What’s Wrong?

A recent piece in the New York Review of Books takes a look at the narratives now circulating about American colleges, where something appears to be very wrong. Locating the real problem, however, turns out to be pretty difficult, according to Princeton historian Anthony Grafton. Grafton writes:

Postsecondary education stretches from the tree-shaded Olympuses of the Ivy-plus private group and the imposing quadrangles of the great public universities to urban community colleges that run twelve hours a day, surrounded only by vast parking lots that are never big enough to accommodate everyone. It’s private and public, mass and elite, ancient and ivy-covered, contemporary and cutting-edge. No generalization could do justice to this vast and varied scene.

That doesn’t stop people from trying, however.

Many—perhaps most—books on the American university fall into two categories. A fair number of them conform to a single type…. Instead of examining these complex communities from multiple points of view, they single out one group of actors as villains. Instead of offering detailed accounts of particular colleges and universities, which could give a sense of the rhythms and textures of academic lives, they pile up stories clipped from popular media and Web pages; describe individual experiences, often egregious ones, as if they marked a general rule; and recycle anecdotes already worn smooth by the handling they have undergone in previous polemical works.

The other set of books is very different. Seriously researched, rich in data, and sometimes adorned with dozens of tables that the uninitiated may find cryptic, works like The Chosen (2005) by Jerome Karabel, Unmaking the Public University (2008) by Christopher Newfield, Crossing the Finish Line (2009) by William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, and Michael McPherson, and Academically Adrift (2011) by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa focus on particular aspects of the system. They excavate a world of ugly facts and unsatisfactory practices that has the gritty look and feel of reality—a reality that has little to do with the glossy hype of world university ratings.

The trouble, according to Grafton, is that neither type of book really helps American citizens understand what’s going on in higher education, perhaps because the system is so complex and varied. What he wants is some sort of deep dive into a single university to describe how the whole institution functions. This, perhaps, will illustrate what’s wrong.

Best of all would be for enterprising publishers to find curious writers and have them describe some universities and colleges, in detail, with all their defects. The polemical books, even those that have some substance, end up slinging mud… more often than laying out the evidence. The empirical studies, with a very few exceptions, are deliberately cast in such general terms, and written in such a value- and metaphor-free style, that they won’t reach anyone without a professional interest. Neither sort would give an intelligent outsider—say, a parent or student, a regent or a trustee—a vivid picture of a year’s life and work at a college or university, as it is experienced by all parties; much less a lucid explanation of how finance and pedagogy, bad intentions and good execution shape one another in the academic world.

First of all, I would love to write that book. Seriously, sign me up. But it’s unclear how that would matter much. That’s because the individual story and the greater problem are actually connected but the anecdote might not fully illustrate the problem.

Grafton writes about two recent books of the single-out-one-group-of-actors-as-villains type.

[Naomi Schaefer] Riley provides a well-informed and depressing account of the mistreatment of adjunct and contingent faculty. [Benjamin] Ginsberg rightly points out that numbers of administrators and professional staffers have grown far more quickly than numbers of faculty, pushing up the costs that students and their families pay without enhancing the academic side of their experience. But when Riley dismisses most research as worthless because a few senior academics say it is, or Ginsberg dismisses the entire class of administrators as idlers interested only in the next pointless conference in Hawaii, both take flight into a realm of higher snark that is fun to read but ultimately unhelpful.

Well no. My parents are college administrators and I’m fairly certain my mother’s never been to a conference at a location more exotic than Boston. I’m also sure she’s hard-working and very talented. If I were writing about the institution where she works I’d be sure to point that out.

But that’s irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that colleges can still be employing and spending too much money on college administrators even if everyone who works there does his job really well and routinely works 70 hours a week. It’s not the administrators who are the problem; it’s a system that maintains so many administrators.

This is also true of the way students operate. Journalists can spend years at universities chronicling the academic and social lives of students and come up with the conclusion that students work pretty hard and also drink a lot of beer.

True enough, but that won’t tell the reader if students are learning much, or learning as much as they could, or learning as much as they would have if they’d attended the same school 30 years ago.

“Is there a crisis in higher education?” Grafton asks. Apparently the books now available to read don’t reveal the answer. Well, fair enough, but if you’re not convinced now another story about an individual college probably won’t illustrate that problem very well.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer