Essay on the real stakes for higher education reform
If you were a casual reader of American newspapers, you would think that the fate of the humanities was in doubt. Polishing off a 30-year-old critique, most famously offered by Allan Bloom in 1987’s The Closing of the American Mind, an acerbic corps of doubters – David Brooks of The New York Times is in the vanguard -- wonders if scholars of literature have lost their way, substituting politically chosen texts for classics, stripping away the basic function of the humanities, defined gloriously as: to help us make sense of our world. Enrollments are down, they note, which means that students are shifting their efforts into the sciences, or business, or technology. The doubters want us to believe that the wonderful dreamers who once taught at Chicago or Penn or Yale are, sorrowfully, gone.
This skeptical cohort is often partnered with another, angrier, and more politically active group, which questions whether a college degree is even worth the money these days. Hack the degree, they say. Take a MOOC. If you have to go, enroll at Stanford, or choose your major based on your starting salary after graduation. This platoon of nail-biters and shouters asks us – the big "us," that is, our fractious national family – to distrust the words of tenured radicals, to seek an end to administrative bloat, to treat higher education, basically, as a commodity.
As many have noted – Michael Bérubé and Scott Saul foremost among them – this is all generally hogwash. The humanities remain popular with students, and the great bulk of student credit hours in the humanities are still generated by courses that discuss Important Events or Great Books or Big Thinkers. Much of the decline in enrollments can be attributed to long-term trends – for instance, changes in the gender distribution of majors as universities open doors into STEM fields for students, or the rise of new interdisciplines that eat away at our notion of what counts as the core of the humanities. Professors still love their subjects, even if they don’t wear tweed and even if some of them are women or people of color, even if they sometimes look different, dress different, talk with accents, come with different histories, and sometimes even use foreign languages in the classroom. Great lectures are still given, by "star" faculty and wandering adjuncts alike. Students are still inspired, even if they read William Faulkner alongside Toni Morrison.
I’m in lockstep with Bérubé and Saul, but I also think we need to continually reframe this conversation, to focus in on the single greatest threat to higher education: the defunding of public colleges and universities and the consequent overemphasis on revenue through student credit hours. The threat to the humanities – really, to higher education comprehensively – isn’t caused by a loss of passion or direction or focus, as Brooks and his chorus of doubters want us to believe. Or about bloat in the administrative middle.
It comes from the transformation of the day-to-day interactions between students and faculty, a transformation that is ensured by an emphasis on vast classes, big draws, and throngs of students. And that emphasis flows – in a straight and narrow line – directly from the declining state contributions to public universities and, more abstractly, from our recent consensus that profit alone is the surest measure of importance. It is great that Harvard University wants to pour more money into the humanities, but such an investment is meaningless, really, if every place that isn’t Harvard, or Yale, or Princeton has to trim and cut in one corner to build and grow in another (let alone to cover the skyrocketing health care costs of employees).
Who am I to contribute to this conversation? I should not be here today. I should be silent, or muted, or fixed in the background, a security guard or a mechanic or a grocery clerk – noble professions, I know, but not generally featured in conversations like this one. There was nothing inevitable about my present social position. Indeed, if you were a gambler, you’d have wagered against me. I am no David Brooks, you see. But I am just as much a creature of the humanities.
I was a screw-up, a wastrel, washed-out and adrift for a long time. And headed to nowhere-in-particular very slowly. A generally lackluster youth from a small, forgettable town, I was a C- student at the end of high school, trending down and not up. I enrolled -- at my mother’s loving insistence -- at a big public university, signed up to major in political science, and bombed out fast and hard, earning a 0.5 GPA in my first semester.
With my failure thus well proven, I moved out to a trailer park at the dusty, quiet, southern tip of New Jersey’s Long Beach Island, and went to work in a used bookstore. I rode my bicycle, drove an old station wagon, grew my hair long, drank Miller Lite in tall, dark bottles, smoked Camel cigarettes, and genuinely enjoyed my early hermitage.
The institution that saved me from this enthralling vagabondage wasn’t a church, or a gang, or prison, or the family. It wasn’t football or baseball or basketball. It wasn’t "America." I didn’t read Kerouac. I didn’t hear an inspirational speech on television. It was a small place, Richard Stockton College, tucked away in the Pine Barrens, perhaps the simplest and most basic expression of our belief in an educated adult citizenry. I signed up – not knowing what I meant to do, really – and then showed up, ready for absolutely nothing.
My saviors weren’t clerics or wardens or coaches. They were teachers. They wore mismatched socks, drank coffee by the gallon, and loved ideas, evidence, and debate. They weren’t generalists but specialists, with hard-earned knowledge about medical science in Scotland, or library readership in the early Republic. I couldn’t tell you anything about their politics, but I could paint you a richly detailed portrait of their presence at the head of the classroom. From what I could see, they lived cheaply, responsibly, and haphazardly, drawing sustenance from the material of their research, which they shared, twice or three times a week, with a group of 35 or so history majors, mouth-breathers all. These strange masters of the blackboard, drove cars just like mine, except that theirs were filled with random slips of paper and wildly strewn books and file folders. They gave extraordinary, dazzling lectures, even though much of the time, I could not understand anything they were saying. They were a live cliché.
I wish I could say that their job was easy, that I turned myself around, figured it out, and bootstrapped my way back to the right track. The truth is, I was hard work, just like everyone else. In red ink, they implored me to rewrite and rethink. In a cascade of office meetings and hallway conversations they pored over my paragraph formation, transition sentences, basic grammar and syntax.
They didn’t see anything special in me, of course, because there just wasn’t anything special to see. They merely believed that this was what they should do for everyone who walked into their classroom. They had seen thousands of people before I arrived, and they would see thousands after I was gone. They weren’t naïve or wide-eyed, and they didn’t imagine themselves as heroic or romantic. They were professional. And, when I look back on the last 20 years of my life, it wasn’t their lecture material that made the difference. It was the time they spent with me outside of class.
Of course, I was lucky. I was born in 1970, at a moment when most states believed in adequately funding higher education. I grew up in a place that had an enhanced system of public universities and colleges, all staffed with well-trained, research-focused faculty, people with published expertise in a specific field, with a dedication to craft. And I went to school and college at a time when professors – and schoolteachers more generally – were respected for their role in civil society, and trusted to patiently instruct and constructively challenge slack-jawed young men and women like me.
Raised in the idyllic world of yesteryear, I honestly never once thought to measure my education – or my intelligence, or my civic worth – by my starting salary after graduation. I had been making $78 a week at the bookstore, borrowing money for college, and charging meals and gas and cigarettes on a credit card. I just assumed that this pattern would continue forever. Even now, I am surprised that I didn’t just keep working at the bookstore, didn’t just keep shivering my way through the cold, lonely winters and hot, busy summers of what is colloquially known as “LBI,” didn’t just keep grifting my way to a full stomach.
When it comes to higher education, I’m not nostalgic for the way things used to be. I’m indebted to those who came before, to those who made this current "me" possible. I’m unhappy that we can’t do the same here and now for others. And I think the problem is quite clearly not about escalating salaries or administrative expansion.
Long after my redemption, I spent nine years teaching at a public university. For most of that time, I was running an interdisciplinary program at the very heart of the humanities. We were charged to grow an "honors-style" major, with small classes, lots of writing, and intense faculty and student interactions. In short, to create the experience of a small liberal arts college -- an experience I know well – within a 35,000-student university. Our capacity to grow was the result of a clever administrator, who – in the face of a statewide budget freeze – added on an additional fee for incoming students, and used that vast pot of money to shift growth toward the emerging interdisciplines. But this "honors-style" dream was chipped away slowly by the annual news reports of state budget cuts. We were pressed to create bigger courses, to put "fannies in the seats." We ended our enhanced foreign language requirement because it kept our major count down. We were encouraged to open up our enrollments, to create a big survey course at the front end of the major, a course that became so large that we had to trim off the writing requirement and give multiple-choice exams. We spent hours on assessment data, all required by the state higher education board, and less and less, as a consequence on students.
Not surprisingly, some of us left, hoping to find somewhere else something rather like what we’d experienced as young adults, some place where we could do for every student what had been done for us.
Wherever we are now, the stakes, for all of "us," in this higher education debate are high. Few students are ready, right at the start, to be inspired by a lecture on Plato. Most need help taking notes, or forming a thesis statement, or just thinking hard about anything. Still, every time a university has to add 500 students to the freshman class to make up for a budget cut without also hiring faculty, and every time an administrator – typically, a good person trying to save an institution – has to ask for a significantly larger lecture class without having the funds to beef up the support structure for students, we make stories like mine less likely.
When we describe the lecture as a delivery mode, as a site for Great Thinkers to Expound on Big Ideas, and not as the public expression of hundreds of miniature conversations in which one or two students work through material, and expression, and form with a single person, and we don’t emphasize the equal importance of those behind-the-doors sessions, we do damage to the representation of great teaching. We make it possible to believe that "big" is better. Without those conversations, it isn’t just the humanities that gets shortchanged – it is all of us.
Today’s jobs might not be yesterday’s, but they still require the ability to write and speak clearly, to analyze evidence and form opinions, to solve problems with research, to reach an informed opinion and to persuade others, through a presentation of logic or facts or material, that your opinion is worth their attention. This is what higher education is supposed to do. Fulfilling this mission requires an attention to scale, and a commitment to making it possible for faculty and students to work together closely. In the big and small publics – the great post WWII laboratories of social mobility, from which Brooks and his cohort are so greatly distanced – we simply can no longer teach these skills or create this scale of interaction. And if these centers of gravity fail, everything else will, too.
This should make ordinary Americans angry. It used to be that my story could be your sons' and daughters' story, but not any longer. Don’t blame the teachers in the classroom, though. They still work as hard as they can – they still drink too much coffee, still drive beat-up cars, still occasionally mismatch their socks – to deliver sparkling lectures, to rouse students to believe in the passionate study of humanity, to expand their intellectual horizons. And they try very hard to work closely with students in need, students with talent, and students who seem to want more. Don’t blame the administrators either. Most of them are simply trying to stave off the very worst consequences of this transformation. Blame the folks with the budget ax. And blame those who vote them in.
Matthew Pratt Guterl is professor of Africana studies and American studies at Brown University.