions Derby. Imagine all these parents buying this book to find out that they are, or will be, paying for – nothing!

Full disclosure: although I am not quoted in the book, I had a very enjoyable phone interview with one of its authors. Furthermore, like Jesse Lemisch over at New Politics, I found that many of its themes speak to real issues in the academy: the casualization of teaching labor, the lack of curricular direction, ginormous corporate salaries paid to top executives, the failure of faculties to reform their own practices, and the high cost – in dollars and mortgaged futures – are but a few things that deserve more attention than they are getting.

My problem is this: Dreifus and Hacker treat the diverse field that is higher education with such a broad brush, and are so vague as to what the structural causes of the problems they identify are, that it is hard to know what we should take away from this book, why it asserts the things it does, or who the authors think the agents of change for higher education are supposed to be. They offer a vast range of critiques – many of which are the topic of regular debate in the education literature – but the agenda for reform is vague except for the familiar, free-market notion that parents can create change by taking their education dollars elsewhere.

Higher Education reserves some of its harshest criticism for a few of the most selective schools (which are referred to as the “Golden Dozen,” a term I can honestly say after a lifetime of working in universities I have never heard) and spends less time than it should on public schools like Evergreen (Washington State) and New College (Florida), which are truly innovative, teaching-oriented and inexpensive. The authors have a tendency to compare the apples over here with the oranges over there, spreading their analysis of schools over all the chapters. Because of this, even a professional educator like myself ends with very little sense of what a formula for a good college education really looks like, or how I, as a scholar, might contribute to a reform agenda (except by giving up research and writing, and returning my salary.) Worst, Higher Education gives non-professionals very little sense of how the different facets of university life work might, and sometimes do, work together to produce a good undergraduate education.

Hence, the biggest point Higher Education misses making is that the flaws in, and expense of, an undergraduate degree have evolved as a result of a privatization agenda that shifts a variety of costs formerly undertaken by government and private industry (through taxation) to students and their parents. Without this larger context the book’s most salient points (that an undergraduate education is nearly unaffordable, and that the liberal arts are being de-emphasized for undergraduate training that can be immediately converted to a paying job) are far less meaningful. Privatization explains the shift towards what the authors identify as “The Triumph of Training” in chapter 6: students believe that their BA’s should certify them for the career that will pay back their bank loans; and corporations can hire workers for low-level corporate jobs without the expense of training them.

(Short irrelevant question: did Barbara Ehrenreich and Jonathan Kozol read this book before they blurbed it? Or were they in a particularly ecumenical mood when they did? Because Hacker and Dreifus’s argument is more or less the exact opposite of what Ehrenreich and Kozol have argued on behalf of for years.)

Higher Education’s most consistent point throughout is that a college education costs too much (I agree); that students graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in loans (I agree – although the authors should have devoted a chapter to the consequences of this); that administrators are being hired and paid on a corporate scale (I agree); that college faculties rarely explain why they do what they do, or what an undergraduate education ought to look like (I agree); and that colleges and universities are providing vast numbers of services, entertainments and extra-curriculars that are driving the cost of higher education up without improving the quality of education (I agree.) There’s also quite a nice chapter at the end of the book that remarks on schools that they thought were exciting, and that advises parents to “think out of the box” when helping their children put together a list of potential colleges. My one caveat is that while they mention the establishment of “honors colleges” at Arizona State and Ole Miss that offer a liberal arts experience at a public school price, my question is: what is so innovative about creaming off 20% of an incoming class and giving them something “special” – while letting the remaining 80% flounder? It’s called tracking, and it’s not reform unless everybody gets access to the same small classes and high standards.

But the things that I liked about this book were too frequently negated by discussions that I found hasty and ill informed. I found Hacker and Dreifus’s grasp of the state of affirmative action thin, particularly since they mostly address admission to the “Golden Dozen.” Their views about the role race plays in higher education more generally are partial at best and incoherent at worst. The way in which this subject is glossed without any reference to social class or a family history of higher
education also leaves the false impression that all Black students need “help” of one kind or another in the admissions process; and opposes this to stereotypical notions of an Asian “model minority.”

Another problem – given that the real focus of the book is on a consumer-driven model of education — is that many of their discussions assume a more or less one-to-one relationship between tuition dollars and university spending on a variety of things that, they rightly argue, have nothing, or little, to do with the classroom. Interestingly, this mirrors the current Republican position on the national deficit, as if the national deficit and social programs have a direct relationship to each other that is separable from tax policy and military spending.

Without a more nuanced discussion of why university budgets operate the way they do, what student needs are, how services support classrooms, what drives the perceived need for administrative staff (particularly in student services), false assumptions about lavish spending on unnecessary frills leap out. For example, when they cite the high cost of scientific research, Hacker and Dreifus don’t make it clear that although the money for research is often frontloaded by universities, scientists are expected to earn it back in the form of grants (many of which are corporate) – and that not infrequently, patents from their work and overhead extracted from grants go back into the university’s coffers as profit. As a second example, many faculty members would agree that management is top-heavy and overpaid: but who exactly is going to handle the 10,000 + applications received at every liberal arts school? Who will support the mandate to provide accommodation for the disabled? Who will raise the private and foundation dollars to replace lost federal and state dollars? And who will manage the infinitely more complex budgets that result? While it appears that numerous faculty were interviewed for this book, it is rare that we hear from an administrator, except when s/he is doing something fabulous, like refusing a salary over 400 K.

Although Dreifus and Hacker both teach, they don’t dig very deeply into a variety of other reasons that higher education, particularly public colleges and universities, have become so much more expensive, and so much less invested in the liberal arts. The most important of these would be the end of the Cold War, which slashed funding for a variety of fields that were critical to the arts and social sciences, from Anthropology to Russian. Twenty years of other federal cuts to universities followed, cuts that have also been made by state legislatures even in the most flush economic times. At the same time, the same legislatures, and their State Boards of Regents, have amped up and failed to supervise lavish D-I sports programs that have a use ‘em and lose ‘em attitude toward students. For example, the New Jersey State Legislature just cut Rutgers University’s budget by 15% — having authorized in the past decade the creation of a multi-million dollar football program, with a new stadium. As another example when, in 2009, Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun publicly gave Governor Jody Rell the finger in response to her request that he accept a 10% cut in his multi-million dollar salary like every other state worker, what politician – the governor included — demanded that he accept the cut?

Those who follow Margret Soltan’s University Diaries will be glad to know there is a whole chapter on why big-time college sports are a waste of money, but this chapter also misses crucial details. For example, Dreifus and Hacker never mention that athletics at many public schools are partly funded by a mandatory “student activity fee,” which every student must pay even if s/he is working 40 hours a week to finance her education and would never dream of going to a football game. They also do not mention that there are viable ways to keep a sport competitive and fun without tremendous expense to others: the club sport model, on which the school contributes a token amount and the athletes raise the money themselves. Or that to some of us, commitment to athletic excellence is a sign of character and often correlates with academic achievement, particularly in women.

Perhaps my greatest disappointment with Higher Education is that the authors are over the top disparaging about the work of most faculty, much as the collapse of the auto industry is often blamed on the greediness of auto workers, rather than the failures of management. This is also a place where collapsing all schools great and small, public and private, truly undermines their argument because their targets are salaries and research. Worse, it is faculty who – in many ways – need to be rallied to produce change, and the book does its best to alienate them. Hacker and Dreifus offering little, or selective, explanations for the following assertions:

Faculty members are, by and large, elitist and selfish, consumed with their research, and uninterested in their students. While Dreifus and Hacker offer a few good examples of faculty who are devoted teachers, the book emphasizes that indifference to students is the state of play. While Zenith didn’t make it into the “Golden Dozen” (thank God), I have to tell you – we are not that different from Amherst and Williams, who did, and the vast majority of us who work at small colleges care deeply about our teaching and our students. Some of us stay in our jobs despite our discomfort with the high cost of private colleges because our teaching is nurtured, rewarded and encouraged there. We don’t all agree on what “good teaching” is, it’s true – but on the other hand, neither do the authors. At the beginning of the book, they chastise faculty for not making contact with their students; towards the end they seem to think distance learning from adjuncts is a pretty good solution to ameliorating high tuitions. So which is it that we strive for, guys — the magical relationship with the prof or the magical and thrifty relationship with a grader and a video monitor?

Faculty members are overpaid. This, I would have to say, stung, particularly in a year where I received a raise far below COLA, after having received no raise the year before because of the recession. Where Dreifus and Hacker got the idea that “education is a public service job,” or that faculty are all prancing around in designer clothes paid for with hard-earned tuition dollars, I don’t know. When they count the hours we “work” they count classroom hours: not the time planning classes, meeting with students, keeping up with our fields, writing lectures, grading papers (no, most of us do not have assistants who do this) planning and running majors, chairin
g departments – the list goes on. While there are a vast number of adjuncts who are — as Carey Nelson the original Tenured Radical, would say – working for food, I don’t think $100,000 a year is too much to pay someone after ten years of education, eight years of probationary service, and between five and ten years at the associate ranks. And, although this is the salary that is cited over and over, the fact is that the vast number of full-time, tenured or tenure-track faculty make well below 100K. Gaps at rank at the same institution, and even within the same department, can be enormous. On what basis would our salaries be decided? That isn’t clear. And why should education professionals at the peak of their career be working at a wage that might otherwise be earned by a social worker, priest or Teach for America trainee?

Scholarly research is unnecessary. Hence, sabbatical and research funding is unnecessary (the sarcastic crack about spending a year that the bulk of us spend writing and doing research in Tuscany “recharging” was just nasty.) Where advanced knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is supposed to come from, who will support it if universities don’t, or what we will actually have to teach undergraduates twenty years from now if everyone with a Ph.D. stops doing research and writing, is not clear. The vast majority of us can’t get a commercial publisher to give us the time of day, so big advances like Higher Education got are out as a source of funding. Dreifus and Hacker’s suggestion — that people interested in research should be at think tanks instead of teaching in a university, or that they can use their “three-day weekends” for their scholarship is, frankly, just thoughtless.

Faculties neglect the teaching of basic knowledge, teaching specialized courses out of their research so that they won’t have to work hard. It is simply not a fact that a departmental curriculum that offers numerous specialized courses is invariably neglecting its responsibility to core knowledges, offering students a variety of trivia instead that give them no clear view of the field. The authors do not even come close to proving that it is, or that students find this to be a problem. Two of the oddest critiques in this vein were the assertion that in an introductory English class students ought not to be asked to read a little Foucault (theory, in general, is perceived here as extraneous to the needs of an undergraduate); and the assertion that if one Chemistry class is required of an undergraduate, it should be a survey of the field – not the introduction that might lead students into the major.

I found these strange because both are highly arguable and other points of view are not articulated. Like him or not, Foucault changed the field of literature, and learning to read theory is a skill, just as calculus is, that is useful to pursuing a variety of majors. And as for Chemistry – most of us non-scientists would say just the opposite: make students take a real science course that does what other introductory courses are supposed to do, which is give a student entrée to a major. Don’t have them take one of those B$ “science for poets” courses that they know perfectly well is to “satisfy a requirement” and “make them well-rounded” – not to challenge or stimulate them. Students can see through this kind of curricular window-dressing in a second.

Because the book is so broad brush, the question Dreifus and Hacker never ask is: what would be a fundamental set of values to re-organize higher education around? How can we make it affordable? How can we restore the “public” in public education? Why does it matter to have private and religious schools in the mix, and what are we willing to do as a society to support that? What are curricular models that students and faculty, together, find powerful – and why? Why have the choices in higher education narrowed so dramatically in the past twenty years, and why have so many progressive colleges become so conventional?

And what would a greater national commitment to higher education look like that actually put the interests of students first?

*This riffs off of a famous, and probably apocryphal, exchange that is said to have occurred between between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein on Stein’s deathbed in 1946.

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