Resolving the Crisis in Higher Education

By Douglas, Jack D. | USA TODAY, January 1993 | Go to article overview

Resolving the Crisis in Higher Education


Douglas, Jack D., USA TODAY


Allowing parents to deduct a portion of college expenses from their taxes and granting eligible students vouchers to use in qualified institutions can bring an end to inefficient bureaucracies of evolving megaversities.

THE PUBLICATION of A Nation at Risk in 1983 shocked most Americans into realizing that the US. faces a crisis in public lower education that is contributing greatly to the erosion of its standard of living and international competitive position. One consequence of that shock therapy was the diversion of attention from the crisis of public higher education, which enrolls 75% of American college students.

Since the U.S. spends roughly twice as much on public lower education as on public higher education, now nearly $200,000,000,000 a year, and since lower education affects all later learning, the public should be more concerned with the "primary crisis." Americans must recognize that our education crisis is systemic and that solutions will be found only by restructuring the system from top to bottom. Even if we managed to transform our high school graduates into the world's best educated, while our colleges continued to produce ever less real learning, we rapidly would fall behind Japan and Europe.

The limited media attention given to higher education usually is focused on the widespread politicization of course material; enforcement of "politically correct" dogmas that kill the very spirit of general education; epidemic spread of student cheating; raft of exposed cases of scientific fraud; corrupt "milking" of research grants through bloated indirect costs; proliferation of new "research" publications intended only to secure grants and tenure; use of quotas that waive standards and fairness; wholesale destruction of academic standards in many athletic programs; and growing alienation and conflict on many campuses. All contribute to the decline of learning in our colleges, but do not in themselves reveal how widespread the decline is, nor are they the most important underlying causes of the general decline.

The best evidence is the growing alarm expressed by the most experienced professors of all political persuasions and many disciplines. Long before E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and others began to measure the declining cultural literacy of students, professors knew from their classes that students' basic knowledge of history, literature, science, economics, politics, geography, current events, and much else was plummeting. Even worse, the drop in knowledge was accompanied by a decline in the basic skills of rational thought and expression. John Searle, a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, the "star" of elite public universities, noted with alarm: "One of the most depressing things about educated people today is that so few of them, even among professional intellectuals, are able to follow the steps of a simple logical argument."

Few academics were surprised in 1985 when the Association of American Colleges stated flatly that "evidence of decline and devaluation is everywhere." Few significant disagreements were published when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching reported in 1989 that 67% of their nationwide sample of professors agreed "there has been a widespread lowering of standards in American higher education"; a mere 18% disagreed.

Liberal academics, such as Harvard University president Derek Bok, scoffed at the explosion of conservative publications decrying the decay of standards, especially Allan Bloom's best seller, The Closing of the American Mind. None of those was as devastating or as sweeping as the indictment of the "elite" universities by Page Smith, a liberal historian and provost of the University of California at Santa Cruz. The very title of his book gives pause--Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America. His evidence from inside the University of California and the other elite universities is stunning to outsiders. …

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