My friend Bob Patten, Autrey Professor of English at Rice University, facilitated my receipt of a copy—autographed by the author, no less!—of the recent book The Value of the Humanities by Helen Small, Professor of English and Aisbitt Fellow of English at Pembroke College, Oxford. Bob is not only a personal friend, but also a great friend of Phi Beta Kappa, having done, among many other things, yeoman service a few years back as a Couper Lecturer in our Mellon-funded series of campus scholarly visits.
This time, through Bob’s good offices, I found a copy of Professor Small’s book in my hands just as I was preparing to participate in a conference aimed toward defining the sort of research that would show that engagement with the humanities has a detectible—and one hopes salutary—effect. I was especially interested in a perspective from the UK, where challenges and opportunities facing the humanities are analogous, in a different context, to those in the US.
The British context shows, not only in the much more unified financing scheme of higher education in England (Scotland has its differences), but also in her placement of arguments against the backdrop of Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold and T.H. Huxley, John Ruskin, John Henry Newman, C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, and even Wordsworth. In this rich terrain the exposition is intricately situated; so much so, in fact, that the book reads like a condensed history of modern thought about education and well-being in England, organized around a set of ideas about the value of the humanities.
There are five of them—ideas, that is—and they stick pretty close to what the humanities are and do in themselves, closer than a typical American apologia would do. Small starts with the idea that the humanities do a distinctive kind of valuable work, fostering an understanding that knowledge is “inextricable from human subjectivity.” Second, she sees the humanities as preserving and curating culture, and interpreting it in contemporaneously relevant terms. She appends to this point a warning: “any defense that gives primary place to the instrumental value of a humanities education will quickly disfigure the broader kinds of goods it nurtures.” The third point is about happiness: not that humanities make individuals or populations happier, but that they extend and enlarge the accessibility of ideas of happiness and notions about how it may be attained. Fourth, humanities contribute to the health of democracy by fostering certain kinds of skills of reasoning and perspective. Finally, the humanities are valuable “in themselves.” Small does not say that the humanities have intrinsic value, viewing the “in themselves” claim as broader and less exposed to the need to defend, presumably, a theory of intrinsic value.
This account yields, perhaps, less to convince the unsympathetic than some arguments on this side of the Atlantic that have tended to emphasize the acquisition of transferable skills useful in personal self-realization and career advancement, and the citizenship issues that Americans tend to trace to Adams, Jefferson, et al. On the other hand, it does offer much that appeals to the distinctive character of humanities studies themselves, and rests on a perception of that character that seems to me to be right on target: the humanities are disciplined reflections on the emergence of meaning in human lives. Any account of their value, or of their usefulness, that obscures that point will have missed the boat.
In The Wall Street Journal (on-line), September 30, 2014, Brian Costa wrote as follows: “For the second straight year, the New York Yankees have missed the playoffs, abdicating one of their most important social responsibilities: giving America an obvious team to root against in October. So, as a public service to fans looking for pleasure in the misery of others, The Wall Street Journal has assembled its second-annual Major League Baseball Hateability Index, ranking this year’s 10 playoff teams in order of general loathsomeness. The rankings are based on how many points teams racked up in 10 contempt-worthy categories, such as drug suspensions, ridiculous beards and winning too much.”
Everybody knows that sports competition is apt to generate this “love-to-hate” phenomenon. I confess to being caught up in it myself, though I will note that this year, in the run-up to Derek Jeter’s retirement, I had an epiphany. Driving down the highway I glanced over at my wife, Jean, and confessed, “Hey, I just realized something. I don’t hate the Yankees anymore.” It was, in a way that was maybe not completely trivial, a bit cathartic.
I sometimes think that sports enthusiasm does have a general cathartic function; it provides a locus where passions that would be counterproductive or even destructive, in an area of life that mattered for anything, to be indulged and discharged harmlessly. After all, in the grand scheme, it doesn’t matter who wins the World Series. But there goes all that passion and energy, drained away from departments of life where it could wreak real harm, like religion or politics
There is a flip side to this notion, though. You could argue that sports fanaticism doesn’t offer harmless cathartic relief, but habituates us to those attitudes and that kind of behavior. Having gotten used to the craziness of sporting fanaticism, we carry the belligerent oppositionalism, the hating of the opposing side, out and over into departments of life that do matter. Again, like religion and politics.
Which of these views is more nearly right? Hard to know. In John Williams’ novel Augustus, the emperor muses on the social impact of gladiatorial games, noting how a Roman woman he saw screaming for blood in the afternoon gently cradled her infant that night.
But it does seem to me that those of us who advocate for the liberal arts and sciences need to be tremendously careful not to let our enthusiasm for these studies turn into, or even be perceived as, partisan opposition to other fields. Phi Beta Kappa supports excellence in the arts and sciences, but does not oppose other fields of study. It’s not “us” against “them.” It’s about all of us striving for balance in a diverse academic ecosystem.
It’s also not about our side engaging solely in the disinterested pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful, while the other guys are grubbing around for utilitarian ends. Art history has its impact, just as engineering has its beauty. We have to guard against simplistic characterizations that divorce inherent value from usefulness.
The other day I had lunch with someone who, rather than put his studies of rhetoric to use in academe, does consulting in trials. He’s published an interesting book on the rhetorical style and impact of U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments. As he described the conceptual matrix of his work, I recognized themes and characters from my own studies among the linguistically-turned philosophers of the mid-20th century. I had never imagined that Wittgenstein, Austin, Searle, Grice, and the rest would equip someone to make a living helping lawyers in the courtroom. But on reflection? Sure. What is of value in itself may well be useful. And vice versa.
By the way, The Wall Street Journal article says the most “hateable” team is the St. Louis Cardinals. My friends who care about these things say that’s clearly wrong: it’s the Dodgers. Myself, I’ve never forgiven the Dodgers for leaving Brooklyn.
In a very influential book, After Virtue, some decades back, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre made the case that every living tradition is composed in part by a continuing, argumentative inquiry—even dispute—concerning its nature and ends. We might be tempted to regard a tradition as an unchanging heritage, passed intact and inviolate from generation to generation. But in fact, as MacIntyre writes in another work, “A tradition is an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined.” Things change.
The stipulation that we are talking about a living tradition means that the life and relevance of a tradition includes, centrally, on-going contention as to what it is that constitutes that tradition. In other words, there’ll be disagreement, and argument, a built-in impulse to reflection and self-criticism. Without such a dynamic principle, presumably, a tradition ossifies, unresponsive to the changes in its environment. Life is change.
In this spirit we hear posed questions like these: “What will education in the arts and sciences be in twenty years, or in fifty?” and, “What will become of the disciplines we look to for a definition of the arts and sciences, themselves now little more than a century or two old?” Most immediately pressing, perhaps, we hear, and pose ourselves.
“However changed and adapted, how will the impulse of arts and sciences education fare in the face of widespread indifference to their value?” This question defines the project to which Phi Beta Kappa is committed.
Our aim is to ensure that whatever the shape of their future, the arts and sciences fare well, very well. That’s why we are engaged in our National Arts & Sciences Initiative. We are making sure that the conversation about the purposes of higher education in America includes pride of place for the recognition that the arts and sciences open opportunity for a broad swath of American students. We want to make sure it’s understood that the arts and sciences are the wellsprings of ingenuity and innovation to move our society forward, and that resources devoted to the arts and sciences are an investment in the future.
Change is inevitable. It is necessary for life, and the future is, to a degree, unpredictable. The question is whether we will equip ourselves to meet it. Flourishing arts and sciences will equip us well, and that’s the argument about the character of our tradition we will carry forward.
In summer, 2008, The American Scholar published William Deresiewicz’s “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” a foreshadowing of his recent book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which is reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, August 24, 2014, by Anthony Grafton, eminent Princeton University historian and former Phi Beta Kappa senator. Both in the article and in the book, Deresiewicz charges the Ivies and their emulators with fostering a culture, based on the hyper-competitive status-seeking of upper-middle class over-achievers, that leads students to “waste the precious years that they should be devoting to building their souls to building their resumes” (Grafton’s phrasing of Deresiewicz’s charge).
Grafton admits that “much of [this] dystopian description rings true.” But the coin has another side. Deresiewicz acknowledges that many liberal arts colleges, with their engaged teachers, are places where “college is still college,” but Grafton makes the point that this is, or can be, true still in the Ivies. He cites what must have been a wonderful educational moment.
Grafton had assigned his students “a very good–but very long–book about classical antiquity in 19th century Germany.” It seems that two of his students turned up for seminar wearing enormous fake beards to evoke the spirit of 19th century Germanic scholarship (thereby also gently mocking Grafton) and playing “The Ride of the Valkyries” on their laptops. By indulging in “cheerful mockery,” the two students “sparked a searching and substantive discussion.” The Ivies can’t be as bleak as Deresiewicz claims, Grafton implies, if this kind of thing can happen.
The scene rises vividly in the imagination, and it is easy to imagine what a powerful moment it must have been. But it is impossible to predict, to plan, or to build this sort of thing into the syllabus of a course. This sort of thing–a pinnacle educational moment–arises spontaneously, or can arise spontaneously, if the right space has been provided. What is that “right space?”
It seems that every time we see recommendations about teaching, the emphasis is on gaining greater and greater control of the pedagogical process. The emphasis is on design, intentionality, the careful tailoring of means to specified ends, and the measurement of outcomes that are known in advance. I think of an interview I saw decades ago with the French minister of education, overseeing a vast but highly centralized and uniform system of formal instruction. He leaned back in his chair and said, “I know what every child in France is doing at this moment.” How could it have been clearer that the educational process had been reduced to an industrial model, with completely scripted, standardized operations being performed upon presumably passive students whose individualities counted, apparently, for nothing. Let’s hope the French do better now, but how much of what passes for urgency toward educational reform in this country embodies these presumptions?
Yet where, in an educational system dominated by predictability and control, is there room for an event like the one Grafton holds up as exemplary? That “right space” we want cannot be found in a totally controlled process. It can be found only in a process that has design, but not absolute constraint. There has to be play in the system, a certain looseness of construction, opening space for spontaneity, play, the creative and unexpected. That space has to be in the design of the curriculum and the course. It has to be in the array of possible outcomes envisaged by the teacher. And it has to be in the manner, or style, in which the course is conducted. How much it says, about the sense of purpose within latitude enjoyed by those students of Grafton’s, that they saw both the humor and the serious point of their parody, and how much it says about Grafton, that they felt permission to move into that space.
Nothing about such an event can be predicted, prescribed, or made to happen according to a formula. But that’s where the best education happens. Let’s hope there’s more of it in the Ivies than Deresiewicz thinks, and more of it in institutions of all kinds than would be supposed by those who want to design every moment for a preconceived outcome.
“IS COLLEGE DOOMED?“, in all capital letters, bold-faced, read the biggest letters on the cover, except for the magazine’s title: The Atlantic. It being nearly fall, it was time for “the educational issue,” a phrase tucked into a round, hot pink dot just below the “A” in Atlantic. And in the middle of the all this, a wrecking ball, caught in the moment of impact, breaking through a wall in the direction of the observer, and sending into chaotic flight an array of higher education icons: a chemistry text, a football, notebooks, a mortar board, more books flying open as they scatter, and pieces of the wall itself, representing, no doubt, the physical campuses whose demise is indicated in the smaller print at the bottom: ”Traditional universities are in trouble. . . .”
The sensationalist tone is continued inside, with the wrecking ball again, and more books now being buried in the detritus of the smashed campus. The featured article, by Graeme Wood, has a slightly more tentative title, “The Future of College?,” and it deals largely with the Minerva Project, an attempt by a tech entrepreneur named Ben Nelson to launch a user-intensive, on-line instructional format that would replicate the active classroom engagement that is thought to lead to the most desirable liberal arts outcomes. Minerva seems to be both an anti-MOOC and also a mini-MOOC; “mini” in that its total enrollment is now 33, in contrast to the tens of thousands claimed for some MOOCs, and “anti” in that the emphasis is on engagement and personal development, not the transmission of content.
The article’s advocacy of the project rests on snarky comments about traditional higher education—its biggest innovation has been doubling costs and hiring more administrators; its technology is medieval; its finances are full of perverse incentives. This is, of course, a caricature, as if a fair picture of American higher education could be assembled from a composite of its worst dimensions. But there’s a lot of this sort of thing around. The advocates of creative disruption thrive on it.
To be fair to Wood’s piece, there are, buried in it, the right questions to be asking about innovation in higher education. If, in the Minerva vision, lectures, tenure, Gothic architecture, football, and ivy are gone, gone, gone, gone, and gone, “what’s left will be leaner and cheaper.” Likely so. But then Wood adds, almost as an afterthought, this: ”We have little clue as to whether the process of stripping down the university removes something essential to what has made America’s best colleges the greatest in the world.” Well, exactly. And this: “Can a school that has no faculty offices, research labs, community spaces for students, or professors paid to do scholarly work still be called a university?” I think that question answers itself.
And how’s this for exposing the likelihood that projects like Minerva are essentially parasitical on the existing higher education system: “No one yet knows whether reducing a university to a smoothly-running pedagogical machine will continue to allow scholarship to thrive—or whether it will simply put universities out of business, replace scholar teachers with just teachers, and retard a whole generation of research.” What Wood is pointing to here is a very real prospect: Commodification of instruction is dependent upon a substrate of research to produce the commodity, but it does nothing to support or sustain that substrate.
American higher education has been and will continue to be a very diverse field, whose diversity reaches into several dimensions. There are great institutions and some that are not-so-great. There are institutions of different types, with different purposes, serving different populations. Questions like “Is College Doomed?”, the imagery of a wrecking ball demolishing the entire sector, and blanket characterizations of higher education as “sclerotic,” (Wood’s word), obscure that diversity, and mask enormous underlying complexity. In that complexity there are very important questions about the impact of coming changes. Wood identifies a couple, and that in itself makes the article worth reading. But how much better it would have been, had The Atlantic chosen to respect the intelligence of its readers by leading with these more sophisticated and, frankly, more realistic issues. Higher education is like the rest of life: more complicated than we’d like to think, and rife with risk for unintended consequences. That’s what we need to be thinking about.
In the commencement season just passing, we have seen a spate of incidents involving campus speech issues. Some guest speakers withdrew from their commitments after student criticism or intimidation. Some prospective guests have had their invitations to speak withdrawn by the college in response to criticism. It’s important to find what’s at stake here for Phi Beta Kappa’s commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.
A responsible mapping of these controversies would include landmarks like these:
The big questions raised by current events have to do with the shape of those norms. But, of course, no community of any size shares a unified set of homogeneous norms. We are almost always in settings composed of overlapping communities, sharing some norms but not others, holding fast, perhaps, to conflicting norms. Many individuals will have internalized versions of this complexity. A college or university will be populated by students, faculty, staff, as well as alumni and other stakeholders, who understand themselves to be members of various different communities, as well as of the institution itself. Also at stake, sometimes, may be the question of institutional endorsement of a speaker’s views, by conferring an honorary degree. That’s why respect for diversity is such a big deal, a cornerstone of collegiate community.
But respect for diversity comes packaged with tensions, if not contradictions. Does it entail freedom to offend others in speech? Or freedom from offense by others? What is offense? Is it when someone is made uncomfortable? Does the degree of discomfort matter? Or does it matter what sort of topic gives rise to the discomfort? Or is offense more than discomfort?
At what point does discomfort amount to feeling threatened? Does feeling threatened amount to being threatened? What is threat? Is it danger to one’s views? One’s standing in the community? One’s person? One’s community of primary identity?
This welter of issues holds scant promise of conclusive resolution. There is little prospect that colleges and universities can settle them for very long, let alone that a nation’s sense of its identity could be defined by settling them. We must learn to live with the idea that our different understandings of the norms governing freedom of expression are themselves objects of contention. We must figure out how to extend our conversation to that level, by critically exploring how offense is given and taken, while continuing to keep alive the substantive discussions.
This is a very tough prescription, because admitting that the norms of civil discourse are themselves in play requires us to do two very difficult things. The first is to admit, without abandoning our principles, that they will be stronger for having been critically examined; the second is to assure others that opening their own principles to critical examination is not just opening them to unsympathetic demolition. Both moves require substantial trust, and that may be the most delicate part; but because it is the most delicate, the most difficult and most important.
“Are the liberal arts still important?” columnist Thomas Friedman asked Laszlo Bock, “who,” Friedman tells us, “is in charge of all hiring at Google.” He reported on the conversation in his column, “How to Get a Job at Google, Part 2,” in The New York Times (Sunday, April 20, 2014). “They are phenomenally important,” Bock answered, going on to underline their usefulness in combinations. He told Friedman, “I think a lot about how the most interesting things are happening at the intersection of two fields.” He then added a comment that might seem obvious, but is terribly important. “To pursue that,” he said, “you need expertise in both fields.”
What is at stake here is the character of the much-heralded “interdisciplinary thinking.” We who praise the arts and sciences often claim—rightly, I think—that engagement with multiple arts and sciences disciplines can lead to a special kind of intellectual agility; namely, the capacity to bring different, even contrasting, sets of assumptions and framing concepts to bear on a single set of facts, to see things from differing perspectives. This ability leads to seeing how one perspective complements another by bringing to light features that had been discounted or hidden entirely from view.
Bock’s point is that in order to do that, again, “you need expertise in both fields.” It is not enough to know some facts gleaned from exposure to multiple fields. In his examples, “economics and psychology or statistics and physics,” the individual would need engagement in different fields sufficient to see things both as an economist and as a psychologist, or both as a statistician and as a physicist. Tall order.
And indeed, it seems that Bock may have been thinking of building organizational teams, rather than of bi-disciplinary individuals. “You need,” he said, “some people who are holistic thinkers and have liberal arts backgrounds, and some who are deep functional experts. Building that balance is hard, but that’s where you end up building great societies, great organizations.” But it works either way—or any of three ways. Some extraordinary individuals will gain expert-level fluency in multiple fields. Many, many more will develop the sort of broad capacities we associate with an arts and sciences education. And successful organizations—this is Bock’s main point—need both the deep experts and the people who can work the intersections.
That’s why the liberal arts are still “phenomenally important”: Finding and working the intersections is a liberal arts sort of thing.
Also implicit in Bock’s vision of those intersections is the idea that they remain intersections. Sometimes people talk about interdisciplinary work as if the “interdisciplines” become themselves new disciplines. And sometimes that happens. Disciplines are not fixed; they evolve; they have histories. It is important not to indulge in a fetishism of disciplines, as if they were more than systematized modes of human inquiry. But the magic and excitement of interdisciplinary work is the confluence of differences. It is only while the disciplines involved are still genuinely distinct that they can show complementary truths.
Once they have fused, they become, in Thomas Kuhn’s famous term, “normal,” and not the stuff of, in Kuhn’s more famous phrase, “paradigm shifts.” If the shifting of paradigms is what we are after, then we need the intersection of intact disciplines, not some third thing, already blended. Bock gets this: He wants to hire people who can create, and make sense of, those moments of difference, tension, and resolution. That is phenomenally insightful.
On April 7, 2014, The Washington Post‘s column, “The Monkey Cage,” published a guest essay by researchers at Dartmouth, Harvard, and Princeton, called “The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene.” The title pretty much speaks for itself. It summarizes the conclusion drawn from a survey designed to show how much respondents know about Ukraine, and how they think the U.S. should be handling the crisis. There is an inverse relation between the possession of knowledge, in this case, and readiness to use force.
Well. I have always hoped that there would be some sort of relationship between the possession of knowledge and our capacity to make sound practical decisions, decisions that could be called matters of value. Without prejudging the specifics of the case of the Ukrainian crisis, at least it appears that having some facts at one’s command does put the breaks on a hasty decision. That’s a good thing, even if action is eventually required.
And so we see, yet again, the vindication of the motto on the base of the statue of the founder of Animal House‘s Faber College: “Knowledge is Good.” Knowledge makes it possible to reflect, since, without some facts, reflection itself is impossible: you have nothing to reflect on.
Years ago, I was sitting in a presentation where a man who researched the nematode parasites infesting grackles was displaying a huge chart containing vast columns of data concerning infection rates in colonies of the birds in Arkansas and Minnesota. There were raw numbers, percentages, comparisons, trends, forecasts, etc. A good friend of mine, a theologian, was sitting next to me. He leaned over and whispered quietly, “Aren’t facts wonderful?”
I have no wish to emphasize that it was a theologian, specifically, who found the appearance of actual facts so impressive. It could, really, have been anyone. Really, it could. But there is something wonderful about the capacity to be struck with delight by facts. I recall an exchange of letters, decades ago, with a dear friend. He was in Sri Lanka; I was in England. From our islands of study at the ends of the Eurasian landmass, we had an extended epistolary conversation about life and meaning. This was long before email, and even long distance phone calls were a big deal. For those reasons, there is a paper record of our thoughts. I was studying English philosophy and had written something offhand about the role of chance in our lives, deprecating the appearance of pattern and meaning. You might as well try to find significance in the fact that a raindrop fell where it did. I got my comeuppance. My friend replied that he found wonder exactly there. He was studying Buddhist mindfulness.
I came around. Facts are wonderful. Maybe not all of them equally so, and evidently not all of them to all of us. And the world is certainly full of false trails, appearances of significance where none resides. But even after we have gotten the defenses in place against overreading, we have to keep the door open to the amazingness of what there is, and the amazingness of our ability, sometimes, to know it. Sometimes—this is the point of the guest column in “The Monkey Cage”—knowledge is even useful. The world is big, Wendell Berry wrote somewhere, and you never know what you might need to know.
A few years ago the Phi Beta Kappa national headquarters had a staff member whose professional background was journalism. Behind her desk, positioned so that visitors to her office could readily see it, was a neatly hand-printed sign. It bore an equilateral triangle with the word “GOOD” at the apex. One bottom corner was labeled “FAST,” and the other, “CHEAP.” Beneath the triangle was the instruction: “PICK TWO.” In other words, we can get things done. But if you want it good and fast, it won’t be cheap. If you want it cheap and good, it won’t be fast. And if cheap and fast is what you want, it won’t be good.
This is pretty much where we are with regard to support for public higher education in this country. Let me be a little clearer about how the corners are labeled. Let’s say that “Good” means “Education that prepares people for careers, citizenship, and fulfilling lives of meaning and value.” “Cheap” may be, in this context, a stretch, but the idea is about spending as little public money as possible on public higher education, so let’s call it “Modestly funded.” For the corner labeled “Fast,” I will stipulate a concept of success that encompasses both access and completion; higher education needs to be available and accessible to a wide swath of the populace, and those who undertake it should be able to complete it. To capture both dimensions, let’s call this “Successful.”
So our new sign bears a triangle with these labels: “Good,” “Modestly funded,” and “Successful.” Again the instruction is: “PICK TWO.” That is, we can choose among these options:
The utility of an abstract analysis of this sort is not that it captures reality precisely, but that it clarifies patterns that would otherwise remain vague and indistinct. If it is the case that something like this dilemma of being able to have only two of three desiderata applies to American higher education, then it is easy to see how that system’s history has run. Prior to World War II we had Option #1. After the GI Bill and the blossoming of student aid we got Option #2. The pressures of the last decade are pushing us toward Option #3.
Now complicate the picture by adding two ingredients: the private sector of colleges and universities, with their supporters, tuition streams, and endowment income, and honors colleges, state-funded, nested within public universities. These are islands of Option #1 within a sea of Option #3, with the private monies of the independent institutions supplementing whatever public support is also enjoyed there.
We are now in a position to see that the current drift in American higher education is toward stratification, as argued in Suzanne Mettler’s article in The Chronicle Review, “Equalizers No More,” March 7, 2014. “College-going,” she writes, “once associated with opportunity, now engenders something that increasingly resembles a caste system: It takes Americans who grew up in different social strata and widens the divisions among them.” If, as seems increasingly obvious, this is a bad thing for the country, we have to find an affordable way to restore Option #2: broad education for all of life for as large a proportion of the population as we can manage.
The advertisement on the television was touting the advantages of sedation dentistry. A calm man was resting confidently in a dental chair, while a smiling, white-coated technician stood waiting to begin some reliably painless procedure. I turned to the fridge to secure an item for the meal I was preparing. When I glanced back up at the television, only seconds later, a fleet of revolving concrete trucks was speeding along a highway, evidently on their way to pour dozens of cubic yards of heavy gray slush into a cavity somewhere. Oh, wait! Not the same ad. I had missed a critical transition.
It’s important to keep track of the story line, to know when one narrative has ended and another begun. Otherwise, the confusions can be alarming. This sense that the narrative has changed, that we have come to be in a different story, arrives in reading “Equalizers No More,” Suzanne Mettler’s article in The Chronicle Review, March 7, 2014.
Mettler’s case is that “the American system of higher education . . . has gone from facilitating upward mobility to exacerbating social inequality.” Her view is that it contributes to a “caste system.” “It takes Americans,” she writes, “who grew up in different social strata and widens the divisions among them.” This she characterizes as “political failure, a breakdown of representative government that no longer provides effective mechanisms by which Americans can pursue a better life.”
These are sweeping charges. What’s the case? Mettler points to the loss of the conviction that higher education is a public good, not merely a private advantage. She cites the Founders, the Morrill Acts, the GI Bill, the student loan and Pell programs from the sixties—the well-known litany of elements in the construction of the very unsystematic system we have seen in place for the last half-century.
But, she argues, something happened several decades ago. “The real problem,” she writes, “is that in recent decades, public policies have functioned far less effectively than they did in the mid-20th century to ameliorate inequality in college-going.” How? Through erosion of Pell grants as a proportion of tuition, through withdrawal of support by the states, and by the opening of the field to the for-profit players, of which a number have since been exposed for predatory practices.
All this Mettler diagnoses as a failure of “policy maintenance,” a lapse in attention structurally similar to my taking the concrete trucks as a continuation of the dentistry commercial, when in fact things had changed radically. And that lapse she lays at the feet of the polarization and partisanship that everyone, I think, of every persuasion, would agree has infested our national and increasingly our state governments in recent decades.
I don’t think that it is a partisan or contested, or even, in our national self-understanding, a contestable proposition to say that all Americans should have a fair chance of exercising their abilities to better their lives. Mettler offers prescriptions about how we might get nearer to that point, and stop sliding further away from it. Those prescriptions may or may not be to the liking of every member of Phi Beta Kappa. And certainly it is not the Society’s business to enter into politics. But whatever our preferred remedy, the problem is one we should pay attention to, and work toward solving.