Class and the Classroom
February 1, 2015                    

Class and the Classroom

How Elite Universities Are Hurting America

By George Scialabba

GEORGE SCIALABBA is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? and For the Republic. He is a contributing editor of The Baffler.


One of the most fruitful ideas to emerge from twentieth-century social theory is Max Weber's notion of the "iron cage" of purposive rationality. Weber argued that once some principle of organization--market competition, say, or ideological orthodoxy--has achieved dominance in the spheres of production and governance, the rest of a society's institutions find themselves gradually but inexorably adopting the same principle. In an ideology-dominant society, everything fluid turns to stone; in a market-dominant society, everything solid melts into air.

Not everything, of course. The iron cage is, like most other useful theoretical notions, an ideal type. All societies retain protected (or neglected) spaces where not-yet-rationalized traditions and communities flourish. Still, although the mills of rationalization turn slowly, they grind exceedingly fine. In time, Weber believed, every practice or institution in a modern society, regardless of its original purpose, experiences an irresistible pressure to adapt to the society's fundamental organizing principle.

That's one way to understand the story told by Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz's important jeremiad on the deterioration of higher education in the United States. Deresiewicz chronicles how in recent decades U.S. colleges and universities have reflected and reinforced the ascendance of neoliberalism, which has served as the organizing principle of American society for the past 30 years or so. Deresiewicz, who taught English at Yale for ten years before leaving academia in 2008, laments the way that U.S. universities have replaced the traditional quest for liberal enlightenment with the goals and demands of late capitalism: consumer sovereignty, labor-market flexibility, debt financing, "scientific" management and marketing, and technologically driven increases in productivity. Universities have gone from nourishing their students' spirits to facilitating their careers--especially careers in finance and consulting.

College, in Deresiewicz's view, is supposed to be the place where one discovers an allegiance to something larger than oneself: service to a community or a cause, the practice of art or science or scholarship. The problem is not merely pedagogic but political: unless American elites are dedicated to something larger than themselves, an American commonwealth is impossible.

Deresiewicz's highly personal account draws on his own experiences and those of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students who have shared their frustrations with him over the years. He has produced a stark and dismaying portrait of the contemporary American university. Schools have relegated the task of instructing undergraduates to meagerly compensated adjuncts while entering intense bidding wars over academic superstars who have little contact with students. Health, security, and custodial services have been outsourced. Support staffs have shrunk, and benefits for university employees have been reduced while top administrators' salaries have soared. Development offices have expanded and, like marketing departments elsewhere, have inserted themselves into policymaking. Intellectual property, in the form of patents and technology licensing fees, has become a major source of income for universities, and businesses increasingly fund (and hence shape) academic research. Schools now see students as customers, and achieving customer satisfaction has meant building expensive social centers and athletic facilities even while cutting library and research budgets. The university, always a corporation in the ancient guild sense, is now a corporation in every sense.

A college education is no longer a rite of passage, frivolous or solemn according to the sensibility and temperament of the student; it is an investment--"the best investment you can make," a truism borne out by the fact that, on average, Americans who have a four-year college degree now earn 98 percent more per hour than those who do not. The investment in college starts long before a young person takes out a student loan or makes a single tuition payment. Adolescence and even childhood have become arenas of intense competition for the future students of elite colleges, whose typically upper- or upper-middle-class parents hover nearby at all times, reminding their tykes of the stakes. Resumé building begins with selective preschools and continues uninterrupted through primary and secondary school, with parents securing private tutors and a rich menu of extracurricular activities, chosen with an eye toward impressing college admissions offices. As Deresiewicz writes: "The grades, the scores, the trophies. That is what you are praised for; that is what you are rewarded for. Your parents brag; your teachers glow; your rivals grit their teeth. Finally, the biggest prize of all, the one that draws a line beneath your adolescence and sums you up for all the world to see: admission to the college of your dreams."

And that's hardly the end of it. "College," he writes, "is naturally more of the same." Elite colleges "do little or nothing to wake students up from the values and habits they bring with them from high school." One reason is that many elite universities seem to no longer care very much about what undergraduates actually experience in the classroom. The most prestigious colleges generally form part of research universities, which means that academic departments hire and promote senior faculty primarily on the basis of their scholarly or scientific output. Undergraduate teaching and mentoring are secondary responsibilities. "Winning the campus teaching award is the kiss of death when it comes to tenure," according to Ernest Boyer, who served as president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "This is not a joke," Deresiewicz assures readers.

As a result, he claims, although elite U.S. colleges offer enviably low teacher-student ratios, superb facilities, and every conceivable kind of counseling service and extracurricular activity, they increasingly do not foster the essential experience of a liberal arts education as it has been traditionally understood: engaging with small groups of peers under the supervision of a skilled and devoted teacher and discussing ideas and works of art that force each student to consider the purpose of his or her life and the validity of his or her fundamental assumptions.

Of course, it would be nearly impossible to measure with any precision the decline of a particular kind of education, and Deresiewicz does not present a quantitative case to back up his lament. But there is objective evidence for the trends he describes. First, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, during the past five decades, the proportion of undergraduates majoring in humanities decreased from approximately 14 percent to just seven percent. During roughly the same period, the proportion of business majors increased from 14 percent to 22 percent. These same decades also witnessed an upsurge in the number of students majoring in economics, which is now the most popular concentration at two-thirds of the 40 top-ranked universities and liberal arts colleges. Finally, Deresiewicz notes the mass migration of elite college graduates to careers in finance and consulting: at many Ivy League universities, at least a quarter of all students go into those fields after graduation. Deresiewicz believes that these shifts have occurred not because students find economics, finance, and business intellectually or morally fulfilling but because they fear that holding out for more interesting work would be too risky, or because they must pay off student loans, or simply because, in a winner-take-all society, who wouldn't want to be one of the winners?

For the most part, Deresiewicz bases his argument on the 20 years he spent observing Ivy League institutions from the inside, first as a student at Columbia, then as an instructor at Yale. He also relies on an outpouring of correspondence and conversations generated by articles he has written and talks he has given on this subject. What he claims to have witnessed is the near abandonment of what was once a primary goal of colleges: making souls. To acquire a soul, as Pascal exhorted seventeenth-century readers in Pensées, one must sometimes quietly sit alone. Deresiewicz adds that, at other times, preferably in one's youth, one must sit with small groups of others, perhaps with great books open in front of them, arguing passionately about the good, the true, and the beautiful.

That's the kind of learning, untethered to practical achievements or career goals, that Deresiewicz believes is in danger of disappearing from campuses. He quotes the philosopher Allan Bloom: "Every educational system wants to produce a certain type of human being." To Deresiewicz, it appears that the twenty-first-century American educational system wants to produce bright, healthy, knowledgeable, hard-working, well-behaved young adults with undeveloped moral imaginations and a disinclination to question authority. When a member of one of Deresiewicz's student audiences pondered this description of herself and her cohort, she replied, "You mean we're excellent sheep?"

Not all students are sheep, of course, and those who do fit that description should not be blamed for the ways in which they were socialized or for the incentives that shape their behavior in college. Nor are parents at fault for wanting to pass on their elite status to their children; the fate of the nonelite in the United States is indeed a thing to be avoided. It is even possible to exonerate the universities themselves, which can hardly avoid reflecting larger social trends and responding to financial pressures created by the evaporation of state and federal funding for higher education.

But by rewarding already-privileged young people and then adding to the advantages they enjoy as adults, higher education has become the primary mechanism of class stratification in the United States. Parents with the means to do so shell out money for tutors, music and dance lessons, enrichment programs, summer travel, and college application coaches; there are even, Deresiewicz reports, outfits that provide high school students with "essay-ready" summer experiences. Well-off parents can also give large gifts to the colleges of their children's choice. Cultivating and massaging donors is a near obsession on most campuses, and the children of sufficiently generous donors enjoy an enormous advantage in the admissions process. No one believes that such preferences are justifiable, but no college can afford to forgo them.

Individual resistance and small-scale reforms cannot address such fundamental problems. High tuition costs, massive student debt, bureaucratization, an ethos of hypercompetition, and the gradual extinction of playfulness (the wellspring of creativity, in education as elsewhere) have not emerged from a vacuum. Rather, they have resulted inexorably from some of the same deep shifts in American society that have produced levels of economic inequality unseen since the Gilded Age: the rise of finance, the growing power of organized money in politics, and the widespread embrace of an ideology of endless economic growth.

Many readers will have murmured to themselves by now: "Yes, I've heard all this talk about souls and individuality and self-creation before: very inspiring. And I'm well aware that severe economic inequality is a feature of contemporary American life. But what does Deresiewicz propose? If he had the authority and the resources to change American universities, how would he go about it?"

One common answer he would eschew is technological innovation: online education may be a commercial bonanza, but it is a pedagogic dead end. Nor would he move to merely increase faculty compensation; rather, he would double the number of professors and reward them for teaching and mentorship no less than for their research prowess. Cutting-edge research is invaluable, of course, but it does little to confer a liberal education on an undergraduate who, if he or she is lucky, might get to spend two or three hours a week for three months in the presence of a brilliant researcher, in the company of dozens or even hundreds of other students.

Deresiewicz also urges universities to base affirmative action on class rather than ethnicity, limit or discontinue the practice of favoring applications from athletes and the children of donors, and adjust SAT scores to account for socioeconomic factors. And he calls on universities to stop cooperating with the regrettably influential U.S. News & World Report rankings, which "measure market position rather than educational quality."

Deresiewicz would also move to liquidate the student loan industry, which has been a catastrophe for everyone except the lenders. Transferring the expense of education from public funding to private debt is an example of what the political scientist Jacob Hacker has dubbed "the Great Risk Shift," which has taken place over the past four decades: "a massive transfer of economic risk from broad structures of insurance, including those sponsored by the corporate sector as well as by government, onto the fragile balance sheets of American families."

Excellent Sheep's bottom line is clear: free, high-quality public education at all levels is indispensable if the United States is to be a nation of individuals. And because "for kids to have an equal chance in college, they need to have an equal chance before they get there," this means profound reform at the elementary and secondary levels of education as well. Public schools are funded through property taxes and thus often correspond in quality to the median price of a home in the towns or cities where they are located. Class stratification begins in kindergarten, socializing Americans into accepting inherited privilege starting at a very young age.

Deresiewicz would eliminate the practice of funding public schools through property taxes and then equalize funding, at least at the state level, as many other developed countries do. Unfortunately, because the United States is far more tolerant of socioeconomic inequality than most other developed countries, this is "the one reform that almost no one in authority wants to see enacted." Deresiewicz claims, without going into detail, that such equalization has produced the "best educational systems," such as those in Canada, Finland, and Singapore. That would have been an interesting claim to unpack, but Deresiewicz seems more concerned with the political consequences of inequality in education than with its effects on pedagogy.

Above all, Deresiewicz believes in the need for systemic changes to help reverse the Great Risk Shift and to make more public funding available for education at all levels: measures such as radically reducing defense spending, ending the criminal justice system's reliance on mass incarceration, and raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy. No doubt he understands that there is very little chance that any of these things will happen. But telling apparently impractical truths is sometimes the responsibility of intellectuals. After all, if the United States wishes to be a nation of reflective, argumentative, self-governing individuals rather than insecure, uninformed, apathetic sheep, drastic measures must be taken.

Meanwhile, students, parents, and educators who read this book might find themselves questioning conventional measures of educational quality. In considering their options when it comes to higher education, they might become more likely to ask whether a particular college is likely to stir its students' souls as well as enhance their career prospects.