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An Anatomy of a Most Peculiar Institution

The Value of a BA Degree

As a young professor, I used to believe in the value of a universal BA that would teach truth and beauty to the masses. I still do, but mostly as instruction apart from the university that now has very little to do with either beauty or truth. Right now the university has two more pressing problems. Does the BA, MA, or PhD -- the signature degrees in the humanities -- increase the graduate’s earning potential over the next thirty years enough to justify the $200,000-plus investment? Most studies still suggest yes, but the lifelong income gap between the BA certified in the humanities and the non-certified is narrowing. I am reluctant to make the argument for the humanities on the basis of financial planning, but then the humanities are not quite the humanities of 50 years ago.

More importantly, why not have a national BA test in the way we have bar exams? Simply put, every graduating college senior would take a basic 4-hour exam in math, verbal skills, and simple facts (e.g., “What is the 1st Amendment? What is a non sequitur? Who was James Madison? What is the Parthenon? etc.).

The Harvard and CSU Stanislaus graduates would alike have to pass the same rigorous test to ensure that American colleges were turning out students with a minimum level of  competence -- in the manner that the consumer assumes that widely different but UL approved appliances all have the same safe and standard cords and plugs.

We might also allow credit-by-examination:  if one chose not to attend college, then he might take a beefed-up, longer version of the BA exam, say an 8-hour test. At this point, I would suggest that the percentage of those passing the 8-hour version without four years of college might exceed those with four years of college passing an earlier 4-hour version.  And the former might well be more open-minded and empirical than the latter on the politics of the day.


There is no diversity of thought on the vast majority of university campuses. The classes, the administration, the campus culture, the professors -- all accept the man-made destructive heating of the planet, the rape of the environment, the toxicity of free market-capitalism, the racist-sexist-homophobic narrative of the U.S. past, the need for unquestioned abortion on demand, gay marriage, legalization of drugs, etc.

As for racial diversity, affirmative action, etc., there is no need to rehash the old tired fault lines. Suffice it to say that at a Princeton, Cornel West is thought to be an intellectual, that at Harvard Elizabeth Warren was the first Native-American law professor, that at Colorado Ward Churchill was a tenured, full-professor and Native-American luminary, and that once-fugitive Angela Davis was a distinguished professor at UC Santa Cruz.

Will all this continue? Probably, though with intermarriage and integration, the racial identity industry is becoming ossified, and cases like Warren and Churchill will become more common. The truth is that the careerist liberal white male has always had a Madame Pompadour sort of après moi le déluge attitude: once he reached a point of influence and power, he always insisted on affirmative action for all his surrounding positions as a sort of castle and moat protection for his own paradoxical privilege. One thing I never understood about affirmative action: its biggest supporters in the 1980s and 1990s were always tenured, full-professor white males, and its victims were always part-time or entry-level struggling white males. Why did not the grandee class simply confess, “We came of age at a time of white male privilege; therefore, we now resign our positions after reaping unfair advantage to ensure a level playing field for all who follow”? Instead, they pontificated from tenured perches and applied racial litmus tests only to others more vulnerable.

When we read of the world’s great centers of learning, American -- and Californian -- universities are always at the top: Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, etc. But almost always, on closer examination, this is because of our superior medical schools, business schools, engineering schools, and science and math departments. The liberal arts have piggybacked on the reputation of American professionalism and science, and therefore have not come under the scrutiny that they so richly deserve.

It is time to rethink the entire idea of a university, even as the free market and Internet are devouring it.