Scholars of the World Unite!

Anthony Grafton 

Image of Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About ItHigher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It

SINCE THE Reagan years, academics and journalists have scarified the American university again and again. Allan Bloom, that well-known advocate of classical education, drew up one of the first bills of particulars in his Closing of the American Mind; Charles Sykes, Martin Anderson and other prophets of the ivory tower’s demise enriched his analysis with vivid details—or at least decorated it with scurrilous anecdotes. Professors, these writers argued, are obsessed with producing highly specialized research to meet the priorities of their sclerotic, self-obsessed disciplines. We write more and more about less and less, producing articles and books cast in impenetrable jargon, babbling to one another at some ninety thousand conferences a year for the liberal arts alone.

Worse, we train our graduate students to do the same, even though they will never find tenure-track jobs. By doing so we condemn them to a hopeless, grinding life, which they will spend trying to pursue their pedantry while flying down the freeway from one part-time position to another. We don’t teach undergraduates at all, even though we shamelessly charge them hundreds of dollars for an hour of our time. Mostly we leave them to the graduate students and adjuncts. Yet that may not be such a bad thing. For on the rare occasions when we do enter a classroom, we don’t offer students close encounters with powerful forms of knowledge, new or old. Rather, we make them master our “theories”—systems of interpretation as complicated and mechanical as sausage machines. However rich and varied the ingredients that go in the hopper, what comes out looks and tastes the same: philosophy and poetry, history and oratory, each is deconstructed and revealed to be Eurocentric, logocentric and all the other centrics an academic mind might concoct. So long as professors do not forswear their foolish ways, the university is doomed to fail the students and parents whose hard-earned money and hardly borne postgraduation debt support it. It is a Hogarthian picture: plushy professors, drunk on self-satisfaction, sprawl on satin couches, stomachs poked upward, while their half-naked students stagger out the back door to a lifetime of rag picking.

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do about It (New York: Times Books, 2010), 288 pp., $26.00.

Mark C. Taylor, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 256 pp., $24.00.

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