The current issue of New York magazine includes a lengthy article that effectively summarizes much of the current criticism against higher education:
Over the past several months, the same sharp and distressing arguments have been popping up in the Times, cable news, the blogosphere, even The Chronicle of Higher Education. The cost of college, as these arguments typically go, has grown far too high, the return far too uncertain, the education far too lax.
Entitled “The University Has No Clothes,” Daniel B. Smith’s article reviews the exploding cost of higher education and the widening percentage of the population that achieves or begins a four-year degree. Smith strangely avoids the growth of for-profit universities and regrettably focuses his article on efforts by successful venture capitalists—bogeymen for a leftist publications like New York. But when even the unrepentant left acknowledges that there is a problem in the universities, something big is happening.
What seems to be happening is a fundamental shift in the goals and capabilities of the American university itself, which may just ultimately spell the demise of the current system of higher education as we know it.
While the collapse of a system that remains the envy of the world is not something to be cheered, too much of it may have rotted through to salvage the rest. For too long much of the university system has been hijacked by ideologues who use their classes, research, and university facilities to promote radical agendas. As a consequence, the American university has become the country’s chief venue for the promotion of anti-Israelism and a powerful force in the delegitimization campaign.
With increased competition for fewer slots in plum fields like finance, the consequences of “not demonstrat[ing] any significant improvement in learning” are worsening, and the number of undergraduate business majors is rising starkly as a result. Representing 20% of undergraduate majors, business has been the country’s most popular subject of study for years now. And with business programs predisposed to a pro-Israel point of view, along with the Israel-focused curricula that are ubiquitous at top MBA programs, perhaps that shift alone will turn the campus conversation on Israel. Radical professors will continue to have their apologists, but it’s getting ever tougher to pretend there isn’t a problem in the English and sociology departments.
Still, it’s hard to see the demise of a classic liberal arts education as a good thing.
Fat endowments and soaring applications at top schools continue to largely shield them from these pressures. But with the pace of change accelerating rapidly at universities as everywhere else, the chance to recapture the true spirit of the university may be closer now than it has been in a long time.