Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

American higher education

There’s not much new here, but it is a useful summary of the state of American higher education.

Well, I didn’t know that 70% of the undegraduate courses at NYU are taught by adjunct faculty (!!!), and hadn’t thought of conceiving the collective undergraduate population at America’s liberal arts colleges as fitting inside a Big 10 football stadium. Here’s my favorite snippet, since it hits close to home:

As for the relatively few students who still attend a traditional liberal arts college—whether part of, or independent from, a university—what do they get when they get there? The short answer is freedom to choose among subjects and teachers, and freedom to work out their own lives on campus. Intellectual, social, and sexual freedom of the sort that today’s students assume as an inalienable right is never cheaply won, and requires vigilant defense in academia as everywhere else. Yet there is something less than ennobling in the unearned freedom of privileged students in an age when even the most powerful institutions are loath to prescribe anything— except, of course, in the "hard" sciences, where requirements and prerequisites remain stringent. One suspects that behind the commitment to student freedom is a certain institutional pusillanimity—a fear that to compel students to read, say, the major political and moral philosophers would be to risk a decline in applications, or a reduction in graduation rates (one of the statistics that counts in the US News and World Report college rankings closely watched by administrators). Nor, with a few exceptions, is there the slightest pressure from faculty, since there is no consensus among the teachers about what should be taught.

So by the author’s lights I’m on a suicide mission, teaching at a college that dares to require students to read the major moral and political philosophers. I can’t wait for the second installment.

Discussions - 5 Comments

You should not be surprised about that 70% adjunct number. There was never a greater wave of hypocrisy than when the boomers swept into power on campus. The same people that blather on about exploitation, unequal power relations, wage slavery, etc have devised a system of tenure where the very very few spend most of their time writing "Love in Clay: Hispano-Lesbian Pottery 1983-84," while anyone unlucky enough to have gotten a PhD after 1981 teaches 4 introductory classes at three diffferent colleges with no benefits and no tenure. We cannot dirty research professors hands grading the tests of undergraduates, after all! When our tenured radicals talk about exploitation, they certainly know what they are talking about...

I, too, am curious to hear more about this author’s take on the future of private, liberal-arts colleges. From my own academic experience, I see a great divide between the "haves" and the "have-nots" among liberal-arts colleges.

The liberal-arts colleges that have thrived tend to cater to students from well-to-do, upper-middle-class backgrounds. These students are the ones whose secondary-school education is rigorous enough to allow them to gain admission, and whose families have the financial means to afford the higher costs of a private, liberal-arts school.

But liberal-arts colleges also paid attention to the success in the 1980s of places like Middlebury and Franklin & Marshall, which raised tuition substantially above the percentage rise in operating expenses. Almost like magic, higher tuition brought in both more money and better students to these schools. Families and guidance counselors perceived tuition as a indicator of quality. The downside, however, is that good students from lower-middle-class backgrounds became increasingly unable to afford some of the older and best established private, liberal-arts colleges, and tended to look first at state universities.

Poorer, less well-established liberal-arts schools did not have the luxury of attempting a Middlebury or F&M route because they lacked the financial reserves to offset even a single year of reduced enrollments. Yet these schools also could not compete with state universities with regard to cost or facilities. So many established all sorts of adult-education and evening master’s degree programs to raise revenue, a niche that many state universities -- with their growing ambitions -- were uninterested in filling.

So, I, too, would be interested to see if these aspects are discussed in the second installment.

A few weeks ago, one of the bloggers here posted a link to an editorial on the growth of Christian colleges.

If liberal arts colleges are an endangered species, what should one make of Christian liberal arts colleges that are, in many cases quite literally, bursting at the seams?

I think part of the answer may lie in the very fact that colleges and universities that are members of the CCCU (Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities) have very well-defined missions. They have no compunction about forcing students to take certain courses -- even, say, a few theology or Bible courses -- because they know what defines their institutions. Not surprisingly, they are attracting students who agree with their mission (and hence their requirements).

One of the explanations for the success of CCCU member institutions is that they stand for something in a world in which very little else does. This is also offered as an explanation for the growth of evangelical churches and the decline of mainline Protestant denominations. If what I get in church is little different from what I would get on the editorial pages of the newspaper, why not stay home and read the paper? If what I get in college is little different from what I would get in a public university, where it’s cheaper and where many are using their honors programs to compete (in quality and personal attention) with private institutions, then why go to the private school?

I don’t claim that this is the whole answer. There are demographic changes to which we must attend. The growth in the college-going population is not in the ages and classes traditionally associated with private college attendance. What many college attendees want is, in effect, professional training, not a liberal education, which has always been something of a luxury.

But I do think that we have two competing paradigms--the "ideal" of student autonomy (or consumer sovereignty) that the author of the NYRB piece attributes to most liberal arts colleges and the adherence to a vision of human excellence not exhausted by untutored choice embodied in church-affiliated schools and in a few secular liberal arts colleges (like St. John’s College.

One should point out that not all evangelical Christian colleges are faring well. William Tyndale College in suburban Detroit had to shut down in December due to falling enrollment after nearly 40 years in operation.

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