Excellent Sheep and Fail U.

By William Deresiewicz

By Charles J. Sykes

The future of the university has been a hot topic for the last five years or so, warm with much talk of a higher-education “bubble.” There are certainly grounds for concern on this front. Here’s Charles Sykes with some American stats worth considering:

Since 2004, student debt has more than quintupled; 66 percent of students now borrow to pay for their education – up from just 45 percent as recently as 1993. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of student borrowers grew by 92 percent and the average student loan grew 74 percent. The average student now graduates with around $30,000 in student loans, while the portion of students with $100,000 or more has doubled. Millions of students carry debt burdens without getting any degree at all. Student loan debt now exceeds both the nation’s total credit card and auto loan debt. The delinquency rate on student loans is higher than the delinquency rate on credit cards, auto loans, and home mortgages.

Comparing student loan debt to mortgage debt before the housing bubble burst in 2008, Sykes cites a report that says the balance of student loans has grown twice as fast. This is troubling.

But the economic worries are only part of it. From questions of whether the present system of higher education will survive a crash, or even a gentle deflation, concerned critics have also begun to question the role and value such an education has in contemporary life – to wonder what a university is for, and whether it is, not just in a financial sense, worth it.

The defence of a university, and in particular the value of a liberal arts education, has a long and rich history. So much so that William Deresiewicz knows that a lot of it now sounds clichéd. If you want to make the argument that a university education aids in giving purpose and meaning to one’s life, be aware that this is going to seem trite to most ears. “I am painfully aware that much of what I’ve been saying,” Deresiewicz says, “has long been reduced to cliché – and worse than cliché, advertising fodder. ‘Be yourself,’ ‘Do your own thing,’ ‘You only live once’; such sentiments are next to meaningless now.”

Meaningless or not, these are the lines that have to be trotted out because there isn’t much else to point to. Even without the threat of the financial bubble bursting, the arts in particular have been experiencing a tremendous crisis of confidence lately (see, for example, my joint review of Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature and John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts?).

In these two books blame for the current crisis is spread around. Some of the problems universities face are of their own making. They spend too much money – far too much money – on bloated administration and buildings. There has been a “flight from teaching” into the more lucrative field of research, leaving the university’s most important function to a growing class of underpaid sessionals. In repackaging an education as a consumer good they have made the university experience over into a meaningless exercise in accreditation. If consumers (students) want easy marks and a “safe space,” then that’s what they’re going to get.

But it’s not all the fault of our universities. The economy and, even more broadly, the culture have moved on. If the real purpose of a university education, as has been argued for many years now, is to provide a badge of one’s social-economic class, then we might expect something like the present crisis to be occurring as that class has come under increasing pressure. Try making a sales pitch like this to a member of today’s shrinking middle class:

You need to get a job, but you also need to get a life. What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.

What makes what Deresiewicz is saying here a little hard to take is that he is preaching to a class, America’s elite, who, as he capably demonstrates, have nothing to fear from falling anyway. The faux-meritocracy aren’t going anywhere, as they have already “made it” from birth. Then there is the implicit assumption that becoming “fully human” is only something that can be achieved from an elite education. Elsewhere in his book Deresiewicz tempers this somewhat, saying that, if the purpose of education is to turn adolescents into adults, “You needn’t go to school for that, but if you’re going to be there anyway, then that’s the most important thing to get accomplished.” Still, I think experience tells most of us that higher education isn’t as necessary, useful, or even relevant to any of this becoming as it is made out to be.

It seems clear, at least to me, that some kind of contraction in the university economy is inevitable. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is going to come about voluntarily, with the system adopting a new philosophy that Charles Sykes summarizes as “smaller, fewer, less” (and, increasingly, “online”). But even if the bubble deflates without popping, a soft landing will still lead to much being lost. There’s a dark age ahead. The lamps of learning are going out all over academe. I don’t expect to see them lit again in my lifetime.

Review first published online May 22, 2017.