Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education

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Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education

by Murray Sperber

Henry Holt & Co. * 2000 * 352 pages * $26.00

Spokesmen for the higher education establishment can be counted on to do two things: first, to proclaim that America's higher ed system is the best in the world, and second, to plead for more government funding. Fortunately, there are naysayers on both counts, and it is especially interesting to find the occasional education "insider" who is willing to dissent from the orthodoxy.

Professor Murray Sperber is not opposed to government funding (he has been teaching English at Indiana University for almost 30 years), but can't stomach the canard that American higher ed is marvelous. In his view, undergraduate education is little more than an expensive joke at many of our "elite" universities, and in his new book, Beer and Circus, he explains why it is in an advanced state of decay. The book's subtitle identifies his villain-in-chief, but his story weaves together several strands. Also complicit are university administrators bent on achieving "prestige" status at all costs and faculty members who are so fixated on their own "research" projects that they treat undergraduate teaching as nothing more than a necessary evil. The triangle of athletic directors, starry-eyed administrators, and faculty members who try to avoid teaching has indeed made a terrible mess at many schools. (Sperber's school, Indiana University, is still reeling from the events surrounding the dismissal of long-time basketball coach Bobby Knight.)

Here's his conclusion: "[M]any universities, because of their emphasis on research and graduate programs, and because of their inability to provide quality undergraduate education to most of their students, spend increasing amounts of money on their athletic departments, and use big-time college sports-commercial entertainment around which many undergraduates organize their hyperactive social lives-to keep their students happy and distracted and the tuition dollars rolling in." I think he is right, but leaves out a crucial element, namely the pervasive dumbing down of education at the lower levels. More on that later.

Sperber has nothing against sports per se. The root of the problem is that many university administrators are not content to preside over an institution that simply teaches students. There isn't much prestige in that. No, what confers prestige (in the eyes of the higher ed community, anyway) is having a retinue of graduate schools and research programs. That requires hiring academic "stars" who will demand high salaries in return for doing a tiny amount of teaching but lots of research and writing. …