Thursday, December 01, 2016

Maintaining the Value Proposition of the University

For quite a long while, American higher education has been adrift in a devolving eddy of self-pity, whining about overregulation while obsessing about bracket placements and rankings, pandering to political and philanthropic overlords while remaining largely silent on the great social issues of our times. We have lost the great narrative of American higher education as the counterweight to government excess, as the bastion of free thought and speech, as the public intellectual voice of the society.

Patricia McGuire seems to think that, since Trump owes his victory to non-college-educated Americans*, the disaster (if that's what it is) could have been avoided by getting more Americans through college. I think that misunderstands what the true "value proposition" of the university is.

In so far as it has anything to do with politics, the university should teach people what Hillary Clinton forgot: how to govern people, not deplore them. Those who hold university degrees, especially from elite colleges, are likely to enter the governing class, whether in business or politics. Their job will not be, as many progressives assume, to transform society, but, rather, to maintain civilization. The skill set that is needed for this is quite traditional. Indeed, it's pretty conservative.

Higher education is almost by definition elite education. It should be reserved for the most intelligent and curious people among us. But if your education only works with other educated people it's not much of one. Imagine an engineer who knows how to build bridges that only other engineers can safely cross. Or a doctor that can only explain a healthy lifestyle to another doctor. Or an architect who can only design buildings that are livable and workable for other architects. Indeed, imagine a nation's poetry that can only be enjoyed by other poets, or novels that only novelists can appreciate. (I'll leave it to you to decide how far along we are.)

In a civilized society, there should be no shame in not having a university education, nor should not having one make life particularly difficult. A university education certainly shouldn't be a prerequisite for meaningful participation in civic life. And it is the responsibility of our educated elites to maintain a public sphere that it doesn't take an elite education to participate in. If you ask me, it was their failure to provide such a sphere that gave Trump his victory, not the failure to provide the masses with a college education.

I realized where McGuire went wrong when I read this sentence: "We need more focus on students and less on institutions." That is exactly backwards. Universities have been chasing after students for way too long. (as McGuire actually implies when she says they "obsess" about "rankings"). They need to reassert themselves, precisely, as institutions. "Too many institutions, particularly wealthy private and flagship state institutions," McGuire says, "claim a desire to welcome more low-income students of color yet fail to change the interior circumstances of costs, culture, educational programs and pathways that would enlarge the pipeline and ensure success for those students." That's not how it looks it to me. My sense of the unrest on college campuses is that the institutions have been bending over backwards to "ensure success" for students that might otherwise struggle.

The problem is that the struggle university students are being spared is the very "value proposition" of the university. It is supposed to be providing an environment in which that struggle can go on and where the skills to overcome it can therefore be developed. To use McGuire's propositions, it is the struggle to exercise "free thought and speech" and, ultimately, become a "public intellectual voice" in society.

It's interesting to note that McGuire doesn't say that it's the students who should be these voices. She believes that the university, in the person of the university president, should be "the public intellectual voice of society". That's an interestingly authoritarian sentiment, and implies that higher education is the process by which one comes to respect an intellectual authority, understand what the master's voice is saying. Indeed, what was most notable, at least to me, about the reaction to Trump's victory on college campuses was how inarticulate it was. The reaction was, for lack of a better word, uneducated. It was unformed. The students lacked voices of their own, and so they joined various mobs.**

What is needed is for the universities to reassert themselves as institutions of free speech and thought. This does not mean that they should "enlarge the pipeline" of academic success. On the contrary, it means that they need to insist on "interior circumstances" that require a great deal of discipline to master. It's true that some students—those who come from already elite segments of society—will find those disciplines somewhat more natural than others. But the universities are supposed to be precisely the place where their natural advantage is redistributed a little, where those who aren't born with it can gain some of it. The value proposition of the university is most certainly not to subject all 17-23-year-olds to such coddling that they are unable to deal articulately with a populist president and will then have to look to their college president to speak for them.

University should be a place where you learn to make up your own mind and speak with your own voice. It should make you a better interpreter of the vox populi, not deaf to it or, worse, afraid of it. (After four years of "safe spaces" is it any wonder that so many young people can't stand to hear Trump speak?) The existence of a cadre of highly educated people should enrich the public sphere for all. It should not require the indoctrination of the same "value proposition" into every citizen.

*There is good reason to think this is true.
**We see here the important sense in which so-called "elitism" is actually a form of anti-authoritarianism. But I'll save that for another post.


Andrew Gelman said...


Without disagreeing with the main points of your posts, I'd like to pick at a cheap shot of yours when you write, "the university should teach people what Hilary Clinton forgot: how to govern people, not deplore them."

It's easy to pile on Hillary Clinton: her supporters can blame her for not winning the election, and her opponents didn't like her in the first place. And I'm not here to defend Clinton from her supporters, from her opponents, or for that matter from people who didn't vote for Clinton or Trump and felt that both candidates represented, in different ways, what's wrong with America.

What I will say, though, is that it's kind of silly to say that she forgot "how to govern people." She was running for president, and her job, as it were, was to convince enough people in the right states to go and vote for her. She failed in that task, and it may be that deploring people didn't help her. But I don't see that "how to govern people" ever came up. Clinton and Trump both did their share of deploring their opponents and they both did their share of saying how they would govern if elected. That's what you get from a campaign.

Thomas said...

Hi Andrew, maybe this is going to sound a bit elitist, but it's my view that, in a democracy, winning elections is part of governing. And I think both Trump and Clinton were deplorable on that score. They really had no concern for the quality of discourse in the public sphere. No sense of decorum. And if there had been an appropriately educated elite to keep them honest they would not have been able to run their campaigns as they did.

That said, I'll grant it's a cheap shot at Hillary (thanks for helping me correct the spelling.) I think I just like the formula "to govern, not deplore", which I've used before when calling Trump's victory a failure of liberal education. I hope it's clear that I'm really taking a shot at the state of higher education, which really has forgotten that "uneducated" people shouldn't be deplored.