The twilight of the American university

When I think of the wonderful experience I had attending a university in the 1950s and the great teachers I had, I grieve for that this experience is rarely if ever available today, except for a few pockets where scholars stubbornly value learning for its own sake.

The faculty and administrators of the University of Wisconsin stood up for the right to tell the truth as they saw it, and not just for the rights of tenured faculty, in the era of Joe McCarthy.

Now college professors are under pressure from two directions—pressure to refrain from scholarship that is threatening to business interests, and pressure to maintain an ideological orthodoxy regarding race, gender, etc. These two pressures are not incompatible.

When I was a newspaper reporter, from roughly 60 years ago to roughly 20 years ago, there were only three categories of people I could interview who would speak their minds without fear—owners of successful businesses, members of strong labor unions and tenured college professors. Add to that civil servants talking about their areas of expertise.

The fear factor was much greater when I retired than when I started out. I am pretty sure it is not less today.

Universities are part of the institutional memory of civilizations. Their decline is one reason for the historical amnesia that exists today.

It is true that, when I attended college, academic standards were lower and course requirements less rigorous than they had been in an earlier era.  But students were expected to be able to write grammatical sentences and read books the whole way through.

I have friends in academia who teach liberal arts today, and they tell me that they only teach from brief snippets and excerpts because that’s all that students can handle.

Training and education are different. Training speaks to the subconscious mind—what the experimental psychologist Daniel Kahneman called “fast thinking”—the part of our mind that exists below the level of consciousness.

A well-trained cook or airplane pilot through practice can deal with a situation without having to stop and think it through. Training is important. I don’t deny it.

But education is about “slow thinking”—sitting down and checking your assumptions and biases against what you rationally know to be the fact. “Slow thinking” is difficult and has to be learned; it is not automatic.

Turning universities into training centers instead of educational centers is a bad thing, and even the training will be sub-par. 

What’s going on, as I see it, is the triumph of neoliberalism—the idea that everything should be modeled on the profit-seeking corporation. 

The product that universities product is a diploma, an educational credential that opens the door to higher-income jobs than you’d otherwise get. 

The way to maximize revenues is to maximize the number of customers (students) times the price of the product (tuition), while holding down costs (faculty salaries).  Research is another potential profit center, if—and only if—it draws in revenue from the government and large corporations.

There’s a long-range cost to society, but in the neoliberal model, it doesn’t matter.

I wonder to what degree all this is uniquely American and to what degree it exists in other countries.


R.I.P. The University, b. 1088, d. 2020, of Covid by “Lambert Strether” for Naked Capitalism.

On the Demise of Universities by “Erasmus” for Naked Capitalism.

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