mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Rethinking Higher-Ed
Another Round in the Higher Ed Wars

Books lamenting the state of American higher education have become something of a cottage industry in recent years. In the New Yorker, Nathan Heller reviews the latest of these, William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful LifeDeresiewicz’s book has inspired a lot of responses, but Heller’s is among the best. Heller notes a number of flaws in Deresiewicz’s approach, particularly his rather sentimental understanding of what the humanities are for, and his implicit belief that the college experience is so powerful in determining one’s future career and life path. In one particularly choice bit, Heller points out that Deresiewicz’s fixation on how elite schools are failing to “feeding your soul” seems steeped in nostalgia and misses the real pressures students face today:

Deresiewicz suggests that someone who grew up poor should be at least as eager to turn down the lucrative consulting job and take a risky road as anybody else. “If you grow up with less, you are much better able to deal with having less,” he counsels. “That is itself a kind of freedom.” The advice seems cheap. When an impoverished student at Stanford, the first in his family to go to college, opts for a six-figure salary in finance after graduation, a very different but equally compelling kind of “moral imagination” may be at play. (Imagine being able to pay off your loans and never again having to worry about keeping a roof over your family’s heads.) William S. Burroughs, a corporate scion of élite genealogy, began reinventing himself at Harvard as a louche explorer of the underworld. Why shouldn’t someone who grew up in a crack-blighted neighborhood be equally free to reimagine himself as a suit? […]

The awkward balance between mind and matter, academics and ambition, doesn’t pervert college’s native mission. From the earliest days of the institution, it has been the fragile nature of the thing itself.

Read the whole thing, and pair it with WRM’s classic back to school essay. It’s important that students be given a chance to read and learn from “the best that has been thought and said”, both to feed their souls and to prepare them for life in an increasingly dynamic, unpredictable economy and society. But Heller is right that it isn’t entirely fair to scoff at those who attend college to secure very practical skills or connections that will improve their economic prospects. When it comes to higher education, we need more pluralism of methods and programs, not a single model based on an idealized version of the past.

Features Icon
show comments
  • LarryD

    “the best that has been thought and said” in 1995, Stanford University declined a gift of $20 million to establish a new program for the study of Western Civilization. The anti-Western bias of the University academics insures anyone wishing to study the best of Western thought should avoid the Humanities and study on their own.

    If you can’t handle (or afford) the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), go to vocational school. The Liberal Arts are sinecures for Leftist incompetents. All that they have to offer is indoctrination.

    • Duperray

      Correct LarryD, the Left, under an hypocrit appearance (helping the poor) in fact injects libetarian ideas, contests everything, reduces expression freedom by “politically correct” logo (a good censoring tool) and prevents people to think. A good leftist does not need to think, has just to engrave some common left motos in his mind and repeat, repeat….
      This “medicine” was initiated and propagated from Moscow KGB until late 1980’s in order to destroy western democracy from inside. Since then, no more KGB action, russian have other matters to deal with, but nobody knows why this propaganda still self-sustains itself..! We have seen that in operation in Europe for 2-3 decades and awful results are very visible. Let’s hope God makes US escape on time from this slippery slope…

  • dailypenny

    Well, if in fact when you went to a liberal arts school or a school such as Stanford and majored in the liberal arts you could be assured of receiving, reading, hearing, understanding, whatever, “the best that has been thought and said” that would be great. But you can’t. That hasn’t been the case for some- and it’s a question of what they (the students) don’t learn won’t kill them-they learn little and little of importance. Now, the curriculum in most of the schools is heavily biased, either by the departments themselves, the faculty member teaching the course (who usually come with many pre-conceptions they wish to give the students) or by the actual structure of the textbook or course itself. Gone are the obeisances to Western culture that made every know who Shakespeare was, when the Second World War started, and what makes Mozart C minor Mass great.
    In its place are bows to cultural diversity, knowledge of other cultures, and most of all, endless courses on racism and sexism in Western thought. The faculty themselves do not believe in the institution of Higher Education, and are politicized as the best of them. So it is no wonder that the educative function of the humanities, which used to be very strong, has been replaced by one of indoctrination. Now in order to learn the true history of the past you must learn it on your own, as it was actually meant to be taught-because the institutions (unless you are lucky) are nothing but expensive processing machines-most of which you have to unlearn anyway-especially in the humanities.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service