Conservatives once proudly stood, in William F. Buckley’s words, “athwart history, yelling Stop.” This posture led them to befriend defenders of liberal education like Allan Bloom, author of Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1987).
Admittedly, Bloom announced in a 1988 lecture at Harvard that he was “not a conservative.” The liberal education Bloom defended initiates students into a “quest for truth,” but Bloom didn’t think that “man is, or can be, in possession of absolutes.” That Socratic stance, in tension with discipleship of every kind, may have troubled Buckley’s “disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order.” But both the quest for unknown truths and the defense of known but unpopular truths required a stand against relativism, and for the university as a haven for reflecting on enduring problems. Conservatives and defenders of liberal education alike wanted the university to challenge, not merely reflect, the society that sheltered it.
Buckley’s National Review is today preoccupied with the “higher education bubble.” Try searching “higher education bubble” on National Review Online. That’s a lot of hits. Inside Higher Ed readers know the story of how tuition inflation, mounting student debt, and doubts about whether students are learning much endanger many colleges. College may still be worth its price for most students, since the prospects of graduates remain on average much better than those of non-graduates.
But, so the bubble worry goes, as tuitions continue to rise, many students and parents, rightly leery of large, typically nondischargeable debts will abandon brick-and-mortar colleges, whether for jobs that don’t require a degree or for cheaper online options. What’s striking about how some conservatives see this possible future is that it can’t arrive fast enough for them. Look, for example, here, here, and here. These conservatives stand athwart the higher education bubble yelling “Pop!” It’s hard to see what’s conservative about this stance, and I doubt that it is good for liberal education.
If the conservative bubble-poppers are a movement, Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and a prominent blogger, has written its manifesto. All three of the posts linked to above refer to Reynolds, and George Will has also embraced his argument. The Higher Education Bubble (Encounter Books, 2012) is an Encounter Broadside, one of a series of pamphlets meant to “have an important effect” on policy debates, and so it has. Reynolds is a libertarian, not a conservative, but higher education’s conservative critics have joined him in not only predicting that the higher education bubble will burst but also impatiently seeking to burst it.
To prove that there is a bubble, Reynolds must show that price increases and student loan debt are unsustainable, and that students and parents are starting to think that investing in education isn’t worth it. Every observer of higher education acknowledges that college costs have risen much faster than inflation and that those costs and high levels of student loan debt demand attention.
But Reynolds wishes to demonstrate that higher education is on the verge of collapse and bound to change radically in the near term: “higher education is facing a major structural change over the next decade.... Change is coming, and it is unlikely to be either modest or gradual” (25-26). Such radical change is more likely to come from without, from “edupunks” who are “interested in finding new ways of teaching and learning” than from within “traditional academic institutions,” which defend “existing interests” (7). But a look at the first three pieces of evidence Reynolds advances in The Higher Education Bubble suggests that the conservative bubble enthusiasts are not identifying but trying to foment the kind of crisis from which only revolutionaries from outside the so-called establishment can save us.
The first piece of evidence is from a 2008 Money Magazine article: “After adjusting for financial aid, the amount families pay for college has skyrocketed 439 percent since 1982.” Reynolds does not note that the inflation-adjusted figure for that period is closer to 120 percent. The basis of that calculation is here. The numbers mean the same thing, but hearing one rather than the other may be the difference between perceiving a very serious problem and perceiving a crisis.
The second piece is a 2010 New York Times story about Cortney Munna, an N.Y.U. graduate who is $100,000 in debt for her religious and women’s studies degree. Reynolds does not note that the New York Fed puts median student loan debt at $12,800 (the mean is $23,300). The New York Fed thinks rising debt and defaults are very serious problems. But pointing to an outlier as if she were a representative example makes those very serious problems look like a crisis.
There is another distortion here. Since Munna is a “religious and women’s studies” major, we are invited to think that universities suffer from an excess of humanities majors, and that they would do better to focus “on education that fosters economic value” (6). But religious and women’s studies barely register in the higher education universe, where 22 percent of degrees awarded in 2009-10 were in business, management, marketing, and personal and culinary services. Bloom was concerned with the humanities because it was mainly there that the “embers” of liberal education remained. He hoped to prevent those embers from dying out. He did not claim, implausibly, that undue attachment to disciplines like women’s studies is a significant cause of higher education’s financial woes.
The third piece of evidence is from a Washington Post article which, on Reynolds’s characterization, says that student-loan demand “is going soft” because students are becoming more debt-averse. The story, if I have identified it correctly, actually says that loan supply is going soft; students who want private loans have trouble getting them because, after the financial crisis, lenders “raised rates and tightened standards.” This case is not the only one in which Reynolds says “See? People are wising up” but seems to mean “Why won’t you people wise up already?!”
Reynolds and his boosters insist that “economic forces” make a higher education revolution “pretty much inevitable.” But at the same time they are engaged in what amounts to a propaganda war against “existing interests” that are determined to prevent students and parents from catching on. There is nothing conservative about their haste to bring things to a crisis whose consequences cannot be predicted; and in deploying the particular weapons Reynolds offers them, conservatives are undermining the liberal education they once supported.
Reynolds occasionally praises liberal education’s defenders in his blog. Yet the kindest thing he says about liberal education in The Higher Education Bubble is that his argument “doesn’t necessarily rule out traditional liberal arts majors, so long as they are rigorous” (6). Proponents of liberal education should certainly be glad to prove their rigor and they are likely to do at least as well at it as proponents of business-oriented curriculums are.
But Reynolds bets almost everything on technological solutions that focus less on helping students free themselves from the limits of their prior experience, as liberal education does, than on helping “student earnings.” He contrasts this approach scornfully with teaching “what the faculty want to teach” (31) as if focusing on anything other than earnings is self-indulgent. He likes the “edupunks” whose “unconventional thinking about teaching and learning” may permit the “educational establishment,” in many subjects, to “certify competence” rather than “actually teach” (35). It’s hard to see where liberal education fits into this picture.
That a libertarian like Reynolds is excited about how new technology helps us educate ourselves is unsurprising. There is cause for excitement. But why are some conservatives trading Edmund Burke for edupunk? This poignant piece by David Clemens, a professor of English at Monterey Peninsula College, is a clue. Clemens thinks that “messianic progressivism” has crushed “humanism and western values” in our colleges. Consequently he welcomes the “creative destruction” that bursting the bubble will bring. The supplanting of today’s educational establishment by “online colleges ... competency-based certifications, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), and so forth” may help: if “the needed contraction occurs and is handled wisely, maybe we can move backward -- back to teaching what matters.” This is an improbable vision for a conservative. Does the only path to preserving old values run through a revolution led by people with no particular sympathy for them?
I don’t think so. A version of the old alliance between Buckley and Bloom is still possible today. Clemens, like Reynolds, neglects people like Anthony Kronman and Andrew Delbanco, and organizations like the Jack Miller Center and the Liberty Fund, who have not given up on the idea that the study of old texts can liberate us from the reigning assumptions of our time. These individuals and organizations, like Bloom, are not conservative, but it is wiser and more honorable for conservatives to join them than to hang them out to dry in the hope of prospering after the revolution.
Jonathan Marks, author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Cambridge University Press, 2005), is associate professor of politics at Ursinus College. He tweets at twitter.com/marksjo1.