The Chronicle Review attacks higher ed reformers as “hustlers” and “pied pipers.”

For all its power and political connections, America’s higher education establishment can be very thin-skinned. Its defenders often respond in unscholarly ways to critics and innovators.

Recently, for example, Hunter Rawlings III, former president of Cornell University, blasted reformers for allegedly wanting higher education to become a “factory model,” and denounced them as unconcerned about quality.

Much in the same vein, and more vehement, are the views of English professor and literary critic William Deresiewicz. His “The Miseducation of America,” a lead story in the Chronicle Review, impugns the motives of people who argue for reform. His big line, highlighted in bold, is that “there are powerful forces at work in our society that are actively hostile to the college ideal.”

Deresiewicz never cites any evidence for that assertion. He quotes no person or organizational mission statement to show that there is opposition to the traditional concept of college education, much less powerful forces arrayed against it.

The traditional concept, he informs us (quoting his former teacher, Professor Andrew Delbanco), is “that students could be transformed to lead lives of meaning and purpose,” and that college “is a way of trying to preserve cultural memory.”

I’m very familiar with the reform landscape and can think of no person who is hostile to that ideal and no group that wants to prevent students from having deep, life-transforming educational experiences. On the contrary, all the critics I know lament the loss of the “college ideal” at many of our institutions.

So how did Deresiewicz come to the conclusion that there are powerful forces working against it?

He watched a movie.

Specifically, the movie Ivory Tower, which provides some insight into the problems that now plague higher education. That prompted his article, which I think can accurately be called a rant. He is greatly distressed that Americans might be listening to “hustlers and ideologues,” profit-minded “pied pipers” who want to lead young Americans astray.

Among those who really irk Deresiewicz are Peter Thiel, Sebastian Thrun, and Peter Schiff, all of whom get some screen time in the movie.  Although he apparently has made no effort at learning what these men think about education beyond the movie, Deresiewicz has an obvious animus towards them.

Thiel he ridicules for his “doctrinaire libertarian beliefs” and especially his “hostility to public institutions, public spending, public everything.”

I don’t know Thiel well enough to say that he is against “public everything,” but I know libertarians well enough to know that while they would prefer to privatize most of what government does, they are not hostile to the college ideal. Deresiewicz notes in passing that Thiel’s undergraduate degree at Stanford was in philosophy, but in his haste to tar him with a libertarian brush, he does not stop to wonder if his fellowships for a small number of students who work on entrepreneurial projects rather than taking college courses are compatible with higher learning.

They are. Those young people can study philosophy, literature, and everything else that goes into a fine, well-rounded education elsewhere. College classrooms do not have a monopoly on teaching great ideas and thinkers.

Sebastian Thrun is given nastier treatment than Thiel. Deresiewicz calls him “an oily charlatan” who reminds him of a “Bond villain.” Thrun has him upset because he not only purveys Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) but hopes to make money from doing so. That’s enough to get Deresiewicz into the name-calling mode.

Why the Thrun’s MOOCs, starting with his famously successful Artificial Intelligence course that drew over 100,000 students worldwide, are any threat to the college ideal is never explained. If students choose to take some of their coursework through MOOCs, that doesn’t prevent them from taking any of the courses Deresiewicz thinks they ought to take to help preserve our cultural memory.

Finally, the attack on investor Peter Schiff is a hit-and-run affair. Schiff has argued that higher education is in a bubble. Deresiewicz nails him, writing, “Schiff is an investor who predicted the financial collapse and has been wrong about pretty much everything since.” Has Deresiewicz really kept tabs on Schiff’s track record of investment recommendations since 2005 when he was among the few economists who said that government policy was causing a housing bubble that would burst?

I doubt it, but whatever Schiff’s “track record” might be, that has no bearing on his argument that we face a higher education bubble. Deresiewicz isn’t interested in his argument, though. All he wants to do is discredit him in the eyes of Chronicle readers, which he believes he accomplishes by noting (correctly) that Schiff opposes the minimum wage and the corporate income tax. Another Bond villain.

The piece has many other jabs and “gotcha!” moments, but nothing within light years of evidence about those hostile forces. The last several pages are a hymn to government efforts in higher education mixed in with wild progressive rhetoric calling for free education at state schools paid for by higher taxes on the rich.

Let me try to wrap up Deresiewicz’s complaint. A lot of people who don’t really appreciate what higher education should be for are trying to sell young Americans watered-down education that aims at occupational training rather than “the discovery of meaning.” That leads him to accuse higher education’s critics and people who are offering students what he regards as low-grade education of hostility toward “real college.”

He has the causality all wrong. True, people are offering a lot of alternatives to the Deresiewicz ideal. That is happening because the great push to increase “access” to college so nearly everyone can go—a push led by people in the same ideological camp as he—has eroded the foundations of higher education and greatly raised its cost. Don’t blame Thiel, Thrun, or Schiff for that.

Before the “college for everyone” crusade, the curriculum was largely geared towards the liberal arts. Students for the most part had little choice but to partake of the kind of college education Deresiewicz favors.

Then came the government subsidies and a rapid increase in the numbers of students. As the numbers increased, however, so did the percentage of students who were not well prepared for “the college ideal” and not much interested in college except as a path to a good job. The old liberal arts curriculum began falling apart. To keep the mass of students happy (and paying), schools watered down or dropped old requirements while simultaneously adding trendy, fun, easy courses with greater appeal.

Also, the faculty was, to a large extent, able to free itself from having to teach broad courses to freshmen and sophomores. Thus, there was an explosion of niche courses in whatever the professor wanted to teach.

As Professor Peter Augustine Lawler observes in his essay “What’s the Real Threat to Liberal Education?” today “scholars are defined by their research focus and often lack the wherewithal and passion required to teach ‘big picture’ liberal arts courses.”

Not only has government policy brought about a decline in college quality, it has also brought about a huge increase in its cost. Little wonder that many people are looking for alternatives to the traditional college degree. If they weren’t, the critics would have nothing to complain about and the innovators would find few if any takers.

Much of college these days consists of occupational training and weak approximations of liberal arts courses. That, however, is not because of any “powerful forces hostile to the college ideal.” Rather, it is an unintended consequence of years of government intervention. 

People like Rawlings and Deresiewicz should dampen their animosity towards higher education critics and innovators and think about why college is today so far from what they think is ideal.

(Editor’s note: The UNC Board of Governors, or perhaps the UNC General Administration, distributed Deresiewicz’s article to the Board of Governors members in preparation for its meeting this week, when the movie Ivory Tower will be shown.)