Book Reviews -- Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America by Page Smith

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Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America. By Page Smith. New York: Viking. 1990. xvii +316 pp.

Killing the Spirit belongs on the shelf next to Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals and Charles Sykes's ProfScam--or perhaps one shelf higher. Page Smith comments somewhat favorably on Sykes, Allan Bloom, William Bennett, and the Nation Association of Scholars, and is probably best described as a "cultural conservative." However, Killing the Spirit is more humane and less strident than other recent conservative critiques of higher education.

In fact, most of Smith's book is not a critique of the present-day university, but rather a history of American higher education and academic disciplines. As history, Killing the Spirit is generally convincing and even-handed, and deserves to be read by all who care about liberal education.

As a work about the present, Killing the Spirit is unsatisfying. Smith, a former history professor and administrator, last worked at a university 15 years prior to writing the book. His comments about the status quo at universities must therefore be taken as the observations of an outsider, albeit an outsider with years of teaching experience, primarily at elite schools.

The main point about which I would disagree with Smith is his assumption that professors run the universities and are therefore to blame for the decline of higher education (a decline which, by the way, is not persuasively demonstrated). Smith stops short of a sustained critical analysis of the administrators, boards of trustees, politicians, and benefactors who have the power to hire, fire, reward, and punish the professors who supposedly rule the roost.

Similarly, in his zeal to enumerate the transgressions of many of the major liberal arts disciplines (most of which I would not dispute), Smith almost entirely overlooks the schools of business and other professional schools that play such a dominant role at many universities. Which has done more to "kill the spirit" of higher education--the deconstructionism Smith criticizes, or the undergraduate business curriculum that he ignores?

Smith rightly criticizes mass lecture classes, use of TAs to do the teaching that professors should be doing, overspecialization, bureaucratization, and the lack of spirituality in academic life. What he fails to do is offer a credible explanation for these phenomena, or any useful solution. For Smith, the problems result mainly from the triumph of "Secular Democratic Consciousness" (science, progress, the Enlightenment) over "Classical Christian Consciousness" (religion, tradition, the Reformation). This is rather believable in the abstract, but it does not explain mass lecture classes. The cult of efficiency and management in higher education--the idea that the university is a business and should be run like one--does not originate with hapless, godless professors of anthropology, literature, and women's studies. They may often acquiesce too readily to such notions, but let us not fail to note where the business ethic originates--in business. …