Posted: January 30, 2012
ne of the strongest pieces of evidence that our civilization has descended into madness was offered by National Public Radio in April 2007. NPR's Robert Siegel was interviewing Melinda Gates, wife of Bill Gates and custodian of a new $60 million education reform initiative the Gates Foundation was launching. "Can we reasonably expect 100% of high school students to become college students?" asked Siegel. To which Mrs. Gates replied, "Yes, I think we can."
Now, Melinda Gates is by no means an outlier in this opinion. Our current president has come close to saying the same thing. Not only do these people believe, or profess to believe, that every high-school graduate is capable of college work, they also believe that college admission should be available to all, as a social good.
The rationales offered for universal college education vary. You occasionally hear an echo of John Henry Newman saying that knowledge is its own end. More common are appeals to our national competitiveness: we need more college graduates if we are to keep our place in the world. Given that many Third World hell-holes are awash in college graduates, this is unconvincing. (The actual top five in rankings for "Percentage of 25- to 64-Year-Olds with an Associate Degree or Higher, 2007" are, from the top: Russia, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand. The U.S.A. ranks sixth.)
In political presentations to the general public, however, the sales pitch is that since people with college degrees have, on average, a higher standard of living than people without college degrees, then by giving everyone a college degree, everyone will have a higher standard of living. This makes as much sense as trying to make us all rich by scattering money from helicopters over inhabited areas. In fact it makes less sense than that. The cost of the helicopterized-enrichment project would only be that of printing the bills and servicing the choppers. If we send every high-school graduate to college, however, there will be buildings, teachers, books, and computers to be paid for.
There will also be huge but unquantifiable opportunity costs. Young persons of modest means will be a financial drain on their families for several years, when they might have been learning useful skills through paid employment, or founding their own businesses, or starting their own families. Disposable income that might have circulated through the economy will disappear into rich college endowments. (Harvard's is currently $32 billion; Yale, $19.4 billion. The World Bank lists 109 nations as having GDP smaller than Harvard's endowment. The list begins with Kenya.)
Yet opposition is scattered and muted. The fearless Charles Murray wrote a book, Real Education (2008), one chapter of which is headed "Too Many People Are Going to College." Murray argued that no more than 20% of citizens can gain any benefit in knowledge or capability from post-secondary academic education. Billionaire entrepreneur-investor Peter Thiel has established a fellowship for young people who want to drop out of college and start a business.
These are marginal phenomena, though. Murray's book was not a bestseller. Thiel's fellowship recruits just 20 youngsters a year. Among the citizenry at large, college education is regarded as an unqualified good. No politician could get elected in any jurisdiction by promising to cut higher-education funding. No TV talking head would dare suggest such a thing. Probably a majority of adult Americans agree with Mrs. Gates. Probably a majority would vote for the helicopter idea if it were offered to them. Perhaps I shouldn't have aired it.
* * *
Both books under review here are about the college fad. Neither is an analytical study of the topic. Both are in fact memoirs, though from very different points of view. In Crazy U, Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor of the Weekly Standard, tells the story—his own story—of a "lower upper middle-class" family (his description) getting their teenage son through the college-application process. "Professor X," the author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, sounds more upper-lower than lower-upper. He and his wife bought a house they could not afford at exactly the wrong point in the house-price bubble. His income from low-level government work was inadequate to feed the mortgage, so he took up a second job as adjunct professor, teaching low-ability and "continuing education" college students. He tells us about his work, his students, his life.
Of the two books, Ferguson's was the one I was keener to read, for the personal reason that having just been through the college-application process myself on behalf of my daughter, I wanted to compare notes. Had Ferguson found the college-application process as tedious and confusing as I found it? Were there things I had missed? My daughter has commenced a four-year degree program at a state college to which she commutes from home. Could I have done better by her? Might she have been in residence at some tonier private school if I had been more diligent at playing the angles—chasing down scholarships, references, and financial aid? Should we have prodded her to take more A.P. courses at high school? To be more prominent in the school orchestra? To take on some social work? Parenting is guilt, and a constant search for assurance that one has not done as badly as one fears.
Ferguson is, like me, a not-very-attentive parent. His son, like my daughter, had no strong desire to attend college, and thought the application process a tiresome bore. Diving into that process, Ferguson finds himself, as I did, swimming with sharks—"tiger" parents who have been plotting their kids' college future since the diapers came off, and college-admissions consultants bristling with competitive zeal. He records an exchange with one of the latter:
By the time they were juniors, she said, students should be well on the way to putting together a compelling application. "Your application needs to scream, ‘I want to go to this school!'"
I said my son wasn't a screamer. Worse, I didn't think there were any schools that he was just dying to go to.
"What year?" she said.
"He's a junior."
"And you're how far along?"
[After some further prodding, Ferguson confesses he hasn't even begun applying.]
"Oooooh," she said. "Baaaaaaad daaaaaad."
The author won my heart right there. He proceeds to take us through the whole grisly process, putting in some first-rate journalistic legwork on all the background sub-topics: college rankings, the testing business, the internet advice subculture, the application essay, financial aid, and so on. There were some oddities that I had not encountered on my own trek, of which I think the weirdest is the "likely letter" from a college dean of admissions—neither an offer nor a rejection. "The work of a sadist," says Ferguson.
The whole thing is done with zest, wit, and a pleasingly reductionist approach to the Edsperanto jargon with which colleges obfuscate their aims and methods. He closes a long paragraph on "holistic" admissions with the observation: "A more practical and accurate term for holistic admissions is ‘completely subjective.'" Which I think we all kind of knew.
His history of the SAT brings to light the glaring disconnect between the need to have some metric for the academic competitiveness we have become addicted to, and the intense, prickly egalitarianism of our culture. In his words, the story is one of an institution "struggling to make itself acceptable to activists and enthusiasts who will never, under any circumstances, find the institution acceptable."
Hence the ceaseless refining and tightening of "sensitivity guidelines" for compilers of the SAT. Graphs cannot be included because they reproduce poorly in Braille. "America" may not be used to describe the United States. If you mention Einstein, you must elsewhere mention Madame Curie...and so endlessly on.
This bleaching-out of anything that might hurt the infinitely tender feelings of modern Americans—sorry! I mean "inhabitants of the U.S."—plumbed new depths of absurdity when "learning disabilities" became an issue in the 1990s. A test-taker afflicted with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder gets extra time to finish the SAT; but it took a decade or so of litigation to settle the issue. (During which time, Ferguson tells us, "the number of test takers claiming to suffer from ADHD rose dramatically." No kidding.)
Ferguson notes the widespread belief that higher education has become a "signaling system" for employers. A job applicant's possession of a college degree signals to the employer that this person has desirable levels of intelligence and diligence—of merit, as defined in Michael Young's 1958 classic The Rise of the Meritocracy: merit equals intelligence plus effort. It would be more efficient, certainly from the point of view of society at large, for a hiring firm or organization to assess job applicants' merit by giving them aptitude tests. This used routinely to be done. Then in 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. that such tests came within the scope of the odious and incoherent "disparate impact" doctrine, so that employers who gave such tests thenceforth have done so under threat of expensive litigation.
Ferguson: "The ban on employment tests was a solid blow against prejudice." That is twice wrong. There was no ban, only litigation-igniting restrictions on testing that terminally discouraged the practice. (It actually still survives in odd corners.) Nor was there any evidence of prejudice, only "disparate impact"—different races displaying different test-score profiles, a universal and intractable phenomenon, still with us in full force 40 years later, whose cause, though unknown, is demonstrably unrelated to "prejudice."
* * *
In the Basement of the Ivory Tower is a book-length version of an essay with the same title that appeared in the June 2008 issue of the Atlantic. The essay's subtitle, which sufficiently explains its theme, was: "The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. An instructor at a ‘college of last resort' explains why." The widely noticed essay circulated round the internet, gathering much commentary, some of which Professor X reproduces in his book.
The anonymous author actually teaches evening classes at two colleges, one private, one a community college. His own degree was, he tells us, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. That's what he teaches, more or less: required classes in writing to working people trying to improve their lives: young men in dead-end jobs who need college credits in order to become law-enforcement officers, health-care and public-sector workers who need college-level certification to advance at work, and others similarly placed.
* * *
As they freely admit, they are not in my classes because they want to be. The colleges require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass English 101 (Introduction to College Writing) and English 102 (Introduction to College Literature). Some of my students don't even want to be in college in the first place, but what choice do they have?
Not much. Nowadays a low-level clerking position needs a college accounting degree. Nurses, state troopers, dental hygienists, physical therapy assistants, even sales reps need two years of college. In the classified columns of newspapers, ads for jobs that do not actually demand college credit none the less end with the phrase "college preferred" much more often than not.
So here is Professor X flogging reluctant, work-weary evening classes through the basics of grammar, rhetoric, and composition. It reads to me like a vision of hell, though the author claims persuasively to find some satisfactions in it.
The wretched souls being tormented in that hell belong to the most oppressed, persecuted, and disadvantaged segment of our population: the un-bookish. Somehow we have arrived in the 21st century with a class of rulers so bereft of imagination they cannot conceive that anyone would wish to be less educated than themselves. When a politician addresses schoolchildren, it is to urge bookishness on them. Thus Barack Obama in his 2009 back-to-school address to the nation's students: "You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer, or a member of our military? You're going to need a good education for every single one of those careers." So much for mechanics, gardeners, fishermen, glaziers, loggers, athletes, barbers, truckers, cooks, butchers, roofers, miners, crane operators, manicurists, linemen, dancers, cameramen, steel fixers, personal trainers, carpenters, brewers, florists, ranchers, masons, potters.... The hell with them! "Ten thousand occupations are lowly; only book-learning is exalted." Thus the Chinese proverb: thus the attitude to useful, honest work in an imperial-bureaucratic despotism run by arrogant scholar-officials. How long can it be before our law-school elites begin sporting six-inch fingernails, like the Mandarins of old Peking?
* * *
Professor X strikes the right frank but sympathetic note towards his students: "They have no truck at all with books or any sort of intellectual commerce. They don't go anywhere where there are books, not even the college library." In a different chapter: "We were trying to make up...for a lifetime of not reading." Again: "I was teaching students who were in over their heads." The good professor writes eloquently of his efforts to acquaint his charges with poets: Adrienne Rich, Robert Creeley, Ted Hughes, John Donne. Perhaps he should have tried Philip Larkin: "Books are a load of crap."
The sympathy is plain on every page. In his own straitened financial circumstances, Professor X is in no position to condescend to his struggling students. Their lives are hard, and they are putting themselves through Book Hell in hopes of making some small improvement. It is appalling that they have to do this, spending their evenings floundering in useless material they cannot understand, when they ought to be at home with their families.
They're just trying to get to a place where they can make a buck. I find myself viewing the study of literature as one more indignity visited upon the proletariat, like too-frequent traffic stops and shoes with plastic uppers and payday loans.
It's hard to disagree. The internet comments on his original Atlantic essay included many that were vituperatively negative. The author includes a sample in Chapter 17: "Professor X doesn't really know what he's doing as a teacher"; "I feel sorry for Professor X's students"; "Professor X is a white-collar criminal"(!); "This article serves to suggest that a large portion of the (working-class) population is unteachable—and this simply isn't true."
Of course it isn't true, but it's not what Professor X is saying. He's saying that a large portion of that population is profoundly, constitutionally, metabolically un-bookish. That is true. The college rackets, with all their waste and pain and unhappiness and greed, are built around the denial of it.
* * *
If you write about this topic in the manner I have been doing here the commonest response is a jeer. Yeah, yeah. You scoff at the college business, but you'll bust a gut to get your own kids into a good college, won't you, Mr. Hypocrite?Actually, with one daughter in a modest public college, my gut, like Andrew Ferguson's, is intact. The jeerer has a point, though, and Professor X explains it in his book:
We are locked in a Mexican standoff.
Five groups point weapons at one another: the adjunct instructors, the colleges, the students, industry, and the American people in the person of the new sheriff in town, Barack Obama. Guns drawn, we are frozen. Nobody can move. How long can this go on?
A lone citizen can't resign from the stampede. He—actually his kids—would just get trampled to death. A stampede it is, though, without direction or purpose, and there's a fiscal cliff up ahead there somewhere, perhaps a civilizational one. Professor X is well placed to compare the real-estate bubble of a few years ago with the college-financing bubble of, well, today. He gives over a whole chapter to it (as does Andrew Ferguson).
There are some signs of resistance in our society. The "signaling" trope is now quite widely known. Many are coming to understand that—outside the professional schools and elite science research institutes—college is a credentialing machine with the purpose of marking graduates fit to enter some level of the meritocratic elite. It is, in other words, a sort of super-expensive and fantastically prolonged bris. Not much learning gets done. Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa carried out a study quantifying that fact, which is now available as a book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (reviewed in the CRB's Fall 2011 issue). Thirty-six percent of the students they tested "demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communications" across four years of college. Thirty-six percent!
* * *
The news may even be seeping down into our teenagers' silly heads. Here's a sample of three: Andrew Ferguson's son, my daughter, and my son. Neither of the first two displayed much enthusiasm for college. My wife and I are quietly agreed that our hardest task these next four years will be keeping up her interest at a level above the drop-out. And this is a bright and well-read—in fact bookish!—young woman. Our son, two years younger, declares his post-high-school preferences to be (1) the military, and (2) "ABC"—anything but college.
"How long can this go on?" That is only one of the questions raised by these two excellent books. Another is: What kind of citizens emerge from this lunacy? Andrew Ferguson ponders this in relation to the application essay.
It would also reward other characteristics, like narcissism, exhibitionism, Uriah Heep-ish insincerity, and the unwholesome thrill that some people get from gyrating before strangers. Which of these traits, I wondered, predicted scholarly aptitude or academic success?
I saw it at every turn, as my friend had said of Harvard: the system "privileged" a certain kind of kid. And if you weren't that kind of kid the best course was to figure out how to pretend you were.
And from there pass seamlessly into the ranks of our new ruling elite. Welcome to the Mandarinate. Love what you've done with those fingernails!