Destroying the University
by Daniel A. Kaufman
We are witnessing a transformation of the University in the United States, the result of which will be its destruction, at least as the institution has been understood since the Second World War. Similar developments are afoot in other Western nations.
Some of the changes I will describe are at my own university, but Missouri State (formerly, Southwest Missouri State) is in many ways an everyman in American higher education: reasonably large (20,000 or so students), public, relatively undistinguished … the sort of place from which an awful lot of Americans receive their degrees. So, the developments I have observed over the course of my twenty years here undoubtedly will be familiar to many who attend or work in colleges and universities across the country.
My title suggests that I think what is happening is a bad thing, and I do to a great degree, as the University is a critically important institution. That said, what is happening represents an effort to correct for the wild and misguided expansion of the institution undertaken over recent decades. My worry is that we have now taken things to the point at which the correction itself has become wild and misguided; no longer a correction, but a wrecking ball.
By “the University,” I mean the institution that grants baccalaureate degrees and is staffed by largely doctorate-bearing faculty who teach students and engage in scholarly research. It may also offer masters and doctoral degrees, as well as professional graduate degrees in law, medicine, business, etc.
The University, understood this way, marries several distinct functions, within a single institution: (1) the acculturation of the next generation of elites, by way of the civilizing influence of the Studia Humanitatis that stretches back to the Renaissance and is the source of our present-day liberal arts curriculum; (2) the education of the next generation of scientists and engineers; (3) the preservation of the existing body of human knowledge and expansion of it by way of academic research; and (4) the preparation of students for entry into the “white collar” workforce.
(1) and (3) represent things the University has been tasked with doing since its origins in the Middle Ages. Science and engineering came to the institution in the wake of the Industrial Revolution (or at least, in the big way we are familiar with today), though their entry was the cause of some discomfort and conflict early on, as memorialized in C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture (later published under the title, The Two Cultures) and F.R. Leavis’s sharp – some may say intemperate – reply.
It is (4) that represents the biggest break with the history of the University – other than with regard to a small number of professions like Law – and which has been mostly responsible for the ongoing transformation of the institution that we see today.
In hindsight, it never made very much sense to use the University to train people for run-of-the mill professions, such as accounting, school teaching, restaurant management and the like. Given the academic pedigrees required of its faculty and the facilities necessary for the sciences and engineering, the University is a tremendously expensive institution, and it is unclear why your average accountant or fifth grade teacher or restaurant manager needs to be taught by a research-grade professor in their field or why they need to attend a school that also employs research-grade professors working in Form Criticism, Anthropological Linguistics, Latin Classics and the like.
What may have made little sense in hindsight is unmitigated lunacy in the current environment. Since the Second World War, but really picking up speed in the 1960’s and on, the University has become an instrument of mass education. The forces responsible for pushing it in this direction – the G.I. Bill, the expansion of the middle class, the de-industrialization of the country, social and cultural democratization – are many and complex, but the result has been that the overwhelming majority of a much larger population of students are at the University for one reason and one reason alone, namely (4): to prepare for entry into the white collar workforce. What we have discovered — and which should have been no surprise to anyone — is that this is unsustainable; that the University is far too expensive an institution in which to train every accountant, fifth grade teacher, restaurant manager, and the like and that the 4-5 years it takes in order to acquire a baccalaureate degree today is too long of a time in which to do it. Missouri is a rather poor state, with a population just slightly larger than that of Brooklyn and Queens, and yet we have two large state universities, four or five more regional ones, private universities and colleges, and scores of associates degree granting two year colleges. This could never last for very long and now is in the process of unraveling.
This unraveling involves a whole series of desperate moves, the purpose of which is to maintain the status quo; to allow the University to continue to provide mass professional education, despite the fact that it is entirely the wrong institution in which to do so. Instead of a much-needed correction, then (and at the end of these remarks, I will indicate what an appropriate correction might have looked like), what we are doing instead is riding the University to its death.
The single most important reaction to the transformation of the once elitist University into an instrument of mass education, beyond the unprecedented proliferation of colleges and universities itself, has been its adoption of what is essentially a business model, though one very heavy in administration, which is the academic equivalent of corporate middle-management. Of course, with the University adopting the posture of a business, students and their parents are turned into customers, and the governing logic of the institution as a whole becomes one of customer service and satisfaction. The most obvious indicators of this are the absurd (and absurdly costly) amenities that even modest colleges and universities now offer, but the evidence of business imperatives at work can be found throughout the entire institution and especially with respect to customer satisfaction regarding curricula.
The liberal arts curriculum has suffered the most in this regard and likely will never recover, as the new “Mass Ed. U” posed two very serious challenges: First, the social and cultural democratization that provided the moral rationale for mass higher education rendered the original mission of the liberal arts curriculum (to acculturate the next generation of elites) an embarrassment; second, as it turned out, the average aspirant accountant or restaurant manager has no interest whatsoever in studying the Iliad, Republic, Annals of Imperial Rome, Divine Comedy, Critique of Pure Reason or anything remotely like them. Enrollments and the number of students choosing majors in these areas predictably plummeted, relative to their pre-professional counterparts, and the new business-minded cadre of academic administrators predictably deemed this unacceptable. What to do, then, with all the philosophy, literature, classics, and other such faculty, now that we have them at every single one of the now greatly inflated number of colleges and universities in the state (and country)?
As a way of answering this question, those of us working in these areas found ourselves peddling some of the stupidest, most disingenuous nonsense about the humanities and liberal arts that one could imagine, namely that studying them provides “critical skills” that are “necessary” for everything from morality to good citizenship to the very capacity to think critically itself.† That this is obviously false is indicated by the significant numbers of people who have had such an education but exhibit none of these qualities and by the equally significant numbers of people who have had no such education and exhibit most or even all of them. That this is clearly disingenuous is evident from the fact that if we really believed it, we would require the intensive study of these subjects in primary and secondary school and perhaps even make it a condition for voting and citizenship but, of course, we do nothing of the sort.
Nonsense it may be, but peddle it we must, and the result has been the relegation of the once rich, highly sophisticated and refined tradition of arts and letters to a generic “General Education” curriculum, required of all students in tiny, disconnected, low-level morsels. The idea of general education may predate the emergence of Mass Ed. U, having been introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as disciplinary specialization began to take hold and concerns were raised that graduates would emerge too narrowly educated, but it didn’t take its current form, becoming what is essentially a ghetto for the humanities and liberal art, until Mass Ed. U had arrived on the scene.
It was always an unstable, slapped-together remedy and is already in the process of disintegrating. Whole departments in the humanities, liberal arts (including my own), and even some of the social sciences are entirely dependent on servicing these general education curricula, but the never-ending escalation of the cost of a University education, combined with the customer-satisfaction ethos of Mass Ed. U has sent everyone in search of other options. In my state, what we have done is reconceive our community colleges, turning them from largely vocational schools, tasked with preparing students for whatever remaining blue collar trades there are – electrician work, plumbing, HVAC, etc. – into cheap, front-end Universities. Through state action and a series of short-sighted, intellectually bankrupt “articulation agreements” that make it easy to transfer credits from one institution to another, we now financially incentivize even the best Missouri students to take all of their general education courses at our community colleges.
That this will turn our state Universities into two-year colleges themselves – the back-end to the community colleges’ front-end – and the havoc this will wreak upon every department and program, not just philosophy or religious studies, either has not occurred to the dim bulbs that fill academic administration or indicates that they simply do not care. For those of us who rely almost entirely upon general education enrollments, it is nothing less than an imminent death sentence. For the more theoretical and abstract sciences and mathematics, the proverbial writing is on the wall, and they will face a similar fate not too far down the road. The number of their majors and minors are dwindling too, and unlike the humanities and liberal arts, they do not have much of a place in general education curricula. So while they may die a little later, they will do so much quicker.
Related shenanigans have eviscerated the study of modern languages. At Missouri State, despite the fact that very few students have been interested in majoring or even minoring in foreign languages for decades – this despite a rapidly globalizing economy and the obvious professional applicability of language proficiency within it – the modern language department survived on the university’s requirements for the Bachelor of Arts, which include two years of foreign language. Unsurprisingly, students fled the B.A.-granting disciplines in droves, leading those disciplines – including, I am ashamed to say, my own, under my leadership as Department Head – to drop their B.A. in favor of a B.S., the latter of which carries no language requirement. Hence, the bizarre spectacle of people getting B.S. degrees in philosophy, history, and the like, not to mention the elimination of the last thing sustaining the study of foreign languages to any degree. The B.A. is now essentially extinct on our campus, as is the study of foreign languages.
Colleges and universities seek accreditation from accrediting agencies in order to insure a certain kind of credibility, and for a while, inspired by the elimination of our Classics Department, I wondered just how much damage Missouri State could inflict on its humanities, liberal arts, and foreign language programs, before accrediting agencies would refuse to certify us as a credible baccalaureate granting institution. It was not long before I realized that the accrediting agencies are as much complicit in this stupid, corrupt, and destructive game as the University itself, and that Hell likely will freeze over before they do anything to halt or otherwise stem our self-engineered debasement and destruction.
The tragedy is that none of this was necessary. The need for mass professional education could have been met by building upon the tradition of vocational education that we already have in this country. Rather than the budget- and soul-busting expansion of the University that we undertook, we might have expanded the two-year community college system, so as to include both blue-collar and white-collar job training. Preparing people to be accountants and fifth grade teachers and restaurant managers requires neither research grade Ph.D. instruction nor expensive facilities and takes no longer than it does to train a plumber or electrician, and like the latter already do, the former would benefit tremendously from a comparable apprenticeship system.
Had we done this, not only would we have provided much better, more relevant, and significantly cheaper professional education, we would have left the far more expensive and rare University alone and intact, thereby allowing it to continue performing its own crucial functions, as described in (1), (2), and (3) above. And regarding (1), yes, we still have elites today, more than ever, and we always will. The only difference now is that on top of being elites, they are also philistines … which is not better.
† I addressed this in my essay, “On Some Common Rationales for Liberal Education (and why they aren’t very good).” https://theelectricagora.com/2015/10/19/on-some-common-rationales-for-liberal-education-and-why-they-arent-very-good/