Higher Education?


In an otherwise confused and incomprehensible discussion about academic life in the NY Times, Mark C Taylor made one comment that I actually agree with: “Nothing represses the free expression of ideas more than the long and usually fruitless quest for tenure.” I’ll leave aside whether or  not it’s a fruitless quest, but Andrew Hacker makes a similar case in The Atlantic.

A lot of the pressure to publish is tied in with the pressure to earn tenure. You argue that tenure actually doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do—it doesn’t preserve academic freedom.

Here’s what happens. Academics typically don’t get tenured until the age of 40. This means that from their years as graduate students and then assistant professors, from age 25 through 38 or 39, they have to toe the line. They have to do things in the accepted way that their elders and superiors require. They can’t be controversial and all the rest. So tenure is, in fact, the enemy of spontaneity, the enemy of intellectual freedom. We’ve seen this again and again. And even people who get tenure really don’t change. They keep on following the disciplinary mode they’ve been trained to follow.

Good point, but Hacker completely overstates his case by parodying typical fears from outside academia I hear all the time:

What bothers us, too, is that over 300,000 professors have it. That’s a tremendous number. What that means is these people never leave. There’s hardly any turnover in the senior ranks—not just at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford but at small colleges in Kentucky, everywhere. You go to a campus and over two thirds of the faculty have been there at least 25 years. They begin to stagnate. In many ways, they become infantilized, embroiled in ideological issues like faculty parking.

Hacker is plugging his new book, Higher Education? In it, Hacker and his co-author Claudia Dreifus argue what goes on on college campuses these days is neither “education” nor “higher.”   The culprit? Well, the academic system stresses research over against teaching and job training over against the liberal arts. At times, Hacker seems a bit cranky, but I think he’s right about the amount of needless craptastic drek floating around:

That’s a strong theme in the book: professors spend their time doing research and teaching relatively few classes, and students end up footing the bill. Are you against the idea of faculty research altogether, or do you think some research deserves to be funded by universities?

The problem is that there are just too many publications and too many people publishing. This is true even in the hard sciences. If there’s a research project on genetics in a lab, they will take certain findings and break them into eight different articles just so each researcher can get more stuff on his or her resume.

And many of the publications are too long. A book on Virginia Woolf could be a 30-page article. Somebody did a count of how many publications had been written on Virginia Woolf in the past 15 years. The answer is several thousand. Really? Who needs this? But it’s awfully difficult to say, “Here’s knowledge we don’t need!” It sounds like book burning, doesn’t it?

I can’t help but think that maybe Hacker should take a cue from, well, himself.  Could his book be reduced to a 30 page article (or interview)? Regardless, I think Hacker is right about this:

What we’d say is that on the scale of priorities, we find undergraduate teaching to be more important than all the research being done.

3 thoughts on “Higher Education?

  1. We loved your post! I am particularly taken with your phrase Craptasitc Academic Drek.

    I suspect I know what it means and that I’ve stepped on it more often than I’d like to recall. But it would be fascinating to hear your definition. Do tell…

    To your question: our 270 page book, we do not believe, could be boiled down to 30. We cover too much ground: the whole of American way of higher ed. But you’re the best judge of that. Do let us know what you think.

    The book is to be released to some acclaim and yes, distress on Tuesday.

    Best, Claudia Dreifus

  2. Thanks for commenting, Claudia. Really, I was only semi-serious about the book vs article comment (I couldn’t help myself), but I did think that the exchange in The Atlantic seemed to distill some of the major theses of the book. Looking forward to reading it nonetheless.

    As far as “Craptastic Academic Drek,” it’s just a silly term I use to describe phenomenon much like Hacker discussed in the interview exerpt above. However, I don’t think of academic drek as necessarily useless, but rather, something akin to “the emperor has no clothes,” or even more cynically, “a line on the cv.” Anyone that’s done some serious research knows that much of the secondary literature (at least in my field) clogging up the library and interwebs is, for the most part, not very interesting and horribly repetitive (if not narcissistic). Some examples: books that are basically a bunch of loosely related journal articles strung together as to make us think it’s a unified whole and articles that do nothing more than summarize a thinker’s position.

  3. I’ve read the excerpt on their website, it’s some pretty interesting stuff: like Williams (MA) has 70% of their staff not related to teaching at all (positions such as “partner/spouse employment specialist” and so on). They ask if college is becoming more of a resort than an educational institution in that excerpt, since most of the “services” provided to students are not really educational at all. Less and less attention and time is dedicated to teaching/learning, even if ubiquitous centers for “teaching and learning” are opening up everywhere.

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