The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been paying close attention to the War on College for quite some time, and it has concluded that the state of higher education is simply awful. College is just a horrible place to send your children — because you are spending obscene sums of money for a substandard education.
The reasons why it’s a substandard education can get a bit confusing at times, however. Best not to think too much about it.
You still want to think about it? Okay, but I warn you, you’re not going to like my conclusions.
This week two cover stories came out about the state of higher education. Both were very critical of the status quo, but for very different reasons. Let’s start with the Atlantic’s cover story by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Lukianoff and Haidt chronicle the rise of a new wave of political correctness on campuses.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense….
The press has typically described these developments as a resurgence of political correctness. That’s partly right, although there are important differences between what’s happening now and what happened in the 1980s and ’90s. That movement sought to restrict speech (specifically hate speech aimed at marginalized groups), but it also challenged the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives. The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.
This is a topic I’ve talked about in this space before, where I’ve wondered about just how prevalent it is. That said, Lukianoff and Haidt’s essay deserves a close read, both because of the evidence they bring to the table and because of the extremely clever way that they show how this wave of political correctness stifles the intellectual and emotional development of students.
Okay, so apparently college campuses have been hijacked by lefty thugs trying to brainwash everyone into their P.C.-speak and– wait, what’s this other cover story? This one in Harper’s? By William “Excellent Sheep” Deresiewicz, entitled “The Neoliberal Arts“? What is he saying now?
College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly [leadership, service, and creativity].
This is education in the age of neoliberalism. Call it Reaganism or Thatcherism, economism or market fundamentalism, neoliberalism is an ideology that reduces all values to money values. The worth of a thing is the price of the thing. The worth of a person is the wealth of the person. Neoliberalism tells you that you are valuable exclusively in terms of your activity in the marketplace—in Wordsworth’s phrase, your getting and spending.
The rest of Deresiewicz’s essay is, in essence, a coda to Excellent Sheep: college has abandoned the goals of intellectual and moral education, sacrificed at the altar of preparing college students for the cruel mistress of the marketplace.
So right now, if you’re like me, you’re feeling a bit like Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown”:
Is it possible for both Deresiewicz and Lukianoff and Haidt to be right? Is it possible for colleges to be swaddling students in political correctness while at the same time cruelly surrendering to neoliberal market forces? After all, Lukianoff and Haidt say explicitly that “vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong (emphasis added).” If that is true, then one of these accusations would have to be false.
There is a way that elements of both articles can contain a grain of truth, however. In her Bloomberg column on the Lukianoff and Haidt essay, Megan McArdle identifies it:
[H]ere’s a candidate Haidt and Lukianoff don’t mention: the steady shift toward viewing college as a consumer experience, rather than an institution that is there to shape you toward its own ideal. I don’t want to claim that colleges used to be idylls in which the deans never worried about collecting tuition checks; colleges have always worried about attracting enough students. But cultural and economic shifts have pushed students toward behaving more like consumers in a straight commercial transaction, and less like people who were being inducted into a non-market institution.
Mass education, and the rise of colleges as labor market gatekeepers, have transformed colleges from a place to be imbued with the intangible qualities of character and education that the elite wanted their children to have, and into a place where you go to buy a ticket to a good job. I strongly suspect that the increasing importance of student loans also plays a role, because control over the tuition checks has shifted from parents to students. And students are more worried about whether their experience is unpleasant than are parents, who are most interested in making sure their child is prepared for adulthood.
And here we arrive at a way to thread this needle of collective criticism. The one thing that Deresiewicz, Lukianoff, Haidt and McArdle all agree on, surprisingly enough, is that higher education should be a non-market institution. The point of college is not merely to cater to consumer demands, whether one defines the consumers as “college students” or “the firms that will eventually hire those college students.” A vital function of universities is to convert young people into thinkers who can critically analyze the very society that they are about to join. But when people are ponying up vast sums of money to attend these places, it becomes more difficult for college administrations to ignore the whims of their students.
I still don’t think all of these critiques mesh together perfectly. Nor, as a professor, am I entirely persuaded by them (as Virginia Postrel has noted in the past, contra Deresiewicz, a liberal arts education generates very useful skills in the marketplace). But I fear that the political impulse to “do something” about it will make everything worse. As Lukianoff and Haidt note, changes in federal regulations are partly responsible for the growth of political correctness. And as Deresiewicz notes, changes in state government attitudes toward their universities are responsible for the trends he deplores.
No, the only way you’re going to make universities less willing to buy into the “student-as-customer-who-is-always-right” ethos is to make them financially autonomous enough to exercise some independent authority. Which is the one thing that critics of higher education are currently loathe to do. As colleges find themselves under political attack from all sides, suggesting that they need more money is going to be a tough sell.