The University is dead, and with it real education

The University is dead, and with it real education
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Sometime at the end of the 19th century, the president of Harvard, Charles William Eliot was asked why there is so much intelligence at his university. Eliot thought for a moment and then said, “It is simply that the freshmen bring so much and the seniors take so little away.

This clever quip actually means more contemporaneously than it did at the time. Today, one is more likely to say, based on empirical evidence, that the first year candidates “bring very little in and take almost nothing out.”

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For a considerable portion of college age students, up to 36 percent, there isn’t any change in their cognitive abilities after four years in the Academy (over just two years, the portion is 45 percent of students). According to a comprehensive study by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” attendance at a university is a waste of time and resources, and little more than a rite of passage for entry into a world of beer and sex.

Since the Vietnam War, an orthodoxy has emerged on college campuses, a hard core left wing orthodoxy that has imperiled the free and open exchange of opinion. To be a conservative or even a political agnostic puts you in the crosshairs of colleagues often unwilling to consider another point of view.

The humanities, representing the heart and soul of university life, has been relegated to irrelevance. This, in fact, is the corrosive condition killing the Academy. There are three forces undermining the curriculum that have conflated to challenge the status quo: Politicization, trivialization, and vocationalism. In fact, the status quo is now in the hands of the hard Left in almost all cases.

  1. Politicization

Tenure is now employed as a political litmus test. Scholarship is subservient to ideological commitment. While professors invariably describe themselves as independent, they remind me of the comment once made by Harold Rosenberg of “the herd of independent minds.” When I was in the NYU Senate as a result of my decanal status, the vote on most issues was 77 to 1. Yes, I was the lone dissenter.

Recently I read an article by a university professor who claimed, that the U.S. Constitution, written more than two centuries ago, has no binding power on anything. Obviously, reasonable parameters in debate once could be constrained by Constitutional provisions, but that is no longer the case. This is the era of postmodernism, in which facts and truth must take a back seat to strongly held opinion. Frederick Nietzsche set the stage by noting in the 19th century that there are no facts, “only interpretations.”

University interpretations fall into three categories: race, class and gender. Everything else is irrelevant. Military history doesn’t exist, cultural history isn’t taught and even philosophical judgment is put in the cauldron of contemporary sentiment. Context is limited by time, space and ideology. This used to be defined accurately as sophistry.

  1. Trivialization

It is hard to believe, but most universities do not have a “core”, what was once known as the canon. Students now select courses from a Chinese menu of dozens of courses in natural science, social science and the humanities. However, many of the courses veer into the absurd. For example, at Bowdoin College, one could meet core requirements by studying Queer Gardens, until a National Association of Scholars report brought attention to it.

Whatever the mind can conjure, a course can be constructed. Yet it is instructive that you can be an English major without having read Shakespeare. You can give thought to the transmission of culture – once a university goal – without having studied the history of western civilization. And you can be a history major in the United States without studying the history of the United States.

  1. Vocationalism

The driving economic force in the Academy is job preparation. Plato has been demoted to pay-and-go. Considering the debt parents and students assume, the trend is understandable. But if students ignore or underestimate the humanities, what is left for their mental development? Coding? It is only recently that vocationalism has acceded to its dominant role. In most instances, alumni and patrons think this is a sound idea. However, it is unquestionably yet another nail in the coffin of higher education.

Yes, mine is a lamentation. Having spent more than three decades in the university and having a deeply ingrained love of the soft disciplines, I am dismayed by the current account of higher education.

Perhaps change is over the horizon with online courses. Perhaps as well parents will rebel against the high cost and modest achievement. But I am not an optimist. As I see it the bells at universities are the sounds of a dying institution. It may be an attenuated death, but the university as we once knew it is leaving this mortal coil. RIP.

Herbert London is the president of the London Center for Policy Research, which conducts research on the key policy issues of our time: national security, energy, and risk analysis.