Sharp and Unexpected Criticism

Never judge a book by its jacket blurbs.

Higher Education? by Professors Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus sports praise from Jonathan Kozol, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Joseph Stiglitz, all of them individuals with whom I have deep philosophical disagreements. So my pre-reading hunch was that I would despise the book on the theory that a friend of my enemy is my enemy.


Hacker and Dreifus have written a devastatingly honest, forthright book on the waste and folly that’s rampant in American higher education. In a nutshell, they’re saying that our colleges and universities cost much more than they need to, while delivering much less education than they should.

That’s a message that isn’t anchored at any spot on our wide political spectrum. For many years, the free-market proponent Thomas Sowell has been arguing that the trouble with our education system is that it is run for the benefit of those who produce education (faculty and administrators; at least they claim to produce it) rather than those who consume it (students).  Hacker and Dreifus strengthen his point with their book.

The authors subject the conventional wisdom about higher education to withering scrutiny.

Higher education must prepare workers for the demanding jobs they will face. Nonsense, respond Hacker and Dreifus. Colleges are the wrong place for vocational training. There is no need for future resort managers, furniture designers or landscape architects to study the basics of those occupations in college. Besides, people can be good at jobs for which they haven’t had any training in college.

If we don’t produce more college graduates, we’ll fall behind China, India, and other countries. That’s a silly notion, they say. If we really need more scientists and engineers, students will be drawn into those fields. (Bravo! A vote in favor of the free market and against the supposed need for educational central planning.)

College education makes people more thoughtful and civically engaged. The authors retort, “We haven’t found that ballots cast by college graduates express more cogent thinking than the votes of other citizens. Even now, as a nation, are we more thoughtful than Illinois farmers as they stood for three hours as they pondered the Lincoln-Douglas debates?”

We train our future leaders through higher education. Stop your pompous strutting, Hacker and Dreifus say (not their exact words, but that’s their sentiment)—leaders are just as likely to come from the back roads of America as from Ivy League classrooms. Having a college degree is neither necessary nor sufficient for being a leader.

Having scornfully brushed away those and other poor reasons for college, the authors give us their vision. College education should be about “getting young people to use their minds as they never had before, thinking about hard realities and issues that strain their mental powers.” That’s a good formulation, but unfortunately a large percentage of American high school graduates don’t want any such experience.

Even if you don’t want to say, as does Emory professor Mark Bauerlein, that today’s teenagers are The Dumbest Generation (I reviewed his book by that title here), many of them enter college with a mindset that’s hardly conducive to mental strain. Most have grown up with schooling designed to inflate their egos and keep them happy. They don’t like difficult books and challenging assignments; they take offense at any sort of criticism.

Therefore, the college population would be much smaller if schools were devoted to the Hacker/Dreifus vision. It’s not clear from the book, but I suspect they know that would be true, and wouldn’t mind if the people who just want some vocational training went elsewhere for that. Charles Murray has explicitly suggested that in his book Real Education.

Although most American colleges and universities have given in to the temptation to draw in students who simply want a credential to help them land a job, some haven’t and the authors name several they found appealing, based on personal visits. These aren’t schools with lofty U.S. News rankings, but such rankings are next-to-worthless in my opinion. Have you ever heard of Western Oregon University, Berea College, or Cooper Union? Hacker and Dreifus found them to be places of serious learning without all the frills (and high expense) found at most colleges.

Perhaps surprisingly, they also praise a couple of fairly well-known universities: Notre Dame and the University of Mississippi, where the academic focus is much stronger than you might think, since both are big sports schools.

Sports—that makes for a good transition into the most controversial parts of the book, namely the authors’ stance against activities and diversions that drive up costs and work at cross-purposes with the goal of giving undergraduates a worthwhile education.

The mania for intercollegiate athletic glory dominates at most colleges and universities, ranging from obscure liberal arts colleges to behemoth state universities. With only a tiny number of exceptions, sports programs lose lots of money that should be spent on academic programs and they undermine academic integrity. Most students would be entirely content with club sports run on a small budget, they maintain.

Another target the book blasts is administrative overload. Most colleges and universities employ regiments of well-paid administrators who, they write, “become adept at weaving webs of words, sentences, and paragraphs to justify their presence.  Schools have been able to rake in large sums of money from donors, taxpayers, and students and then they do what non-profit organizations are famous for doing—spending it frivolously. (The new report on administrative bloat published by the Goldwater Institute greatly strengthens the book’s argument.)

Tenure also takes a barrage. Hacker and Dreifus would do away with it, arguing that it does little or nothing to protect academic freedom but imposes large costs. “So long as we have the lifetime safeguard,” they write, “the centerpiece of academic culture will be the tenure quest and not the education of students or, indeed, the pursuit of knowledge undistorted by fears and careers.” Well-written contracts for faculty would do as much to protect against wrongful termination without creating the problem of faculty “deadwood.”

Finally, I’ll mention the authors’ attack on faculty research. The trouble is that most research is of scant intellectual value and has none at all for the students. Professors who publish simply because they must don’t do much teaching, and when they do teach they often gravitate to their little academic niches.

On that last point, Hacker and Dreifus quote former Education Secretary William Bennett. Bennett is a right-winger whose name throws many on the left into fits. Obviously, they don’t care. In fact, I suspect that they deliberately chose to quote Bennett because doing so helps underscore the point that their critique of higher education has nothing to do with political party affiliation or socio-economic philosophy.

Wasting resources and under-educating our young people is bad whether you’re a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian, a Marxist, or anything else.

Because our higher education system is dominated by people of the left, they often treat criticism from non-leftists as mere ideological griping. The subtext of Higher Education? may be that it is all right for liberals to join the higher ed reform movement—that they shouldn’t feel like traitors for agreeing with the likes of William Bennett, Thomas Sowell, and Charles Murray that our higher education system has become a prodigiously expensive special interest program.