Sunday, September 25, 2011

Higher Education by Hacker and Dreifuss

I finished this book last night, although I have to be honest and say I skipped the chapter on athletics.  No one has to convince me that college athletics is a big problem all the way around, for the athletes, the non-athlete students, and the college system.   The only winners are the over-paid coaches and the maniacal boosters. 

The book questions whether higher education in this country really is higher education (thus the ? in the title).  To some extent the writers come at the question as I interpreted it—is what’s going on in colleges and universities really higher than, say, high school, in terms of intellectual activity, thinking processes, challenges, etc?  More about that below. 
They, however, are more concerned with the bang for the buck end of it.  Students, or their families, may pay over $100,00 for a college education, but why, and what is the value added?  The why is due to sports, fancy dorms that don’t look anything like the barracks we had back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, ridiculous pay for presidents (why should a college president make more than the President of the U.S.?), and escalation of non-instructional faculty on campuses, with directors of diversity, etc.  Another big culprit is tenure, which is supposed to protect us from encroachments on academic freedom and free speech, but is unnecessary for that and only allows tenured faculty to stay around past their usefulness and/or get lazy and less and less productive. 

Now, I am tenured, although  some would argue I don’t deserve it or qualify for it (limited research, no doctorate).  And occasionally I say to myself, stop knocking yourself out, you have tenure and can’t get another promotion, so what’s the point?  And I do plan to work until I’m 70, which may be past my prime, but I don’t know what Social Security will do in ten years.  And I still would like to finish the doctorate so I can get an administrative position.   So I sort of buy their tenure argument and think something new should take its place.  On the other hand, I have it, and worked hard for it, and tenure is very hard to get in many places, more because of politics and infighting than quality of performance.  The old timers control it, and can sabotage anyone whom they don’t like or think is ideologically in the right direction.  Ending tenure might bring new and fresh ideas in to the academy (and get rid of a lot of old-style left-wingers).   It might mean a college has to work to get good faculty because there is more mobility—an assistant professor doesn’t feel like he or she has to stay somewhere to get the golden ring of tenure.

As for whether college adds anything, as my son said today, it shows you can learn.  It shows a certain level of independence, of initiative, or stick-to-itiveness, and yes, intelligence.  It shows a certain level of exposure and awareness.  It does not show moral reasoning or living, as it should, however.  It doesn’t necessarily show good writing or critical thinking skills, although it should (here, I refer you to Academically Adrift).  There’s a reason only one-third of the population has a bachelor’s degree.  It demands something of you.  But I would agree that for some reason, it’s not doing all it should, and just like the dollar has devalued over the past fifty years, so has a college education.  My son, even in this economy, should not have had to apply for 250 jobs in the last four months and find that his best offer is in retail sales. 

Another concern is whether college creates any social mobility, especially for minorities.  It has for women and Asians, but not so much for African-Americans, American Indians, and Latinos, at least not yet and not to the extent it has for white females and Asians of both genders.   This is also the argument behind Academically Adrift (Higher Education? is in many ways a just more breezily-written version of Academically Adrift).

Hacker and Dreifuss also go after the lifestyles of presidents and tenured faculty and students of the private colleges that are considered elite, Williams, Davidson, the Ivies, etc.  The schools cost too much, the families who send their children there are wealthy, the presidents make too much, and so do the faculty, who get sabbaticals.  They go on and on quite a bit about these matters before they get to the reality of higher education:  community college and state colleges, where instructors teach 5-5 or 5-4, where there is really no faculty governance, where there is no such thing as a sabbatical, and where salaries are dependent on state legislators and faculty are in danger of furlough. 

My main fight with the book is that it presents the elites as the norm and rule rather than the exception, although they admit that the vast majority of students  are in the “salt mines of higher education” (my phrase).  However, they don’t talk about what’s going on in these places, where tuitions are pretty low and teaching is the goal and instructors work 40-50 hours a week and there is no prestige, but we like our jobs anyway and there’s some great teaching going on.    It’s a lot sexier and divisive to talk about six-figure salaries at Hofstra and Princeton. 

So, I’ve read the book, but I can’t recommend it to anyone outside of academia because it perpetuates myths when we “real” college instructors need to do some P.R. about our job requirements. 

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