I have spent most of my adult life in higher education, beginning as an undergraduate in the mid-1950s and ending as Board member of a small liberal arts college. During that time I have witnessed one of America’s finest institutions slide into a deep malaise. Its unraveling has affected every aspect of college and university life – finances, curriculum, intellectual atmosphere, faculty, administrative leadership, and student life.
If there were a golden age of American higher education, it was in the two decades following World War II. In the late 1940s, there was the influx of veterans, supported by the GI Bill of Rights, who had seen the face of war and brought a seriousness and maturity to the classroom. By the mid 1950s, a number of them were on the faculty. These men were my teachers – dedicated no-nonsense intellectuals – deeply committed to teaching and the institutions that were putting bread on their table. They were not running popularity contests with the students or pretending to be chummy. You either measured up or you were gone. Admittedly, like everything else in that era, it was a man’s world – hard noses and structured.
As the baby boomers entered higher education, first as students and later as teachers and administrators, the culture began to shift and higher education has little resemblance to that by-gone era.
Finances: For most middle class families, college at a state institution or a modest liberal arts college was once affordable. I went to a private college on a couple of thousand dollars a year and could easily supplement my parents’ support with a summer job. The GI Bill was a straight stipend for veterans and there was no government loan program. Dormitories were modest and some ancient (mine was built in 1912). A full professor was lucky to make $10,000 a year; student centers were no more than a cafeteria; administrators were few; athletic facilities involved a gym, tennis courts, a small basketball court, football and baseball fields, and a track. The beauty of most campuses came from its natural setting, not its architectural wonders.
Today, a private college can cost over $50,000 a year which requires many students and parents to go deeply in debt. Full professors at many universities can make over well $100,000 a year and are required to teach far fewer courses. Colleges try to out do each other with dormitories that look like apartments suited for a gated communities; lavish student centers featuring dining facilities, electronic game rooms, and numerous flat screen TVs; athletic facilities offering extensive weight training and gym equipment, basketball arenas (not gyms), sports such as lacrosse and squash that only the upper class once played; arts and science centers designed by highly regarded architectural firms. In addition, the administrative overlay blankets most colleges – student psychological services, diversity specialists, high-power fund raisers, strategic planners and layers of deans and assistant deans. At major research universities, professors can teach only two or four courses a year with graduate assistants at their beck and call. Even at small liberal arts (supposedly) teaching colleges the teaching load has been substantially reduced so faculty can do their research (often of a small bore nature).
Curriculum: As students become customers to be wooed and more professors become boutique researchers with narrow interests, the demanding core curriculum is disappearing. Instead of a structured course of study, students now have a cafeteria from which to select what they want. Instead of the rigors of a freshman humanities course, where students wrestle with Milton, Shakespeare, Joyce, Eliot, Melville and Conrad, they can take freshman seminars in detective fiction, films, and television sit-coms. As a report of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni put it, “College students are usually neither well prepared nor motivated to select a rigorous, coherent program of study. A student who has not read any great books may have no idea why some books are great and why they merit study…a core curriculum can
make students read books they didn’t know they wanted to read. It broadens their horizons in ways they could never have imagined.” Consequently, many students graduate from college knowing less about literature and history than high school graduates may have known fifty years ago. A high percentage can graduate without taking work in mathematics or a foreign language. No wonder employers are lobbying Congress to import highly trained foreign workers.
Intellectual atmosphere: Finding an outspoken conservative on a college campus is as hard as finding a full professor who teaches six or seven courses a year. One or two conservative speakers may be invited to a campus during the year. Often they cannot even finish their remarks without clamor; or they are looked at as some creature from another planet. Conservative thinkers such as Hayek, Friedman, Kristol, Kirk, Weaver, Von Mises, and Gilder are rarely found on any college course syllabus. Conservatism, an important part of the American political tradition, is lost to even those who major in history or political science. Young conservative scholars often have to find work at conservative think tanks, war colleges, or the unusual openly conservative campus such as Hillsdale College in Michigan. My experience has been that some conservative professors who have appointments keep a low profile for fear of angering their colleagues. Even for those who have tenure, it isn’t worth the aggravation. Academic freedom is waved around, but rarely exercised.
Students are not only shielded from exposure to conservatism. They are also shielded from a genuine four year intellectual journey. Fewer professors are broadly educated or well read. How many read outside their field? The recent generation came from undergraduate institutions where the core curriculum had disappeared. Practically all faculty members are trained in graduate school to be narrow researchers. Once it was not uncommon for a professor to address the campus on a topic of broad intellectual interest. Students were required to attend campus convocation to hear a variety of intellectual thinkers, many from their own campus. If professors give a campus lecture today, you can be sure it comes from their own research. Fewer of them are public intellectuals speaking to the pressing issues of the day.
Hence, the intellectual richness of a college education is lost and for the country much, much more.