The End of the University as We Know It.

A letter that the New York Times did not publish.


To the Editor,

Thank you for publishing the wonderfully stimulating and utterly wrong-headed essay by X    X.  Professor X writes from the perspective glimpsed from the balcony of the ivory tower and, as so often happens, his view is distorted.  (Try shooting a gun downhill sometime: one tends to aim too high and miss the target.)  My own perspective on the problems of American education–seen from closer to–or even under–ground level–is as follows.

First, the essential problem is to fix public education.  There is no reason so many people should be going to college after high school.  The reason they do so is because college has become two years of remedial high school and two years of post-industrial arts classes.  Schools are failing to prepare students for life in any of its forms, so college has become a form of educational Spackle.  This situation can be remedied.  The remedy would entail getting rid of schools of Education and teacher certification.  I have one son in a public school, generally bored out of his mind; I have another son in a boarding school, deeply engaged by all that his teachers place before him.  Many of the teachers in the public school are time-servers waiting on retirement.  None of the teachers in the boarding school have ever taken a class in an Education program.  Education courses are a waste of time which deprives their students of exposure to real knowledge in other disciplines.  Teach for America is the “dirty secret” to which Professor Taylor should attend.

It would also entail doing away with the system of funding public education through local property taxes.  This is a formula for disaster for any children attending public schools in depressed urban or rural areas.  Parents in upper middle class areas already load enough cultural advantages on their children.  The outbreak of swine flu among the students of a Catholic prep school in New York who had spent their Spring Break in Cancun is eloquent testimony to the inequalities of experience which parents can provide. Why make it much worse by relying on local property taxes as the basis for school funding?  States–or the federal government–should equalize per capita school spending.

Second, the follow-on problem is to fix post-secondary education at its various levels.  On the one hand, this would involve forcing a great many minor colleges into bankruptcy.  The Baby Boom led to the expansion of many institutions of American life as the mouse passed through the belly of the snake.  The result was an overbuilding of capacity in many areas.  While retirement homes and Kevorkiums are on the horizon as investment opportunities, colleges and universities are struggling to survive by recruiting from a shrunken pool of students.  The educational arms race has turned colleges toward creating a country club environment in order to attract students.  It also compels them to keep marginal students by supplying support services.  Support staffs at colleges and universities have grown far faster than have full-time faculty teaching substantive knowledge and intellectual skills.  If many colleges were driven out of existence, then the remainder could afford to become pickier about which students they admitted while reducing unnecessary and costly amenities.  The schools would be compelled to do their job properly so that high school graduates would have a better chance of finding work or getting in to a college.

On the other hand, there is much to be said for closing down many marginal graduate programs in the liberal arts.  Only a handful of elite schools–Columbia University among them–have any prospect of seeing the graduates of their Ph.D. programs find rewarding and useful employment.  Many other graduate programs exist to provide the professional certification needed for promotion in various bureaucracies (Education, Psychology, Social Work).  Between these heights lies a morass of graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences which exist for the convenience of the tenured faculty in minor institutions.  By running graduate programs these scholars get teaching assistants to grade the masses of semi-literate work generated by open-admissions policies, and they get students for graduate courses which are so much more interesting than is instructing freshmen on the differences between this and that, and that and which.

How are the interests of the republic advanced by any of this nonsense?


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