Higher Ed: An Obituary

New Criterion, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Higher Ed: An Obituary


The fate of American higher education has been a central concern of The New Criterion from its very first issue in September 1982. About academia, as about other cultural institutions--the art museums, orchestras, media and entertainment industries, as well as the law and those social institutions through which the past perpetuates itself into the present--The New Criterion has cast a wary eye, celebrating the vital, where it can be found, but also criticizing the many signs of decadence and irresponsibility wherever they have been on display, which, alas, has been almost everywhere. When it came to the academic world, our chief complaints have revolved around the anti-Western politicization of intellectual life. We focused on the way ideology subjugated the life of the mind to the hermetic lucubrations of deconstruction, post-structuralism, and all the other increasingly quaint-sounding efforts to dismiss or subvert the main currents of what Matthew Arnold famously extolled as "the best that has been thought and said in the world."

There has never been any shortage of material. Since the onslaughts of the 1960s, anyway, the world of academia has presented critical observers concerned with upholding that Arnoldian ideal with a pullulating embarrassment of, well, not riches, exactly: let's just call it one large, dissectible embarrassment and leave it at that.

None of what we have anatomized these thirty-odd years has gone away. If anything, the politicization of the university is worse now than it was when The New Criterion first appeared on the scene. If "the closing of the American mind" or the careers of "tenured radicals" grab fewer headlines today, it is because the realities they name have lost the luster of novelty. They are now the common, institutionalized status quo that defines university life for most of twenty million plus souls who are now matriculated in what we still describe (and with a straight face) as "higher education."

It is not surprising that many observers despair of achieving fundamental, recuperative change in the institutions of higher education. Decades of withering criticism haven't done much to move the needle, not least because parents still look to the credential of a BA, especially a BA from a prestigious venue, as a card of entry to the good life of the American dream.

That assumption, we believe, is about to change--is already changing. There are several sources of pressure. One has to do with the changing nature of the American dream itself: Can our society, debt-ridden as it is, continue to offer widespread material rewards to millions of college graduates?

Two related but separate issues revolve around the inner metabolism of higher education, in particular its astronomical and still escalating costs and--an even bigger reality--the wave of technological innovation that is poised to break over the entire institution of higher education like a tsunami.

Elsewhere in this issue, James Bowman ruminates on the economist Herb Stein's observation that whatever can't go on forever, won't, and he explores this idea's applicability to politics. Mr. Bowman denominates that seeming tautology as "Stein's Law." It is said that tautologies, being necessary truths, can have no contingent, i.e., real-life consequences. "It is what it is," "Que sera, sera": such cliches add nothing to our stock of knowledge because their predicate is merely a repetition of their subject. But such statements can often seem earthshaking because we sometimes have failed to take on board the reality named in the first proposition. We do not quite believe, for example, that the escalating cost of higher education cannot go on as it has because, well, because it has gone on just fine until now.

It was the law professor (and prominent internet commentator) Glenn Reynolds who first popularized the phrase "higher education bubble." Drawing on Stein's Law, Reynolds argued that the market for higher education, like the housing market before it, is on an unsustainable, inflationary path.

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