Is higher education really in crisis?


I received a friendly invitation from Consider Again to comment on his latest post about the higher education bubble.  In making my comment, I found I had a full blown post.

Indeed, the bubble exists.  There is an “irrational exuberance” on the part of consumers with respect to higher education.  For deeply ingrained cultural reasons, demand for the product is highly inelastic.  It would be cathartic for the bubble to burst.  Better yet, for it to gently deflate.

The idea of crisis or a problem with higher education itself is largely illusory.  The real problem is that so many people expect the four year college experience to supplant a maturation process that should have happened while the child was still at home.  The problem will resolve only when our culture accepts that college should not be a necessity for each individual’s success.

It seems consumers value higher education for two distinct purposes.  First is the classic humanist ideal that education helps you become a better person.  Second is the economic utility that comes from enhancing the future marketability of the student’s labor.  Our society suffers needlessly for expecting higher education to deliver these two values together.  We’d do better to ensure that formation of a good citizen comes first, and is effectively carried out by the K-12 system.  Then, if parents and students choose, they may pursue higher education to enhance job prospects or to gain admittance into specialized careers.

The ongoing failure of the K-12 system to consistently produce well-informed citizens is a major drag on higher education.  There’s misguided pressure on universities to make up for that failure.  The University of California campuses implement some form of a “general education” requirement that is supposed to ensure a well-rounded experience.  But why duplicate what should have been done at the K-12 level?  At least the system could excuse students who grew up in state and should have already met the state’s basic standards.

Consumers aren’t the only ones to overestimate the value of an education.  The producers are just as off-base.  State universities are keen to stay competitive with top private universities that thrive off of massive endowments.  Neither state nor Federal taxpayer dollars can make up the gap for administrator salaries or luxury dorms in the higher ed arms race, let alone keep up with the steadily rising cost of worker health and retirement benefits.

This reality of course irks those who read a progressive sense of fairness and equality into the land grant mission.  But look how land grant universities started.  Only a small fraction of the work force utilized the system.  In the postwar period, that fraction grew remarkably.  Stuck between ever increasing enrollment, a highly competitive environment, and an all around disdain for tuition hikes, land grant schools have become just another victim of rising expectations.  It would take a very brave university president or chancellor to level with his or her community and declare the truth that too much is being offered to too many for too little.  Something has to give.

Then again, remember the higher ed crisis is illusory.  Like the White House’s current gun control drive, this is a propped up anxiety meant as news fodder.  The reality is that any prospective student worth her salt has the ability to take stock of a vast array of potential educational options, earn, borrow, or be awarded money for that end, and set goals accordingly.  A pricey four-year university education may be what she needs.  Then again, some of the happiest and most well off people in our society are those who never went to college.


El muralismo on campus


Murals on college campuses can be weird and creepy.  When I visited University of Wisconsin, Madison a few years ago, I discovered one of them right in the midst of the student union.  From all other appearances, the union is wonderful.  It overlooks a large wooded lake, and there’s what looks to be a beer hall where students can weather the cold winters in contentment.  But when I went there, I found one room of the complex featuring twin murals facing each other.  They depicted landscapes and struggles, rich with a diversity of people, men and women of all races.

The controversial element of the mural is somewhat obscured in this official UW Madison photograph.

What did I do when I saw this?  Something I do whenever confronted with a work of this nature: I performed a white man check (disclosure: I am not a white man).  On one of the murals, the only two figures who appeared more than likely to be white men happened to each have a noose around their neck.  Perhaps they were martyrs for some good cause.  But I suspect the mural might have run into resistance if the noose had been around any minority status necks.  Really, does the heart of a Federally subsidized land grant university need to be so edgy?

Back on the Left Coast, the University of California, Davis, has its own diversity mural on the wall of its Memorial Union.  It depicts people, artifacts, and architecture from diverse cultures.  Performing the white man check on it reveals a forlorn-looking marble bust from Western antiquity, sulking in the far corner, while a colorfully painted Mesoamerican leads the rest of the world in a rollicking two-dimensional block party.

"The Unfinished Dream," UC Davis

The bust from Western antiquity (far left) looks a little bummed out compared to his Mesoamerican friend. (DavisWiki)

Another mural undertaken last year on the same campus elicited some unexpected criticisms from community members who felt underrepresented by it.  Critiques included that the mural did not represent students of Southeast Asian descent more clearly, and that it failed to recognize the campus LGBT community by the newer, more bleeding-edge politically correct moniker: LGBTQIAA.  The school newspaper’s editorial board recognized the absurdity of expecting such a project to so meticulously account for all “body types, sexualities, hair types and cultures.”

Unrealistic expectations aside, campus murals are often unsuitable to universities, inasmuch as they are supposed to adorn places safe for open intellectual inquiry.  El muralismo, the Mexican school of murals developed by Diego Rivera and others in the 1920s, inevitably incorporates themes of popular revolution and uprising.  Thick, sturdy figures populate brown-washed scenes of agrarian landscapes alternating with molten-lit caverns industrial might.  The imagery recalls the regrettable chapter of global history when national governments promised utopias by pursuing various forms of totalitarianism.

Portion of “Man at the Crossroads” by Diego Rivera. Note Vladimir Lenin at far right. (Wikimedia)

It’s incredible that significant parts of academic culture, so wary of fixed truth, would readily employ a format devised as unabashed propaganda.  Large and imposing, murals tend to bully a public space.  One will think twice before reading Thomas Sowell or mentioning William F. Buckley while under the watchful gaze of social revolutionaries.  Today, murals are not in service of class revolution as much as a progressive conception of diversity that feels awkward being in the same room as Plato and Thomas Aquinas.  Or Thomas Jefferson for that matter.

Winston Churchill

That stalwart defender of Britain, Winston Churchill. (Wikimedia)

To the extent that the universities’ commissioned artists might draw upon muralismo, diversity can’t even be properly served.  The range of physical differences among races, such as they might be conceived, tend to be limited when manifested.  Rather than people who look distinctly white, black, Asian, or whatever, everyone in these murals seems to have a tame variant of a mocha complexion.  The format is not just ideologically rooted, it is ethnically rooted.  To be clear, nothing is wrong with Mesoamerican culture and people themselves.  Problems of a related sort would emerge if a student association chose to depict diversity through Chinese scroll paintings or any other single format with a strong cultural association.

The next time some university entity contemplates public art for their campus community, they ought to look beyond the muralismo tradition.  It seems newer state schools are generally bereft of a classic form of art: statues cast in metal.  You know, like Lord Nelson at Trafalgar Square, or Winston Churchill near Westminster.  Maybe they’re avoided because there have been too many dead white men honored by the medium.

Reflecting on Campus thought police

In my recent post Campus Thought Police, I suggested that all the attention campuses pay to hate crimes and intolerance ends up diminishing individuals’ sense of agency and empowerment.  Looking at it after the fact, I wondered if I could make the connection more clear.

To clarify on sense of agency: when the community is given no sense of progress, it comes to feel powerless.

The messaging that comes from the campus establishment treats hate and intolerance as if they were perennial, unparalleled mortal dangers.  The constant use of such an urgent tone makes it seem as if the Civil Rights era counted for nothing.

But there has been much progress.  Racism, sexism, and other bad -isms have become stigmas to a culture that is now loathe to harbor stigmas.  Nonetheless, instead of placing us somewhere on the long arc of the moral universe, campus voices convey to us that we are in a Sisyphean task: rolling the boulder ever up the hill with nothing to show for it.  The unending klaxon calling us to battle stations against intolerance eventually convinces us that we are fighting some insurmountable evil.  No reasonable observer can maintain hope if they take the academy’s message at face value.

To clarify on empowerment: activism shunts individuals to the radical margin when they should be integrating with the mainstream.

All the prevalent theories on race, class, gender, and so on shove earnest young souls like cattle onto the divisive boat of oppression politics.  If they stay for the ride, they go on to commit civil disobedience, plan direct actions, and lead generally counterproductive lives.  The dogma that they are in mortal combat with oppressive forces locks them necessarily into solidarity and cooperation.  For the sake of comrades and self, they’re never free to think that oppression may not actually define their existence.

But if their worldview is mistaken, then in all their sound and fury they are missing their true calling.  Instead of uncritically fighting on some far flung front of the war on oppression, students should be preparing to constructively enter a society that is on balance more just than unjust.  They should experience the wonderful challenge of interpersonal competition rather than the dull drumbeat to cooperate with comrades.  The university prides itself as a marketplace of ideas, but if there is any such competition, it hasn’t pierced the Berlin Wall that upholds the politically correct dictums of the academic establishment.

Campus leaders’ actual if unintended conveyance of a lack of progress erodes onlookers’ sense of agency.  The shunting of students into unfruitful radicalism not only bereaves society but dis-empowers the students as well.  The leading voices of the academy need to re-examine the message they’re sending to the world.

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