Higher Education in America
Something like that may have existed in America at one time, but if so, that era is long gone--as most analysts of our educational system clearly recognize. A study of American college students conducted by the University of Michigan over 1979-2009 revealed a 40% drop in empathy during that time period, along with a fundamental inability to grasp another person's point of view. Another study--the source of which escapes me at the moment--recorded that while in 1965, something like 75% of college freshmen stated that they were in college to develop a workable philosophy of life, by 1985-1990 75% of them said they were there to get rich.
Along with the collapse of empathy is the collapse of learning tout court. In Academically Adrift, sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that after two years of college, 45% of American students haven’t learned anything, and after four years, 36% haven’t. Most students, they discovered, define college as a social, not an academic or intellectual, experience; half the students in their study said they hadn’t taken a single course in the previous semester that required more than 20 pages of writing, and a third said they hadn’t taken a course requiring more than 40 pages of reading. A Marist poll released on 4 July 2011 (appropriately enough) showed that 69% of Americans in the under-30 age group are unaware that the U.S. declared its independence in 1776.
All of this, of course, is central to the decline of the United States that I have documented in my own work. After all, you can't have much of a future if this is what American youth has come to. There are many reasons for this catastrophe, but to my mind the major one is the conversion of education into a business, and the university into a corporation. Once the corporate-consumer model of education took hold, all those previous ideals described by Delbanco went up in smoke. Interviewed by the NYTBR in the May 27th issue, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust identified Clark Kerr's (in)famous study of 1963, The Uses of the University, as "the best book she had read about academia." In response, Jeff Zorn, who teaches English at Santa Clara University, commented (NYTBR, June 17th) that Kerr's book
"welcomed the very developments that have made American higher education so generally lame: the denigration of teaching; the loss of a center, academically and spiritually: the selling out to Big Business, Big Government, Big Foundations...[and] the redefinition of liberal education...to a vocational major."
Kerr, he concludes, sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, and president Faust doesn't seem to notice (or, perhaps, to mind). As Slavoj Zizek recently put it, we now live in "a new socioeconomic model of potentially unlimited application: a depoliticized technocracy in which bankers and other experts are allowed to demolish democracy." I'm not sure how "new" all this is; we were always, as I have argued, a nation of hustlers; but imported into education, the results are quite obvious. It's hardly an accident that the class of 2012 is out to make money (in point of fact, they can't even find a job), doesn't give a damn about anybody else, and knows virtually nothing; or that (according to a Newsweek poll of 2011) 73% of Americans can’t give the official version of why we fought the Cold War, and 44% are unable to define the Bill of Rights. Indeed, how many even care about our now-shredded Bill of Rights, courtesy of Mr. Obama? Awareness of (for example) the National Defense Authorization Act, with its provision for "indefinite detention," is practically nonexistent, and I'm guessing that less than 2% of American college graduates know what habeas corpus is (make that, was).
Finally, let's not talk of "repairing" the system; under the corporate-consumer model, it can only get worse. Real education--Bildung, in the German sense of the term--can get no traction in the technocorporate state, which is not exactly a breeding ground for creative, independent thought. It can only be pursued by misfits, by the marginalized, by the very few who still think that learning for learning's sake, and the sake of the larger community, is a meaningful ideal. In the America of today, there aren't too many of those around.
(c)Morris Berman, 2012