The Higher Education Bubble

Glenn Reynolds talks to Naomi Schafer Riley about the state of higher education. It’s a fascinating discussion, free of the overgeneralizations that plague discussions of this issue. Ron Lipsman, for example, claims that college education is now little more than indoctrination, except in certain areas of the hard sciences. That’s not so. Certain fields and courses are mostly indoctrination—almost anything with “Studies” in the title, for example—but undergraduate education overall is less politicized than many people on the right think. Fields such as philosophy, linguistics, and psychology still offer a solid education. Even in English and history, where research trends heavily to the left, much undergraduate teaching is fairly traditional. Students figure out which courses are politicized and steer away from them.

But Reynolds and Riley do a great job of pointing out that the quality of education in the humanities and social sciences has declined more rapidly than education in the natural sciences and engineering. Education even in those fields is not in good shape, however, and students graduating with degrees in the natural sciences are faring little better on the job market than their peers in other fields. Fewer than half of recent college graduates have found full-time employment—that compares to 97% under George W. Bush!—and job prospects in mathematics, physics, and even computer science are much worse than most people imagine.

What has gone wrong? (I mean with education. With the job market, the answer is easy: Obama!) As Reynolds and Riley observe, the chief culprit is specialization. Look through a university course schedule, if you can find one accessible to outsiders. You can still find excellent courses on core topics, even in the humanities. But they are swamped by highly specific courses, some of which may consist of indoctrination, but some of which are fine as far as they go. It’s just that they don’t add up to a coherent education.

Look at the fall upper-division (i.e., junior and senior) English offerings at my university. There are lots of great courses: Shakespeare; The English Novel in the 18th Century; the English Novel in the 19th Century; The Romantic Period; The 20th Century Short Story; Ernest Hemingway; and Chaucer. But, there’s also Introduction to Criticism; Language and Communication in Science Fiction; The Life and Literature of Southwest Mexican-Americans; Modernism and Literature; Citizen Kane and Company; The Animated Film as Text; Australian Literature and Film; Gypsy Language and Culture; Animal Humanities (?); The Paperback; Contemporary Pakistani Literature; Literature of Islamophobia (!!!); The Literature of AIDS in Africa; Language and Gender; Gender/Torture/State in Crisis (!!!); Gender, Sexuality, and Migration (!); Asian-American Memoirs and Stories; Illustrating African-American Literature; The Black Middle Class (this is an English course?); and Writing Slavery. A student who chooses mostly from the first list will get a good education in English Literature. A student who chooses mostly from the second list will get random glimpses into literature, with a huge helping of politics and armchair sociology.

Or, consider History. Again, many upper-division courses seem excellent: History of Rome—The Republic; The History of Modern Science; The Scientific Revolution; The History of Britain, from the Restoration to 1783; The American Revolution and the Founding of the U.S., 1763-1800; Germany in the Twentieth Century; Origins of Modern Japan; The Coming of the Civil War, 1829-1861; History of the American Presidency; History of Greece to the End of the Peloponnesian War; The French Revolution and Napoleon; The First World War; Jews of Eastern Europe; U.S. Economic History Since 1880; and Tudor England, 1485-1603. Some courses might be politicized, but the topics themselves are fine: The History of Southern Africa; History of the Caribbean; History of the Civil Rights Movement; Muslim India Before 1750; Modern Latin America; The Domestic Slave Trade; Health and Illness in American History; The Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920; and The History of Prague. And some courses seem suspect: History of Globalization; The Spanish Inquisition; Metropolis in Modern Europe; History of Imperialism; Consuming America; History of American Feminism; History of Black Travel; U.S. Media, Culture, and Commerce; Environmental History of North America; Women in Postwar America; American Popular Culture, 1682-present; Marx and Western Marxism; Modern European Food History; The Church and the Jews; Cultural Citizenship in the U.S. and Latin America; and Women and Social Movements in the U.S. Again, a student who chooses mostly from the first list gets an excellent education. But a student who doesn’t gets a frequently politicized, incoherent bundle of narrow topics.

Contrast these fields with Mathematics. Upper-division courses include Discrete Mathematics; Advanced Calculus for Applications I and II; Number Theory; Structure of Modern Geometry; Probability Modeling with Actuarial Applications; Matrices and Matrix Calculations; Linear Algebra and Matrix Theory; Scientific Computation in Numerical Analysis; The Theory of Functions of a Complex Variable; Real Analysis; Probability; Applied Statistics; Stochastic Processes; Topology; Algebraic Structures; and Partial Differential Equations and Applications. There’s not much way to go wrong.

The overall point: You can still get a great education in the humanities and social sciences. But you’re not likely to get one unless you know what to look for. In the natural sciences, it’s hard not to get a great education. Epictetus said, “Do not write so that you can be understood, write so that you cannot be misunderstood.” In the natural sciences, the faculty teach, not so that people can be educated, but so that they can’t fail to be educated, and in particular can’t be miseducated. (They don’t always succeed in this, but that’s another issue.) In the humanities and social sciences, with a few exceptions, the faculty teach so that people can be educated, but too many students fail to be educated, or are actually miseducated.

Is the solution to abolish tenure? To give administrators more power and the faculty less? To place greater emphasis on teaching rather than research? To reform hiring, promotion, and reward practices? I don’t know. But I’m sure it’s not to throw more money into the system.

2 thoughts on “The Higher Education Bubble

  1. “You can still get a great education in the humanities and social sciences. But you’re not likely to get one unless you know what to look for.”

    I’m not sure that’s really even true. It’s truly difficult to organize a curriculum of general courses for a basic, broad education at the college level at your university. There’s overlap and gaps in the course topics; there is no internal protocol for the guidance of students to this end (nearly all of the so-called advisors are adept at box-checking for course requirements but not at assessing the quality of the overall curriculum) and so “if you know what to look for” is a bit useless for the average 17 y/o. Of course, the parents trust the school to give their child a great education because they are paying so much money for the privilege, but exert no control.

  2. You’re absolutely right. Students generally don’t know what they should have taken until it’s too late. Unless, of course, they read this blog!

    The box-checking you mention is actually a huge problem. Both students and advisers must devote most of their attention to that; educational quality is a secondary consideration. It’s even more a problem in the natural sciences than in the humanities. In Mathematics, for example, to graduate you have to be on one of six tracks, each of which is highly detailed. You can’t just take the math courses that interest you and make sense given your goals. But a good, completely free beginning to higher education reform would be to eliminate almost all course requirements and simplify requirements for majors. A friend tells me that when he was at Brown the requirements for graduation were “thirty courses at Brown.” Period. That isn’t ideal, but it would be vastly better than where we are now, where students have to accumulate “writing flags,” “global culture” flags, “marginalized minority” flags, etc.

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