Is Higher Education Headed in the Wrong Direction?
Thoughts on a Tyler Cowen column
Full disclosure: being a full professor is a pretty sweet job. The glib way of putting it is that I get paid to go into a room and think. Then I go into another room and tell people what I think (and what other people think and what I think about their thinking). And then they write down what I think. Finally, I grade them on how well they have regurgitated what I and other people were thinking. It’s a very ego-soothing job!
That said, the past few years have been hard in the ivory tower. The growing bureaucratization of the academy has been a cognitive drag. In order to appease every university directive, my course syllabi are beginning to resemble the terms-of-service agreements that folks never read when they are updated. The push for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), while well-intentioned, has been institutionalized in such a way as to make it seem more like an exercise in performativity than anything else. All of the trends I identified in The Ideas Industry — the erosion of trust in expertise, the polarization of public attitudes, and the rise of a plutocratic class that believes in disruption über alles — are still there in one form or another.
My point is, I agree with a lot of what economist and blogger Tyler Cowen says in his latest Bloomberg column — but I am not entirely sold on his conclusion:
The various “political correctness” scandals on college campuses, such as a group at Stanford recommending against the use of the words “American” and “immigrant,” get a lot of headlines. But there are more gradual, less visible changes that also contribute to the declining status of the US system of higher education.…
[Cowen’s drivers include: an overemphasis on the hard sciences instead of the social sciences and humanities; the mental health crisis among America’s youth; the reallocation of skilled human capital away from careers in the academy; and overall work-life balance issues.]
Many of these variables do not change much in a single year, nor do they make for clickable headlines. But in the longer run they may pose a greater danger to the health and influence of the US system of higher education….
Yes, American academia is in crisis. But the headlines don’t give a sense of the depth of that crisis.
If anything, Cowen misses a few issues, like explicit state efforts to censor university instruction, the decline in international students affecting the bottom line of universities, and the adjunctification of higher education.
That said, there are two ways in which I think the situation is not quite as dire as Cowen suggests. The first, paradoxically, is that higher education is not uniquely vulnerable to the dysfunction that Cowen identifies. The Ideas Industry drivers affect everyone, and as I argued in the book, universities can cope better than other sectors. Goodness knows that the private sector and public sector suffer from excessive bureaucratization and issues with work-life balance. I am unconvinced by Cowen’s claim that the grass is greener somewhere else.
Second, the optimist in me is not persuaded that the trendlines will continue to go south. The mental health crisis will hopefully fade as pandemic restrictions continue to recede and people remember/learn what it is like to interact with other people in public settings. International enrollments are starting to climb again. Basic research at universities will continue to generate valuable ideas.
Higher education is not in a great place right now. But no sector of the country is in a great place right now, and I am hopeful that the trendlines have stopped moving in the wrong direction.
What do you think?