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Deresiewicz on Why Higher Education is Broken

Posted by Josh Rothman  May 10, 2011 10:02 AM

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Writing in The Nation, English-professor-turned-journalist William Deresiewicz provides one of the best overviews I've read of the slow-motion train-wreck that is the downsizing of the academy. As he sees it, the problem is corporatization. Non-faculty administrators, obsessed with efficiency, are cutting out departments and faculty positions. At the same time, their own ranks are swelling: "From 1976 to 2001, the number of nonfaculty professionals ballooned nearly 240 percent, growing more than three times as fast as the faculty." Now universities, having bureaucratized themselves, find that there isn't enough money to fund the teaching and research that's their raison d'etre.

The problem isn't that administrators are spending all the money on themselves; it's that they have essentially non-academic priorities. They want to increase enrollment, cut costs, expand their schools, and move up in the U.S. News rankings. Academic excellence is only one priority among many. Over the long term, that has had appalling effects on the quality of the education students receive. The evidence is in: American colleges aren't making their students smarter, essentially because colleges are encouraging students to major in fluffy, non-academic subjects. Students are getting good grades, but in meaningless majors. And courses in those majors are, happily, cheaper to staff: instead of a tenured history professor, you can hire an adjunct professor of marketing.

At Ivy League universities, professors have been talking for years about a "crisis in the humanities." Deresiewicz puts that conversation in its larger, more important context. The fight to get students to major in English instead of neuroscience at Harvard is really at the margins of a much larger higher-ed crisis. It's the rigorous teaching of the liberal arts, rather than the humanities in themselves, that need defending. It's time, Deresiewicz argues, for some good old-fashioned outrage, both from faculty and from the public. Our colleges and universities are, after all, part of our education system as a whole. The same principles we insist upon at our elementary and high schools hold for colleges, too. That means rigorous curricula, small classes, and respected, experienced, and well-paid faculty:

There is a large, public debate right now about primary and secondary education. There is a smaller, less public debate about higher education. What I fail to understand is why they aren’t the same debate. We all know that students in elementary and high school learn best in small classrooms with the individualized attention of motivated teachers. It is the same in college.

Deresiewicz makes his case in the starkest possible terms, and leaves out all sorts of subtleties. In this case, that's a good thing. He synthesizes dozens of books on the crisis in higher education and gets to the heart of the matter. More students are going to college, but they're not getting smarter. Tuitions are going up, but so are class sizes. More students are going into debt, but serious departments are being closed around the country. Tuitions are being paid, but education is not happening. The question we need to be asking is, Where is all the money going? "There’s plenty of money," Deresiewicz writes -- but only "if we spend it on the right things."

Feel the full force of Deresiewicz's anger over at The Nation: "Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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