Is There a Cure for the Modern University?
So much has gone wrong with the modern university that one scarcely knows where to begin. Innumerable books have been written on the subject, from Hilda Neatby's 1953 So Little for the Mind to Michael Rectenwald's 2018 Springtime for Snowflakes. Articles abound in the thousands. As a former laborer in the educational vineyards, I have attempted a modest contribution to the literature, consisting of three books and dozens of essays and articles, to no particular avail. The academic outlook continues to degenerate, following an agenda that seems to be unstoppable, as if programmed by some ideological Doomsday Machine.
The reasons for the precipitous decline in academic rigor, standards, and outcomes are many and have been thoroughly canvassed. It may be worth bulleting some of them here to suggest the scope of the problem:
- the emergence of a therapeutic culture absolving the individual from the demanding and sacrificial pursuit of excellence, valorizing feeling over thought and leading to an observable dumbing down of student capacity and performance. As Philip Rieff wrote in his magisterial The Triumph of the Therapeutic, "the cry of 'one feels' [has become] the caveat of the therapeutic."
- political factionalism accentuated by the rise of the postmodern left more interested in indoctrination than scholarship.
- the scandal of affirmative action based on criteria of race and sex coupled with quotas placed on qualified white male and Asian students – a numerus clausus rationalized by an ethos of guilt reparation.
- equity hiring protocols, the professional counterpart of affirmative action, favoring women, blacks, and indigenous candidates regardless of discipline-specific competence. In Rectenwald's words, such "blatant tokenism in hiring and promotion jeopardizes the integrity of higher education."
- the incursion of gender politics and the social justice movement into the academic "space" where it has no business being.
- the curtailing of academic freedom, which, as Frank Furedi writes in What's Happened to the University?, has been "devalued through the sanctification of other values" – coercive regulation of conduct, speech codes, politically correct decrees against giving offense, sexual policing, etc.
- opening the gates to a vast and intellectually unprepared student clientele in part for reasons of subprime pseudo-justice – everyone deserves a university education irrespective of native ability – and in part for crass monetary purposes – prohibitive tuition fees and per student government grants. This latter goes hand in hand with the industrialization of the university as a corporate enterprise seeking profit rather than truth.
- the transformation of a reading culture into a visual and digital culture, rendering students progressively incapable of mastering the nuances, complexities, and semantic rules of written language as well as the habit of, like, coherent, like, conversation. Like, I kid you not, dude!
I have just been perusing a towering stack of student essays that my wife, a university prof, has been grading over the last week. The spectacle of ineptitude, ignorance, and tactical evasion of once standard commitment is light-years beyond belief. According to my reckoning, perhaps four fifths of the students registered in both her arts undergraduate courses and graduate seminars exhibit one or several of the following deficiencies. To put it in bullet form, they:
- lack interest in anything apart from their congenial pursuits, a phenomenon demonstrably less evident in precursor generations.
- lack coping ability with real-world events, against which they seek not engagement, but insulation – the infantile or "snowflake" mentality that has grown so prominent.
- have little knowledge of English grammar and concinnity.
- suffer from impoverished vocabularies.
- cannot follow text or topic directions.
- are given to outright plagiarism from online sources, which, extrapolating from the submissions I am examining, is a tactic adopted by approximately one fifth of the cohort in question.
- claim exemptions on grounds of disability where almost anything, from exam anxiety to memory failings to agoraphobia to time management issues, counts as a certified disability in the current permissive and anti-scholarly climate.
- are incapable of reading text with understanding or of discriminating among narrative planes – i.e., cannot tell the differences among the view of the author, the view of the narrator, and the view of the characters in the novel under discussion. The almost complete absence of hermeneutic discernment is pervasive. Reading, as Furedi points out in Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter, connotes more than literacy, "involv[ing] interpretation and imagination" in an effort to "gain meaning." Of course, reading in Furedi's terms depends upon literacy, so it is not surprising that these mature students tend to function on a grade eight level.
Admittedly, many of my wife's students are of foreign extraction and simply lack the language skills necessary to perform passably. They would require immersion and ESL courses, which the university in its greed for numbers and mural irresponsibility has failed to provide. What is far more distressing is the brute fact that the majority of native English-speakers are equally challenged. It is dispiriting to reflect that they represent the social, cultural, economic, and political leaders of tomorrow.
Some may do well in the comparatively abstract disciplines such as math or computer-related technologies, but they will inevitably make indifferent citizens, simpleminded voters, historical illiterates, uninformed parents, and poor readers of the world. Meanwhile, the university will continue to deteriorate until, bloated with mediocre and unequipped students, politically motivated professors, unqualified hires, morally lame administrators, and an epicurean debauch of diversity-and-inclusion officers, it must submit to institutional collapse. Despite our best intentions, it is unlikely that the university can be reformed by a disparate collection of legislative measures or the academic version of a market correction. Boasting only emeritus status, it has long passed its expiry date.
Academia is by this time too radically compromised and too extensively diseased to be revived. Clearly, this is not a happy scenario. Some few exceptions to the general rout will survive – a Hillsdale College, for example, and perhaps a university here and there will manage to halt or at least delay its subsidence into irrelevance and desuetude. But the university system as we know it has signed its death warrant. The sooner it disappears, the sooner we can begin rebuilding from the foundations – assuming the culture has not stagnated beyond salvage. Sometimes collapse is the only remedy.