What’s up with the anti-college screeds? Part 2
So we might have gotten into a little kerfuffle with our previous anti-college screed, which involved the author of the article we were snarking on, James Altucher, finding our little blog and responding in the comments thread. But, hey, if he’s fair game, so are we. This time around, we’re asking for even bigger trouble, because I’m going to comment on an author whose book I haven’t even read–don’t tell me that, as an academic, you didn’t refer to or engage a text that you never cracked open, whether as an undergrad, grad, or prof! Anyhow, I’m going to deal with Claudia Dreifus’s anti-college screed based on a Q+A she did with More magazine, so I’m basically going to launch into a polemic based on this. I guess I could play it safe and just say that I’m responding to this interview, and not the book she’s promoting, called Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids–and What We Can Do About It, co-written with Andrew Hacker.
It wouldn’t quite be fair to say that Dreifus is as extreme as Altucher, because she doesn’t suggest *not* attending college, advocating, instead, cuts to make college more affordable and suggesting that parents find good fits for their kids. Couldn’t argue with that, right? But that doesn’t really make contrarian headlines, either. The interview, titled “Is College Worth the Cash?”, begins with a provocative quote from Dreifus:
Don’t send your kids to a status symbol. That’s what an Ivy League undergraduate education often is. At Yale and Harvard, undergraduate teaching is too often an afterthought; at the University of Pennsylvania, the classes can be as large as at many public universities. You’re really paying for the name.
Egad–say it ain’t so that UPenn might be in any way like a “public university”! So, from the get-go, we might want to bracket the question of “Is college worth the cash?” with one asking if a “status symbol” Ivy League or equivalent worth the dough? We should preface these questions by noting that Dreifus should know, seeing as she is herself an adjunct prof at Columbia, and probably not the poor kind of exploited, can’t-find-a-tenure-track adjunct, methinks.
But like James Altucher’s gadfly-esque piece, Dreifus’s interview begins with the same faulty premise: That the most expensive education at an elite Ivy League institution is the best measure of the worth and value of a college education, when that’s actually a possibility applicable to a very small constituency of students.
More below the jump…
If you read the interview, you’d have to say that Dreifus’s logic in this truncated Q+A form is quite baffling. On the one hand, she blasts universities for being overpriced luxury objects, which, in itself, might not seem to be a profound statement. When prompted by questioner Lynn Scherr’s basically ringer comments that you get your money’s worth at such high-end schools because of the faculty, Dreifus points out that the big-name profs don’t tend to teach many classes and that TA/adjunct labor keeps instruction going at the university. You’ve do have to give her props for suggesting that adjuncts should be compensated better–“Pay adjuncts something like parity per course,” she says. That’s a fair point, I’d say, along with her argument on the overproduction of Ph.D.s.
Here’s where she loses me: the solution she proposes is to cut faculty salaries, not make more money available for them, which would only thin out the ranks of tenured faculty even more:
I’m not against [more federal and state support], but this whole sector of the economy also has to stop wasting money: on tenured faculty, on bloated salaries, on bloated building and land acquisition and on an enormous administrative class on campus.
In other words, the very situation she bemoans–the bad value of having TAs and adjuncts in exchange for your Ivy League tuition–would probably be the result of ending tenure, cutting salaries, and having profs do their research on their own time/dime. Equalizing salaries and paying adjuncts more would be great, but that doesn’t have to come at the expense of adding more tenure lines and paying faculty better.
The other major flaw in her argument begins, again, with the premise of trying to assess the economic value of going to college. Certainly, it’s fair enough that Dreifus makes a big stink about college costing too much and not being a great deal, financially speaking. Again, I think we’d all agree with this point, that tuitions are rising too fast at the same time that campus services and opportunities are shrinking. Her point that schools should cut back from sports and seemingly extravagant student services might appeal to the academic, though, then again, universities do need to fundraise to nostalgic alumni and generate revenue from a community outside the campus that know schools by their sports teams.
But her response to what we should expect from college and how to remedy the bad deal that it is economically is to rely on platitudes about how a college education shouldn’t be measured by dollars-and-cents:
We’re a rich enough society that we can give people four years to find themselves—to expose them for one brief moment to ideas and thinking, to take a hiatus from the world of commerce. We can afford an educated populace.
Sure, that’s a point we can all probably agree on. Except the two common-sense commonplaces Dreifus outlines here don’t really speak to each other. To put it another way, shouldn’t the economic issue encourage some kind of rigorous economic-oriented solution? On the flipside, if the “value” of a college education can’t be measured monetarily–the undergrad experience as “a hiatus from the world of commerce,” in her words–why are we on this track of turning four years of college into an itemized receipt? Elsewhere on the Interwebs, there’s a critique of Dreifus and Hacker’s book by Jesse Lemisch, claiming their argument is basically a neo-con, great-books-side-of-the-culture-wars apology dressed up as liberal pragmatism.
In the end, I don’t think you can bash college for being a rip-off when what you want from it is precisely all those things that don’t come with a price tag. The biggest flaw in Dreifus’s argument seems to be the underlying Ivy obsession announced right from the beginning: As the unspoken model of higher ed, the Ivy paragon is what Dreifus tries to rhetorically dismantle, at the same time it’s what she ideologically aspires to.