Higher Education: The Impossibility Of Reform.

Oxford Don

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If we really want to start at the beginning, I suggest we consider the word school. As some of you no doubt are aware, it derives from the Greek word for leisure. We, of course, think of schools as places where work is supposed to go on. Not only are the students supposed to work hard, but the professors are expected to be“productive scholars.” Isn’t that what they get paid for?

Well, in fact, “academic leisure” used to be a rather common phrase. Irving Babbitt used it as the title of a polemical essay more than a hundred years ago,* when the factory model of the university was already gaining the upper hand. He was harkening back to a classical ideal. We work in order to be at leisure, as Aristotle said. In other words, work is an activity whose value lies not in itself but in some end external to it. Leisure is intrinsically valuable activity, activity which requires no justification beyond itself. It is not synonymous with mere recreation. Liberal learning, the cultivation of the mind for its own sake, is perhaps the pre-eminent example of a leisurely activity, properly understood.

For this reason, professors never used to be “hired;” they were appointed. They received a salary, of course; but that was less in exchange for their labor than as a means of freeing them from material worries and allowing them to pursue their special calling. This conceptual framework, in which scholarship is understood as a vocation and a professorship as a status rather than a form of paid employment betrays the university’s pre-modern origins. The academy is an essentially medieval institution that accidentally survived almost up to our own time in places.

But it is hard to see how academic leisure and the original mission of the university could be restored today in the absence of the kind of society which originally gave birth to it and nurtured it. Certainly the academic reformers of the 1990s never set their sights that high.

Before the Second World War, about ten percent of America’s male population received postsecondary schooling. No one needed a degree to do well in life. You went to college to prepare either for a specialized profession such as medicine or engineering, or for a leadership role in society or the world of learning.

This system eventually fell victim to liberal antiexclusionism, that is, the perceived moral necessity of making whatever is understood to be good available to everybody. The general public was “sold” on college by means of the “graduates earn more” argument, a classic post hoc fallacy. College graduates earned more than the population at large because they were brighter and more motivated already when they entered college, not because they had a sheepskin hanging on the wall.

In any case, the postwar academy swelled to gargantuan proportions. I learned a good metaphor for this process from a vintner. There is an optimal amount of rainfall for producing grapes. Where grapevines continue to be watered past that point, they stop producing more grapes. Instead, they put forth an ever more luxurious profusion of leaves, while the total amount of fruit they bear actually declines.

Many other problems are consequent upon size. People complain that curricula have been watered down; but as colleges expand,they have to reach ever farther down the Bell Curve in search of bodies to fill their classrooms. Even the politicization of the university is to a great extent owing to the sheer unfitness of students and professors.

The size issue is very difficult for academics themselves to address. They may have to struggle with unqualified students, but they remain dependent on the system funded by those students’ tuition money. As a result, many of the reformers of fifteen or twenty years ago where left with only racial preferences to fight: a problem that touched their own material interests directly. Some would have been content to declare victory and go home once race-neutral hiring and promotion had been achieved, yet even here they were unable to turn the tide.

So from thinking about strategies for reform, my attention has gradually shifted to anticipating how the final collapse of higher learning is likely to play itself out, and how we might salvage something from the ruins. I think it is going to be like the death of a beached whale, crushed under its own weight without any effort by outside attackers.

(V Dare, November 16, 2011).

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* Irving Babbitt, “Academic Leisure.” In: Literature and the American College; Essays in Defense of the Humanities. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1908, pp. 246–263.