Probably the best-known fact about The Higher Learning in America by Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) is that the author’s original subtitle for it was “A Study in Total Depravity.” By the time the book finally appeared in print in 1918, the wording had been changed to “A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men,” which gives the reader a clearer sense of the contents, albeit at a considerable loss in piquancy.
The “memorandum” nonetheless displayed Veblen’s knack for turning a phrase that twisted the knife. He attacked the “bootless meddling” of governing boards and the “skilled malpractice and malversion” of the presidents they appointed. These “captains of erudition” (a play on the then-recent expression “captains of industry”) understood the value of a dollar and of publicity, but not much else. To their way of thinking, good public relations meant “tawdry, spectacular pageantry and a straining after showy magnitude.” And worse, they molded higher education in their own likeness.
“The school becomes primarily a bureaucratic organization,” writes Veblen, “and the first and unremitting duties of the staff are those of official management and accountancy. The further qualifications requisite to the members of the academic staff will be such as make for vendibility, volubility, tactical effrontery [and] conspicuous conformity to the popular taste in all matters of opinion, usage and conventions.” The cumulative, long-term effect on the life of the mind? “A substitution of salesmanlike proficiency -- a balancing of bargains in staple credits -- in the place of scientific capacity and addiction to study.”
Veblen was more than a satirist and scold, brimming over with vitriol and bile. That final expression, for example -- “addiction to study” -- could only have been coined by someone who had experienced what it names, and his critique of the university includes a serious effort to understand its nature and history. But Veblen’s problems with the field of higher education in his day were both substantial and dogged, and even the most analytical portions seem driven by sublimated anger.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, he was a professor at the University of Chicago and then at Stanford University, but in each case he left under a cloud of scandal. Besides his religious disbelief and his acerbic (if not misanthropic) disposition, there were the rumors about his animal magnetism -- which, it was said, irresistibly pulled colleagues’ wives into bed with him.
In fact, the rumors were spread by his first wife, who brought them to the notice of the presidents at Chicago and Stanford. They confronted Veblen, who declined to respond -- something his first and most influential biographer, Joseph Dorfman, took as an admission of guilt. As far as I can tell, contemporary Veblen scholarship rejects that judgment entirely, treating the charges of Don Juan-ism as fallout from the dissolution of marriage that (in a telling detail about the level of estrangement here) seems never to have been consummated.
Be that as it may, the image that the literary and intellectual historian Daniel Aaron depicted in an essay from 1947 has continued to color how Veblen is read. “Irascible, dour and sardonic,” Aaron wrote, “living precariously along the fringes of the American university world he anatomized so mercilessly, Veblen remained during his lifetime a kind of academic rogue, admired by an increasing number of discriminating disciples but never winning the kudos handed out to his less able but more circumspect colleagues.”
Nearly all of whom were soon utterly forgotten, of course, but not Veblen, whose grievances -- whether about “conspicuous consumption” in society at large or “nugatory intrigue and vacant pedantry” within the groves of academe -- retain a certain vigor and bite. The opening pages of the new edition of The Higher Learning in America from Johns Hopkins University Press call it “an appropriate way to mark the centennial of Veblen’s great book,” and most of the back cover is taken up with comments by historians and critics of higher education, noting how disconcertingly timely it still seems.
The editor, Richard F. Teichgraeber III (a professor of history at Tulane University), has prepared what’s bound to remain the standard edition of the text for a long time to come. His extensive yet unobtrusive notes “identify -- when identification proved possible -- events, institutions, persons and publications alluded to or mentioned,” and he glosses the literary quotations and biblical references embedded in Veblen’s wild and sometimes woolly prose. The timeline of Veblen’s life and the recommended-readings list benefit from the past three decades of Veblen scholarship; in contrast, Dorfman’s biography from 1934 often looks like a target after a busy day at the shooting range. But the text’s apparatus limits itself to presenting the positive side of revisionist efforts rather than continuing to fire away.
For his own part, Teichgraeber, in his introductory essay, presents The Higher Learning in America as a more policy-minded work than a reader is likely to imagine going in with little sense of context beyond knowing about that abandoned subtitle.
Veblen started writing an essay on the university in 1904 and continued revising and expanding it for another dozen years, despite the reactions of colleagues and publishers, who were discouraging or appalled. In the preface drafted in 1916, he admits that circumstances “made it seem the part of insight and sobriety… to defer publication, until the color of an irrelevant personal equation should again have had time to fade into the background.” Veblen kept the discussion of institutional problems and academic politics on a level of generality that avoided naming names or describing his own troubles. But the note of personal frustration was audible even so, and readers at the time could hear it. (As, indeed, readers can now, though they'll usually need the annotation to fill in the details.)
But Veblen was not the only figure turning a critical eye on the higher education of his day. European models of graduate study and the research university, combined with the proliferation of land-grant colleges, inspired running public debates over academic freedom, curriculum reform, funding and so on. Teichgraeber points out that the whole genre of commentary even had a name to distinguish it: “the professors’ literature of protest.”
Veblen indicates that The Higher Learning in America was written in response to this “bulk of printed matter,” but without quoting it or identifying whom he’s answering. Perhaps he wanted to stop short of antagonizing people he hadn’t already made enemies, or causing trouble for anyone he agreed with. But our editor and annotator knows his way around “the professors’ literature of protest” and can make reasonable surmises about what articles and authors Veblen had in mind.
Between those sotto voce arguments and the biographical details, we can finally put his spleen in context. The Hopkins edition makes the best case possible for The Higher Learning in America as a serious contribution to institutional critique. At the same time, it’s the book in which Veblen refers to the corporate university as an “abomination of desolation.” Even without an annotation guiding you to the Book of Daniel, it’s easy to recognize that as something “often thought but ne’er so well expressed.”
Last week, the University of South Carolina suspended a student for writing the n-word on a whiteboard in a campus study room. The university president explained that the student had violated the Carolinian Creed, which bars “racist and uncivil rhetoric.”
But in the United States, there’s another creed that’s supposed to take precedence over all the others: the Constitution. And the university -- not the offending student -- violated it.
So did the University of Oklahoma, when it expelled two students last month for leading a racist chant on a fraternity bus trip. The chant referred to the lynching of African-Americans, one of the ugliest chapters in our nation's history, and the students deserved all of the condemnation they received.
But our university leaders deserve censure, too, for their craven disregard of the First Amendment. Everyone has the right to speak their mind, no matter how much it offends yours. When Americans work themselves into a fine moral lather, however, freedom of speech is always the first thing to go.
Campus speech codes date to the mid-1980s, in the aftermath of several well-publicized racist episodes. Following the last game of the 1986 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets, drunken brawls erupted at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst between white Red Sox fans and black Mets supporters. At one point, a mob of 3,000 whites chased and beat black students.
After that, media outlets ran a spate of stories about racist incidents on campus, including a mock slave auction at a fraternity. It was never clear whether racial prejudice and harassment had actually increased during these years. But it made for good copy, with headlines like “Bigots in the Ivory Tower” and “Reagan’s Children: Racial Hatred on Campus.”
As the last item suggests, liberals were quick to blame the alleged rise in racism on Ronald Reagan and the so-called New Right. As conservative politicians stoked the fires of prejudice, the argument went, our campuses should remain bastions of racial equality and justice.
Enter speech codes. By 1992, fully one-third of colleges and universities had enacted some kind of speech regulation. The most famous one -- which became a model for many other measures -- was adopted by the University of Michigan, which barred “verbal or physical behavior… that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap or Vietnam-era veteran status.”
But as a U.S. district judge ruled in 1989, when he struck down the Michigan speech code, the words “stigmatizes” and “victimizes” were notoriously slippery. “What one individual might find victimizing or stigmatizing, another individual might not,” the judge wrote.
A few years later, the University of Pennsylvania charged a student with violating its speech code after he pleaded with some partying African-American sorority members to keep down the noise. “Shut up, you water buffalo,” the student shouted. “If you want a party, there’s a zoo a mile from here.” In his native Israel, the student later explained, the term "water buffalo" referred to a rowdy person; but the black students interpreted it -- and his zoo remark -- as racial insults.
Penn eventually dropped the charges against the student and -- two years later -- it eliminated its speech code. But it was one of the exceptions. Most college retained their speech codes or added new ones, even in the face of judicial decisions barring such measures. Between 1989 and 1995, six courts -- including the U.S. Supreme Court -- examined university or municipal speech codes, and in every case the codes were deemed unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court’s 1992 decision struck down a St. Paul ordinance prohibiting hate speech. Inevitably, the court ruled, city officials would be called upon to decide what was truly hateful and what wasn’t. And that’s not a call that any of us should want our government making for us.
But that’s precisely what our campus speech codes require universities to do. In a recent survey of over 1,000 Jewish students on 55 American campuses, more than half reported experiencing or witnessing an anti-Semitic act or comment within the prior six months. Earlier this year, a Jewish student applying for a campus judicial board position at the University of California at Los Angeles was asked how -- as a Jew -- she could maintain an “unbiased view.” And at another U.C. campus, in Davis, Jewish students opposing an anti-Israel boycott measure were heckled with cries of “Allahu Akbar.”
Both episodes made national news, but they didn’t lead to any official punishment for the students who made the offending comments. Why should racist comments elicit penalties while anti-Semitic ones don't? And why should we allow our universities to discriminate between them when the courts have ruled that both types of speech are protected? We need to educate our students against bigotry without turning our backs on the Constitution. But first, we'll need university leaders with the courage to do it.
Lawmakers tout improvements tied to Florida's second year of performance-based funding. But is it a coincidence that the system punishes its campus most focused on liberal arts and the one most focused on serving low-income students?
Defenders of higher education are on the ramparts. Again. This time, the ivory tower is under assault from a pitchfork-carrying crowd marching under the banner of reducing the cost of baccalaureate degree programs via the use of new technologies, especially online learning.
Predictions of the demise of the traditional baccalaureate program, especially at residential liberal arts colleges, have resonated through a spate of books and articles over the past few months. The planned closure of Sweet Briar College amplified the message that our institutions of higher learning are on the brink (and this at the height of the college acceptance/rejection season).
But are things really so dire for traditional undergraduate education? Are we really looking at The End of College, as Kevin Carey insists? As we consider the impact of new technologies on higher education, must college be “unbound,” “disrupted” or “unbundled” in order to best serve this generation of students?
It will be several years before we are able to assess the long-term viability and validity of an unbundled college program, but I believe unbundling is a fatally flawed approach. Rebundling is my rallying cry.
Many proposals to unbundle traditional higher education advocate a complete reinvention of the undergraduate experience. These proposals often dismiss or fail to make best use of excellent resources within existing institutions. Moreover, those wishing to unbundle the traditional baccalaureate degree program haven’t adequately considered the way teenagers entering college would experience an unbundled education. They overlook the fact that achieving success in an unbundled degree program requires a level of cognitive and developmental maturity that teenagers often don’t possess. (Adult learners, on the other hand, more often have the level of executive functioning necessary to successfully complete an online program, which is one reason why online learning has become such a useful option for this demographic.)
Finally, advocates of unbundling have not solved the dilemma of accreditation. For employers and graduate schools, established colleges and universities have long played an important role in certifying the meaning and value of the degrees they confer. In my opinion, there are two inviolable tenets of American higher education: to make students smarter and to recognize them as “certified smart.” What institution or agency will provide comparable certification for a degree from the “university of everywhere” (to use Kevin Carey’s term), a degree that is the aggregate of course components from diverse sources?
Under the leadership of Senator Lamar Alexander, a congressional committee is considering this issue. However, if a push to embrace unbundled degree programs results in a number of new agencies to accredit those programs, such a proliferation will likely diminish the current value of accreditation. Second, even if the number of new accrediting bodies is limited, any newly created agencies will have to establish track records of reliability over time in order to be viewed as comparable to the certification offered by existing colleges and universities.
As a response to these challenges, my proposal to rebundle college preserves the primacy, integrity and identity of existing institutions. Rebundling college will benefit students, reduce costs and provide the necessary certification of a given program of study by a college or university faculty.
This model will require many existing institutions to reorganize so that they, in effect, become the curators of an education for each enrolled student.
Individualized degree programs will be culled and created from many sources, much in the way an art exhibit is curated so that separate pieces come together to form a coherent, integrated whole. With oversight from their enrolling institutions, students will select from a variety of traditional and emerging pedagogies as well as other academic and co-curricular resources that existing institutions provide.
My model for rebundling college has three parts:
Part One: Educational and Financial Commitment
The first part involves the student and family making a commitment to planning a course for an individual’s education from (ideally) middle school through college. Planning could be initiated and overseen at the school district or the state level, perhaps through a mechanism similar to the Achievement Compacts developed by the Oregon Education Investment Board. Trust me: I do not underestimate this challenge given the current cultural patterns of limited or no forethought to developing a plan for postsecondary education among scores of families. Financial planning support must be made available to families through guided online learning modules, or where resources permit, group or individual counseling sessions that begin (again, ideally) in middle school, with special incentives for the lowest-income families.
And the individual plans -- digitized and kept within the control of the student and family -- can be updated periodically.
Part Two: Curriculum
The second part involves customizing a curriculum required for a student to complete a degree program. The institution at which the student eventually enrolls will support and oversee this process, curating a student’s education according to its own distinctive mission and goals.
The courses needed to complete the degree program may be taken at a home campus, or, where necessary, outside classes (reviewed and approved in advance by the home campus) would be purchased for the student. This process, similar to cross-registration protocols currently employed by collaborating institutions, would also encompass the purchase and delivery of online course content. This model reduces the need for a single campus to provide highly specialized but low-enrollment courses, thereby improving efficiency and reducing costs.
Part Three: Co-curricular Experiences
The third part focuses on co-curricular educational experiences. Participation in study abroad programs, intercollegiate athletics, or work with a faculty member on a specific research project, for example, can be layered into this model according to individual student interests and aspirations. These options would be priced separately and reviewed with an eye toward the overall financial strategy in place for the student. While these opportunities add significantly to the educational experience of each student, this model accepts that institutions may not be able to provide all opportunities for all enrolled students. Therefore, great care must be taken in order to avoid exacerbating the equity divide in higher education. This will require additional financial aid to low-income students, aid that is likely to be campus based. Moreover, it is not expected that students coming from wealthy families will uniformly engage in all options for high-impact co-curricular experiences.
This tripartite model for rebundling college has distinct advantages when compared to models of an unbundled education.
First, this model specifically addresses issues of student readiness for, and access to, higher education. Most importantly, this model directly engages students and their families in a beneficial, comprehensive academic and financial planning process that is currently lacking among students of traditional college-bound age, but is so critical for student persistence and success in a degree program.
Second, the curated, individualized educational program provides necessary structure and guidance for students as they develop the cognitive, personal and technological skills needed to earn a degree. This model integrates new technology and online learning opportunities as appropriate for individual students -- opportunities that are brokered, reviewed and recommended by faculty at the home campus. Ultimately, the curated educational program will reflect the distinctive ethos of a specific college or university faculty dedicated to a complete and cohesive vision of what a graduating student should know and have experienced. This model for rebundling college, therefore, offers a means of quality control and reliable certification of all degrees granted. The degrees earned by students retain an institutional imprimatur, which is significant for employers and graduate schools.
While this model addresses issues of equity and access in higher education, it does not assume public investment in a full residential college experience for every traditional student. Instead, this model advocates that institutions do as much as they can for as many as can afford the opportunity, while still being cost-effective.
These evolving dynamics and demands on institutional leadership and faculty will lead to changes to our traditional models, and debate about the effect of disruptive technology on higher education is in the early stages. Those on the ramparts of the ivory tower and those carrying pitchforks are set for a long battle. The best way forward is the détente proposed for rebundling college.
Larry D. Large is president of the Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges and Universities.