In the Basement of the Ivory Tower
A few years ago there was a sudden flurry of debate and discussion over the development of a “bubble” in university education in the United States. (The debate wasn’t as intense in this country, though the work of scholars like James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar — see my review of Lowering Higher Education — belongs in the same genre.) The basic point is that the cost of a university education has kept going up despite the falling value of that education, at least outside of elite professional faculties. This was leading to dangerously high levels of student indebtedness (dangerous both because it was crippling young people financially and was likely never going to be paid back). You can point the finger of blame at various parties, though Professor X, a lowly adjunct professor of English (which means, in effect, someone who teaches basic writing skills), escapes much of it. One direction I think he might have gone in, but didn’t, is the state of K-12 education, which is clearly where his students have been most let down since they arrive at college unable to write. As he mentions at one point that he formerly taught at middle school it’s strange that he passed on this. He also avoids saying much about the state of the economy outside the ivory tower, the lack of jobs for young people that is forcing them to attend college and university as a way of deferring the misery of un- and underemployment, as well as the general hollowing out of the middle class, the group that has fueled the “massification” of higher ed. Despite these roads not taken, however, and a to-be-expected generous amount of padding (the book began as a magazine article), there is something here to consider. His main point, that higher education isn’t necessary or even advisable for everyone, should be obvious by now. This leads us to further questions, specifically about what kind of education best prepares young people for life in the twenty-first century. I don’t mean for what they’ll need to find a high-paying (or any decent) job, but just for what will help them to become healthy, happy, well-adjusted citizens. Such a syllabus may not include essay writing, or even reading books, but by now we really should be prepared for that.