The Decline and Fall of Higher Education

Nearly everyone outside academia knows that America’s colleges and universities are doing a poor job of preparing their charges for adult life.  Undergraduate education, nonetheless, continues to enjoy tremendous prestige. Few upper middle class parents would prefer a gainfully employed child to one attending university; indeed, for most affluent parents, the former would be a source of embarrassment. Higher education’s social esteem makes it hard to fully assimilate its well-known failings but it also completely hides the worst. For, you see, the biggest problem isn’t the facts and skills students don’t learn, it’s the bad habits they do.

I was a philosophy professor for 13 years and, at the beginning, I noticed that my colleagues weren’t requiring much from students and the deleterious effect of this on the latter’s work habits. So, I tried making my students work to get good grades. But, regardless of the penalties I imposed, it was impossible to get all but a tiny minority to seriously apply themselves. The most active response I got from students was extreme resentment. Most students stared at me incredulously when I explained that they’d have to work hard to get a decent grade. A few times I heard a shocked student complain – without intending or even noticing any irony – “But this is harder than high school!”

I tried telling my classes that some work was required even though I wouldn’t be checking it and, literally, almost no one could comprehend what this meant. They immediately heard “won’t be checked” as “isn’t required” because almost all of them prioritized entertainment and socializing far above learning. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of students who major in the humanities do so precisely because they have no reason for being in college besides avoiding work and because humanities classes require far less of it than the sciences. But, even outside the humanities, the typical student views the person in front of the classroom, not as a teacher, but merely as an obstacle to getting a B or better.

Of course, students couldn’t stay in college with no desire to learn if their professors weren’t cooperating. And here we come to the second reason that college is such a crippling experience for so many: virtually no professors at an even minimally distinguished college or university regard their real job as teaching. Indeed, if you work at a prestigious college or university, you do so little teaching that it would be almost impossible to do so. I was an assistant professor in UCLA’s philosophy department from 1996-2004. Philosophy faculty taught four ten‑week courses a year, each meeting four hours a week. Salaries, however, by no means reflected our minimal teaching duties. Upon leaving, my annual salary – one of the lowest in the department – was $65,000 plus about $4,000 a year in (untaxed) “research” money for travel; the most senior department members had six figure salaries plus five figure travel budgets. Teaching loads and salaries at Princeton, where I earned my PhD, and Temple, where I worked next, and similar institutions are comparable. For a successful academic, teaching is just a cover story – it’s what you say you do to justify your generous pay. What you really do – what gives you self-respect, pride of accomplishment and takes up most of your time – is produce “research.”

Academic research calls to mind beneficial technological advancements. But, even most scientific research has no practical value. It’s mostly, at best, the accumulation of tiny facts that will never affect anyone outside a handful of aficionados. Even in the sciences academic research is mostly academic. But research in the humanities is entirely academic. That’s not to say that the great humanist texts have no value; the humanities’ canon does have very important things to say about how to live a good, productive, and happy life. But these practical lessons don’t generate the kind of papers required for success in academia. The writing of a successful professor must be couched in the most abstract terms – it must be completely inaccessible to all but a few like-minded colleagues. Accessibility and practical import are the hug and kiss of professional death; they mark your work as unsophisticated and you as not very clever. 

After a few years as a philosophy professor, I began to wonder how anyone could find a life fulfilling, devoted to topics so abstract, specialized, and lacking in practical value. I also became alarmed as I saw students accumulating huge debts while graduating with a diminished capacity for real world work; and dismayed when, upon relating my concerns to colleagues, they neither disagreed nor cared. It took me a while to see that my wonder, alarm, and dismay were related. The overwhelming majority of university professors are people who were very good at school but not much else. Almost none of my colleagues had ever had a job outside of school; almost to a person, an academic career was a way of staying in school and avoiding the difficulties of having to work with others to achieve real world results. In school, we excelled at writing papers that served no purpose besides being testaments to our cleverness. Eventually, I began to see that academic research is largely just a continuation of these meaningless scholastic exercises for those who lack the wherewithal to do anything else.

Now, I don’t think much of anything that I’ve said should really surprise anyone. After all, films about college life concern themselves almost exclusively with partying – the image of a student puking in a toilet is much more likely to appear in their ads than a book. We all know that most students are more concerned with having a four-year holiday than learning anything. And, though you may have been surprised at how little teaching successful professors do, I think everyone knows that administrators and professors view their main job as producing research – the slogan, after all, is “publish or perish”, not “pedagogy or perish.”

And we all think we know one result of the misplaced values found at every level of higher education – namely, that a large proportion of students don’t learn anything. However, this isn’t the worst result and, indeed, my point is that it’s not even true! A person can’t spend four years in an environment without learning anything and all the focus on what college doesn’t teach obscures the more serious problem of what it does. Any students who enter college lacking self-motivation and a precise knowledge of what they’re trying to accomplish – and in my experience, that includes virtually all humanities majors – learns a lot of negative lessons. Here’s a far from complete list.

1. They learn to work only for rewards, do the absolute minimum required for the reward sought, and that doing the very best you can has no intrinsic value.

2. They learn that it’s okay to show up to daily responsibilities unprepared, unkempt, exhausted, and late.

3. They learn to never admit their errors and to complain and invent excuses when things don’t go the way they want.

4. They learn that skipping out on one’s daily responsibilities a tenth of the time counts as outstanding attendance to them.

5. They learn that doing a bad job has no negative consequences so long as the average of all the jobs you do isn’t too much worse than mediocre.

The above lessons obviously won’t lead anyone to success. All but the most committed undergraduates acquire habits that weaken them and, hence, must be unlearned if they’re to have any chance of a good life. But that’s to be expected when students enter college to avoid work and faculty don’t regard teaching as their real jobs and, in any event, themselves lack the dispositions of thought and action necessary for functioning in the non-scholastic world and, hence, couldn’t teach anyone to do so even if they wished. And nothing will change until it’s more embarrassing to affluent parents to have a child spend four lackluster years at university than it is to have one gainfully employed.

Nearly everyone outside academia knows that America’s colleges and universities are doing a poor job of preparing their charges for adult life.  Undergraduate education, nonetheless, continues to enjoy tremendous prestige. Few upper middle class parents would prefer a gainfully employed child to one attending university; indeed, for most affluent parents, the former would be a source of embarrassment. Higher education’s social esteem makes it hard to fully assimilate its well-known failings but it also completely hides the worst. For, you see, the biggest problem isn’t the facts and skills students don’t learn, it’s the bad habits they do.

I was a philosophy professor for 13 years and, at the beginning, I noticed that my colleagues weren’t requiring much from students and the deleterious effect of this on the latter’s work habits. So, I tried making my students work to get good grades. But, regardless of the penalties I imposed, it was impossible to get all but a tiny minority to seriously apply themselves. The most active response I got from students was extreme resentment. Most students stared at me incredulously when I explained that they’d have to work hard to get a decent grade. A few times I heard a shocked student complain – without intending or even noticing any irony – “But this is harder than high school!”

I tried telling my classes that some work was required even though I wouldn’t be checking it and, literally, almost no one could comprehend what this meant. They immediately heard “won’t be checked” as “isn’t required” because almost all of them prioritized entertainment and socializing far above learning. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of students who major in the humanities do so precisely because they have no reason for being in college besides avoiding work and because humanities classes require far less of it than the sciences. But, even outside the humanities, the typical student views the person in front of the classroom, not as a teacher, but merely as an obstacle to getting a B or better.

Of course, students couldn’t stay in college with no desire to learn if their professors weren’t cooperating. And here we come to the second reason that college is such a crippling experience for so many: virtually no professors at an even minimally distinguished college or university regard their real job as teaching. Indeed, if you work at a prestigious college or university, you do so little teaching that it would be almost impossible to do so. I was an assistant professor in UCLA’s philosophy department from 1996-2004. Philosophy faculty taught four ten‑week courses a year, each meeting four hours a week. Salaries, however, by no means reflected our minimal teaching duties. Upon leaving, my annual salary – one of the lowest in the department – was $65,000 plus about $4,000 a year in (untaxed) “research” money for travel; the most senior department members had six figure salaries plus five figure travel budgets. Teaching loads and salaries at Princeton, where I earned my PhD, and Temple, where I worked next, and similar institutions are comparable. For a successful academic, teaching is just a cover story – it’s what you say you do to justify your generous pay. What you really do – what gives you self-respect, pride of accomplishment and takes up most of your time – is produce “research.”

Academic research calls to mind beneficial technological advancements. But, even most scientific research has no practical value. It’s mostly, at best, the accumulation of tiny facts that will never affect anyone outside a handful of aficionados. Even in the sciences academic research is mostly academic. But research in the humanities is entirely academic. That’s not to say that the great humanist texts have no value; the humanities’ canon does have very important things to say about how to live a good, productive, and happy life. But these practical lessons don’t generate the kind of papers required for success in academia. The writing of a successful professor must be couched in the most abstract terms – it must be completely inaccessible to all but a few like-minded colleagues. Accessibility and practical import are the hug and kiss of professional death; they mark your work as unsophisticated and you as not very clever. 

After a few years as a philosophy professor, I began to wonder how anyone could find a life fulfilling, devoted to topics so abstract, specialized, and lacking in practical value. I also became alarmed as I saw students accumulating huge debts while graduating with a diminished capacity for real world work; and dismayed when, upon relating my concerns to colleagues, they neither disagreed nor cared. It took me a while to see that my wonder, alarm, and dismay were related. The overwhelming majority of university professors are people who were very good at school but not much else. Almost none of my colleagues had ever had a job outside of school; almost to a person, an academic career was a way of staying in school and avoiding the difficulties of having to work with others to achieve real world results. In school, we excelled at writing papers that served no purpose besides being testaments to our cleverness. Eventually, I began to see that academic research is largely just a continuation of these meaningless scholastic exercises for those who lack the wherewithal to do anything else.

Now, I don’t think much of anything that I’ve said should really surprise anyone. After all, films about college life concern themselves almost exclusively with partying – the image of a student puking in a toilet is much more likely to appear in their ads than a book. We all know that most students are more concerned with having a four-year holiday than learning anything. And, though you may have been surprised at how little teaching successful professors do, I think everyone knows that administrators and professors view their main job as producing research – the slogan, after all, is “publish or perish”, not “pedagogy or perish.”

And we all think we know one result of the misplaced values found at every level of higher education – namely, that a large proportion of students don’t learn anything. However, this isn’t the worst result and, indeed, my point is that it’s not even true! A person can’t spend four years in an environment without learning anything and all the focus on what college doesn’t teach obscures the more serious problem of what it does. Any students who enter college lacking self-motivation and a precise knowledge of what they’re trying to accomplish – and in my experience, that includes virtually all humanities majors – learns a lot of negative lessons. Here’s a far from complete list.

1. They learn to work only for rewards, do the absolute minimum required for the reward sought, and that doing the very best you can has no intrinsic value.

2. They learn that it’s okay to show up to daily responsibilities unprepared, unkempt, exhausted, and late.

3. They learn to never admit their errors and to complain and invent excuses when things don’t go the way they want.

4. They learn that skipping out on one’s daily responsibilities a tenth of the time counts as outstanding attendance to them.

5. They learn that doing a bad job has no negative consequences so long as the average of all the jobs you do isn’t too much worse than mediocre.

The above lessons obviously won’t lead anyone to success. All but the most committed undergraduates acquire habits that weaken them and, hence, must be unlearned if they’re to have any chance of a good life. But that’s to be expected when students enter college to avoid work and faculty don’t regard teaching as their real jobs and, in any event, themselves lack the dispositions of thought and action necessary for functioning in the non-scholastic world and, hence, couldn’t teach anyone to do so even if they wished. And nothing will change until it’s more embarrassing to affluent parents to have a child spend four lackluster years at university than it is to have one gainfully employed.

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