Post Academic


What’s up with the anti-college screeds? Part 2

Posted in The Education Industry by Arnold Pan on August 17, 2010
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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.

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6 Responses to 'What’s up with the anti-college screeds? Part 2'

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  1. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Except maybe adding that I can’t help but suspect the authors’ own social class plays into their theories just a wee bit. Wonder if they’d be willing to talk about that??

  2. Arnold Pan said,

    Thanks, WorstProf. At the risk of generalizing from a short Q+A that was probably heavily edited, the whole discussion being framed around Ivys is telling. In the end, the interview just reads to me as a bunch of good-in-themselves soundbites about overpaid profs, too-high tuitions, wasteful spending, idyllic college experiences that lack any consistent, coherent argument that holds up.


  3. I find it fascinating that she says college is all about students “finding themselves.” She makes it sound like a playpen rather than a place of learning. She’s encouraging people to think of higher education as frivolous.

  4. dhume said,

    Agreed with what all three of you have said. Trying to expand on what WorstProf wrote, I think it’s extremely telling that nearly all of the voices inveighing against college these days focus only on elite private research schools: the Ivys or the schools that like to pretend they’re Ivys. Focusing on those schools gives a very skewed impression of the situation. I keep seeing people throwing around the figure that “4 years of college costs $200K!!!”, all while ignoring the fact that there are tons of perfectly good public universities that cost about 20% that much. The (public, R1) school where I work costs ~$8K/year for in-state. So for $32K, the kids in this state can get an education that is not at all inferior to the Ivys (although that’s admittedly my partisan opinion), and they’ll get a degree with a name that quite frankly carries just as much prestige in this part of the country as an Ivy degree would, all while accumulating around 85% less debt in an environment where top research faculty actually DO teach undergraduates. So it would seem to me that if people are interested in holding costs down, they should put their efforts towards ensuring that states don’t reduce their support for public higher ed any further, and that when the economy improves the state invest additional resources in public higher ed. But that would be too simple…

  5. gradland said,

    I agree that her logic is really flawed, which is unfortunate, because she makes some very good points that people need to hear (70% of teaching is done by adjuncts and TA’s, etc.). And yes, I don’t understand why everyone making these anti-university arguments focuses so much on the Ivy League schools–what percentage of 18- to 22-year-olds actually go to these schools?


  6. Just one comment-Dreifus is hardly a representative adjunct. But, in spite of that, the most important subject in higher education today is the fact that most undergraduate courses are being taught by an exploited caste of adjunct and contingent faculty, as qualified and dedicated as “regular” faculty but unable to provide optimal service to student. This thirty year trend if unchecked will soon lead us to a place where no one in the faculty can enjoy such traditional things as tenure and/or support for research—and then most of Hacker and Dreifus’s arguments will become entirely irrelevant. The real problems in higher education are always underplayed or entirely ignored by conventional university pundits, such as Hacker and Dreifus-and, again. the latter is, contrary to what is implied perhaps in the article, not at all a representative [url]adjunct. [http://www.cringingliberalelite.com/p/fading-faculties.html]—


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