December 31, 2010


The indubitable virtue of increased public spending on higher education has become another theory, like global warming, that has a divided life. As the general public grows more and more skeptical about it, the people society pays to be skeptical—professors and journalists—by and large continue to see nothing amiss. . . . Generally, if the topic is acknowledged at all, it is done so in scorn for the philistines who would reduce the “value” of a college degree to the job prospects and earnings of graduates. Never mind that higher education has been busy selling itself to the public in precisely those terms for the last fifty years and that the official position of the Obama administration is that our “national competitiveness” depends on a huge expansion in the number of young people who earn college degrees.

But I’m ready to concede the point. Higher education should be about more than gaining a credential that gives one a leg up in the marketplace. But if we are going to re-focus the debate on the non-utilitarian substance of higher learning—on the transmission of disciplined intellectual inquiry, on developing civilized discernment, on aspiration for genuinely higher knowledge—we had better be prepared to rethink our national preoccupation with mass higher education. Judged by those standards, contemporary American undergraduate education as a whole is a colossal failure.

Which is it? Do we want to run a mass credentialing service that the public increasingly views as an expensive con? Or do we want to engage in rigorous higher education as something that has intrinsic value, but which our current system is ill-suited to provide?

Read the whole thing.