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In 1988, Charles J. Sykes published Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education. The book was a sweeping indictment of academia's abandonment of its primary mission, which is teaching. The consequences he identified have affected every sector of society. For students, it has meant watered-down courses, disengaged instructors, and overpriced degrees of questionable value. For businesses, it has meant a hiring pool of immature graduates with poor problem-solving and communication skills. And for the rest of America, it has meant billions of taxpayer and tuition dollars squandered on an "embarrassment of academic riches." This year Sykes followed up Profscam with Fail U: The False Promise of Higher Education. He named Part One, "I Told You So."
Article originally appeared in
Fail U begins with a description of the alarming economic reality. "For some families, sending a child to a private university now is like buying a BMW every year—and driving it off a cliff." Most Americans are aware of the exploding costs of higher education, and thankfully, a growing number are waking up to the campus dysfunctions being funded by their dollars. These are good developments, and Sykes adds value to the discussion by connecting some dots to explain why we are seeing such dismal returns on escalating investments.
In stark contrast to politicians and prospective students who call for funneling more money into the system—in such forms as student loan "forgiveness" or "free college"—Sykes shows how in many ways the pipeline of government funding has actually fostered and fueled the problem. Not only has "free money" created an economic bubble comparable to the housing bubble of the last decade, with similar risks and implications, it has also enabled universities to indulge in extravagant luxuries that generally serve "the system" more than students or the wider public: Taj Mahal-like edifices and athletic facilities purchased with potentially crushing debt; tenured faculty drawing six-figure salaries for teaching junk classes or even no classes; and fraudulent grade inflation in those classes whose coursework calls for significant effort. All of this and more is superintended by bloated and spineless administrations beholden to politically correct ideologies and acquiescent to petty demands that are becoming increasingly hard to parody.
Case in point: one Connecticut university (tuition and fees $62,508 per year) has set up a separate residence called the "Open House" as a "safe place" for its "LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM communities." That unwieldy, 15-letter excuse for an acronym stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Questioning, Flexual, Asexual, Genderf***, Polyamorous, Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism, all of which the august university considers "communities" deserving special appreciation. This is not a joke.
Worse, this is an institution founded by Methodists. How could it have devolved in less than two centuries from a foundation of reasonably sound Christian doctrine to celebrating (or selling) amorphous sexual chaos at $62,000/year?
Well, setting aside economic opportunism, two sociological factors have been at work for some time.
A sea change took place in American higher education after World War II and the passage of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly referred to as the G.I. Bill. The G.I. Bill provided tuition and living expenses for returning veterans to attend the college of their choice. It was a noble idea, signifying both the value placed on education and the gratitude of a nation, but it gave rise to some unintended consequences. "American universities found themselves flush with cash, prestige, and power. Imbued with a postwar confidence bordering on arrogance, the modern university developed the taste for sheer mass and weight," writes Sykes. "Often the lines between various enterprises would blur as universities became research extensions of the federal government and began to think of themselves as 'knowledge factories,'" as one university president put it.
Colleges scrambled to become universities, and universities swelled into vast, research-driven multiversities. In some ways, the student rebellions of the 1960s were reactions to the institutions' impersonal and bureaucratic ties to government and business. College administrators might have reconsidered their priorities at that point, but few did. The pursuit of prestige and federal largesse took priority as the entire institutional structure shifted to incentivize research and the publishing of "new nuggets of created knowledge."
This was detrimental in itself, consigning undergrads to a virtual academic subclass, but there was another force at work that was even more corrosive.
Notice how the universities sought to be "knowledge factories," churning out, year by year, "new nuggets of created knowledge." Where did they get the idea that they could actually create or manufacture knowledge?
In an earlier Salvo DECODE, Bobby Maddex parsed out the meaning of the word education. The concept traces back to the Romans, who believed education "involved drawing out knowledge. . . . [The] goal was to lead students out of their current habits of mind, which were, for the most part, rooted in ignorance." Education is derived from the Latin words ex and ducere: ex meaning "out of" and ducere meaning "to lead," "to conduct," or "to guide."
The purpose of education was the transmission, not creation, of knowledge, and implicit in that endeavor were some presuppositions: that objective truth exists; that aspects of it can be organized into categories and disseminated via orderly presentations of facts and figures along with the critical thinking skills to make sense of them; and that through this process truth could be known. This approach is what today is called classical education.
Classical education was supplanted around the turn of the twentieth century by a relativist approach called constructivism, which said that all knowledge is subjective and that the purpose of education is to facilitate the student's "construction" of his own knowledge. Constructivist education does not simply recognize that different people experience the world differently or learn differently. Constructivism effectively says that the different experiences people have in the world, including the different ideas they bring to their schooling, however ill-founded some of them may be, are "their truths" and that no one's truth is more true than anyone else's. Since all truth is relative, so too is all knowledge.
Do you see the problem here? If objective truth does not exist, then it follows that true knowledge is a non-entity. But if true knowledge is a non-entity, then where do professors and administrators get off presuming to be creators of knowledge? The whole enterprise disintegrates into a narcissistic cacophony of babble. Case in point (again): This is how the Connecticut university housing department explains its LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM house: "Queer is a word with many meanings, and we embrace all and none of them. . . . We work to be an anchor of the amorphous, chaotic, and beautiful queer community."
How on earth can anything be an anchor when it embraces everything and nothing at the same time? An anchor can only function as an anchor if it is grounded in something objectively real.
So what is a prospective student to do? One bright option is the radical new development known as massive online open courses, or MOOCs. MOOCs provide self-motivated students access to course content at extremely low cost, undercutting academic elitism and distancing students from much of the costly, on-campus shenanigans. But although MOOCs offer a powerful agent of change, they will only carry current students so far.
Those who really want to develop their minds and learn to see through academic vanities should get some comprehensive worldview training. Summit Ministries (www.summit.org), Anchorsaway (www.anchorsaway.org), and Ratio Christi—either its on-campus clubs or College Prep for high-schoolers (www.ratiochristi.org)—are excellent places to start.
The very existence of universities grew out of Christendom. If anything can restore—or re-anchor—the noble vision, it will be grounded Christians, seeking truth above all else, sifting and reassembling nuggets of true knowledge amid the rubble of Modern U. •
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