Dear Parents: Everything You Need to Know About Your Son and Daughter’s University But Don’t




MY TITLE IS NOT AN AFFECTATION, or at least not entirely so. For years I have been attempting to persuade colleagues, university administrators, and students that something is going desperately wrong in modern universities. To no avail.

Readers may have a sense of the type of problem that concerns me from recent events at Yale, in which no less than 13 administrators felt compelled to compose a letter advising adult students on how to dress for Halloween. This was clearly an absurd thing to do, as was a segment of the student response to a lecturer who had the audacity to point out the absurdity in a reasoned and principled email. It was a strange situation in which students and administrators found themselves on the same side of the barricades on the question of the need for sensitivity and creating a place of comfort in the academy. Students siding with administrators against professors? Young people wanting comfort more than truth? If you’re over 50 it will seem strange indeed, but it’s not — not any more. It is the rule now, and it explains in part the trouble I’m having finding someone to talk to.

I’ve had good conversations with colleagues and students too, of course. These have been both a great help and a real inspiration. There has even been an administrator — just one — who agreed, on the QT, that all was not well in our institutions of higher learning and may even be worse than I imagined. But these people are a minority; while they despair, check out (i.e., quit while still receiving a pay check), or simply quit (there have been a few), the “system” chugs on, grinding to pieces what were once, if not great universities, then at least relatively sound institutions in which thoughtful people concerned about intelligence and learning could gather together to talk. What is this system? In one sense, nothing mysterious. Just the majority of people who now make up the university and who have chosen to serve other interests (money, power, expediency, reputation, career advancement, convenience, compliance with the zeitgeist) in preference to the ones that were once our raison d’être — intelligence and learning for both our students and ourselves. In another sense, though, something strange has happened, a shift in the institution that is difficult to describe but that will, I hope, become clearer as my story unfolds.

So now, instead of vainly repeating myself to yet another “senior manager,” I want to talk to you, the parents of the students I am supposed to teach. I don’t think you’re perfect, or that you can solve the problem single-handedly. In fact, I suspect that you, like me, are part of the problem. After all, in the world as it is, money, power, expediency, reputation, career advancement, convenience, and compliance with the zeitgeist are the tickets to success. So why wouldn’t you go along too? Why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I inflate Susan’s and Bill’s grades to ensure that they have a nice experience, don’t feel disrespected, and acquire the type of transcripts necessary for their preferred employment? Why not indeed, if doing so comes with the added perk of preventing me from catching hell from students, administrators, and you for ruining the party by refusing to say that two plus two equals five? I have no excuse for my actions apart from my desire to pay my mortgage. Perhaps you feel the same way about your children and their future mortgages. But you (and me, too, ultimately) are supposed to care about them, not out of self-interest or even their self-interest in some narrow sense, but because you love them and want them to have real happiness, and real intelligence, and really to know something, and not just to have the appearance of these things.

So I’ll make a deal with you: I’ll have the courage possibly not to be able to pay my mortgage if you’ll have the courage to listen to my story and then to insist, loudly and clearly to those in power, that you are no longer willing to put up with their technological gimmicks and empty rhetoric about “student-centered learning” and insist instead that your children actually learn something and have their intelligence cultivated and refined by attending the institutions over which they preside. The gimmicks look good, like a nice, new shiny car. But they are still gimmicks. And the fact that universities, in the interest of increasing enrollments (= money), are willing to flatter you and your children so shamelessly about how wonderful and intelligent you all are should tell you that you are being played. This isn’t even political correctness and the therapeutic culture anymore; this is a straight-out scam. That fact that anyone falls for it is evidence of precisely the types of decline in higher education that I wish to discuss.

A word about which universities I have in mind, because not all universities are the same. I wish to speak about third- and fourth-tier Canadian schools that are primarily undergraduate institutions. Historically, these schools have had few graduate programs and have focused their curriculum on the liberal arts and sciences. Today they are abandoning this tradition at an alarming rate in favor of professional programs like engineering, nursing, education, and business. As they stand, these schools are about as similar to, say, the Claremont Colleges as pickled eggs are to Coquilles Saint-Jacques. They’re both universities, but … So just to be clear about my subject, I’m going to be talking about the pickled eggs.

The communities where such universities exist, like jars of pickled eggs themselves, tend to be on the margins and therefore poorer and less resourced than their urban counterparts. A common refrain often heard in these communities is that, because their kids are poorer, we shouldn’t expect too much from them. It’s not fair to them because of where they came from.

Though this is always presented as compassion, it’s not. It’s contempt. It amounts to saying, “Because these kids are poor it’s all right if we also let them be illiterate.” That to me simply adds insult to injury. Intelligence is and always has been a great leveler. It roams the world freely, flagrantly disregarding its divisions and classes. But it’ll settle in and make itself at home anywhere it receives an honest welcome.

It took a long time and a lot of advertising to convince people otherwise. To convince them, for instance, that you had to be rich to be smart, or that you had to be rich to be happy. Both statements are untrue, and there is a fortunate economic benefit that accrues to this fact for the universities I’m concerned with — there are a lot of poor smart people around looking for work in the university — any university — who, if only given the opportunity, would work themselves to the bone trying to help those poor students become as intelligent as their natures want them to be. But even better, there are a lot of people already in the university who care deeply about students and who go to extraordinary lengths with increasingly diminishing returns to educate them. They aren’t at Harvard but they don’t care about that. They are where they are, and they take themselves and their students seriously, or at least they try to. Some of them do absolutely first-rate scholarly work and have expansive pedagogical resources. But who listens to them? No one.

But one more thing before I begin: Why should you, parents of students at Claremont or Stanford or one of the UC schools, care? What’s it to you how these universities are faring? Perhaps you shouldn’t care. But I think it might be good for you, for two reasons. First, it’s always good to think about the less fortunate. It can make you more merciful, because you see how fickle fate can be and how, social capital notwithstanding, one or two slight turns of the screw either way could have caused things to turn out quite differently. It can also build community and even create more equity because seeing others’ misfortunes tends to make us less inclined to add to them. But second, and more to the point, the disease from which my university suffers, yours does too. It’s not as bad where you are, stage one or two as opposed to stage four, but it is recognizably the same disease, and it’s just as aggressive: administrative bloat, student illiteracy,[1] lots of “student experience” but very little “student intelligence,” dumb and dumber no longer a bad Hollywood joke but the unacknowledged consequence, if not the principle, of higher education. If you think I exaggerate, please read on. The university education you save may be your child’s.

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Over the past few years I have been polling my students informally on two basic questions: (1) How many of you, were you told today that a university education was no longer a requirement for employment, would quit? (2) For those of you who would remain, how many of you would switch programs were the same to be true? Positive responses to both questions run consistently in the 50 percent range. That means that roughly 75 percent of all students in my classes do not wish to be there.[2] And this corresponds to another interesting statistic: somewhere between 50 percent and 60 percent of all students who enter the university will not graduate after six years. In other words, all of those students who don’t want to be in university soon won’t be, but not before one or two years of tuition has been extorted from them.

During one class a couple of years ago, I dimmed the lights in order to show a clip of an interview. The moment the lights went down I saw dozens and dozens of bluish, illumined faces emerge from the darkness. That’s when I understood that a lecture or discussion is now only one of several entertainment options available to students in the university classroom. Given the way the game is played, lectures and discussions rank well below Facebook or Tumblr. You can’t get mad at them for this, not like in the old days. “Hey, you, pay attention! This is important.” Say that today and you won’t hear anger or shame. You’ll hear something like: “Wha…? Oh, sorry sir. My bad. I didn’t mean anything.” And they don’t. They don’t mean anything. They are not dissing you; they are not even thinking about you, so it’s not rebellion. It’s simply that the ground has shifted and left you hanging there in empty space, like Wile E. Coyote. Just a few more moments (or years) and down we’ll all tumble. These people look like students. They have arms and legs and heads. They sit in a class like students used to do; they have books and write papers and take exams. But they are not students anymore, and you are not a professor. And there’s the rub.

What they are, what we are, is difficult to say. But I read a description of contemporary Russian media the other day that comes pretty close to explaining it:

We all know [that in Russia] there will be no real politics. But we still have to give our viewers the sense something is happening. They need to be kept entertained. So what should we play with? Shall we attack oligarchs? Who’s the enemy of the week? Politics has got to feel […] like a movie![3]

When I read that I thought: That’s it! That’s my classes. There is no real education anymore, but I still have to create the impression that education is happening. Students will therefore come to class, but they will not learn. Professors will give lectures, but they will not teach. Students will receive grades, but they will not earn them. Awards and degrees will be granted, but they will exist only on paper. Smiling students will be photographed at graduation, but they will not be happy.

But let me describe this less abstractly for you.

First, I should admit to you up front that I am part of the problem I wish to describe and analyze. When I think of my teachers and the scholars to whom I have looked as models of what it means to do this work well, I don’t just feel inferior to them; I am inferior to them. There is no false humility here; nor am I saying that this is always or inevitably the case — Einstein was someone’s student. But it is my case and also that of a whole generation of scholars with whom I came of age, I think.

How did it happen? To state the matter bluntly, the liberal arts and sciences don’t matter anymore. At some point after the Second World War, the latent assumption in the West that the humanities and “pure” science are at best luxuries and at worst irrelevant in comparison to the vaunted achievements of technologically driven research had infiltrated the university so thoroughly that administrators, faculty, and students began to act on that assumption in setting program priorities and curriculum. Because my friends and I all believed that what we were doing was entirely serious, we scoffed at the philistines as though their recriminations were little more than TV-style, frat house barbarity — infuriating but ultimately harmless. We were wrong. Many of the engineers who were painted purple during frosh week are now running the institutions where we teach. And they weren’t kidding when they were pissing on our guitars in the quad. It was a promissory note on the future — a future they could feel in their bones belonged to them, not us.

So what happened? Once our youthful, grad school illusions wore off in the trenches of a real academic job, it became clear to us that what we were doing did not matter either to those in power or to many of our students and colleagues. In the intervening years the culture had declined so precipitously that to argue, say, that the work of Albert Camus offered an important critique of the contemporary cult of efficiency that merited serious consideration would be met with silence, incomprehension, or even ridicule. I remember making such an argument in a large undergraduate class taught by multiple faculty members only to have one of my colleagues respond by asserting that what I was saying was merely “fluff.” How is one to respond to such a claim — made in a university classroom? According to the reigning ethos, politely, as it turns out. When it comes to a fair fight the barbarians are … well … barbarians. Incapable of virtue, they insist hypocritically on etiquette — and the powers that be are so vigilant about keeping up the appearance of civility that they may even suspend you or charge you with harassment should you have the temerity to call them on their hypocrisy and refuse to play nice. Not having to be nice when others are acting shamelessly is what academic freedom was meant to protect. We are supposed to value truth so deeply that we will be willing to tolerate the odd ill-mannered excess to ensure it is upheld and defended. We used to be big enough for that. It’s even enshrined in Collective Agreements. For instance, the Collective Agreement at my university states that the academic freedom of faculty members extends so far as to guarantee their right to criticize the university itself and their Faculty Association without fear of reprisal. When institutions go off the rails and become corrupt we are called upon to say so, clearly and unambiguously, and university administrators are supposed to listen. What happens instead? Gag orders, disaffected personnel serially disappearing without explanation, buy-outs with lots of hush money exchanging hands. You’d think you were in Bosnia circa the 1990s, or the Egypt of Hosni Mubarak.

This talk of academic freedom is more hope than reality, and the resistance it suggests is anything but the rule. If you are mocked and denigrated for years on end, whether passively-aggressively through the slow, clawing back of your budgets or the Disneyfication of your course offerings (Religious Studies 211: The Whore of North Africa: Augustine Gone Wild in Carthage) by more “progressive” colleagues, sooner or later your rational self will tell you that the game is up and you will stop doing what it is you do (serious study of texts and historical events, honest lectures with real content) and start doing what you are expected to do (keep an increasingly disengaged and intellectually limited group of young people entertained or otherwise distracted for three hours a week). Though entirely understandable, this is a self-defeating strategy, a race to the bottom in which there are no winners. None. You dumb down your lectures to keep your subscriptions up and to justify your courses in the eyes of the administration, and the dumber they become the less justification there is for continuing them and the more the administration sneers when it hears your defenses of the ennobling powers of the humanities or the arts or even the pure sciences. Ennobling? An online course that can be completed in a weekend and without reading a page? Tell us another one.

The extent of the betrayal this dumbing-down will require of you will depend in large part on your particular market. In the really cheap academic seats, serial use of YouTube clips, movies, and “student-centered learning activities” will and does pass as course content. (Last term, I was driven from my office on many occasions because the movie sound tracks emanating from the seminar room next door were so loud and unrelenting I couldn’t concentrate.) In slightly more affluent markets, something more middlebrow will be expected — say, an original Prezi presentation with YouTube bits thrown in only for spice and to establish “relevance” and perhaps also to satisfy nascent bourgeois resentment by affording a moment of condescension to “the culture.”

All such efforts to create the illusion of content in an effectively contentless environment are acceptable so long as they are entertaining and successful participation requires no real effort and no real accountability. If you’d like a sense of how contentless it can get, I have heard of an instructor, one without a PhD, who assigned his students videos of himself talking about this or that subject as their class text. A digital lecture is assigned as preparation for a live lecture that will be about a digital lecture. And this not from a Hannah Arendt or an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, neither of whom would have ever stooped so low, but from a partly educated sessional instructor with a curiously inflated perception of self. Great works — of science, art, literature, philosophy, and history — are the giants on whose shoulders we stand in our efforts to become giants ourselves and to explore with our students the best of what has been thought and written. The fact that such works may now plausibly be replaced by narcissistic and transparently self-promoting twaddle makes the nihilism of the modern university classroom amply clear. This is the classroom in which your son or daughter sits each day. Let’s map the contours of its nihilism a little more carefully.

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The anecdotal evidence I’ve been able to gather tells me that students do not read anymore. In one course I co-taught with several other faculty members, the readings were posted online, which allowed us to map access patterns. In that course, readings were accessed — not necessarily read — by between 5 and 15 percent of the students in the class. The same pattern was confirmed by the textbook sales in a course from the previous year. There were roughly 230 students in that class. I was teaching George Orwell’s 1984 and I had ordered 230 copies based on enrollments. At the end of term, the bookstore informed me that it had sold only 18 copies of the book, a hit rate of about 8 percent. It may be that some students already had the book, or had purchased it from another source. But the quality of essays and midterm exams suggested a very different story, as did students’ own explanations of their actions. If you only remove your professor hat for a moment and allow them to speak frankly, they will tell you that they don’t read because they don’t have to. They can get an 80 without ever opening a book.

If you had a light bulb manufacturing company and your staff members were permitted to remain ignorant of filament oxidization, you would produce bulbs that would be both inefficient and very short lived. In others words, you’d produce bad light bulbs and you’d soon be out of business. If you are teaching ancient Greek history and allow your students to remain ignorant of Thucydides, Herodotus, and Xenophon, not only will they write terrible papers, they won’t know anything about how the ancient Greeks lived and fought and loved and what that might teach them about their own lives. But don’t worry — you won’t go out of business because of this failure, not in the modern university. So long as your class is fun and well subscribed to, you’ll be favored by the administration and probably receive a teaching award — and this even though the truth of the matter is that your students will leave your class in worse condition than they entered it, because you will have pandered to their basest inclinations while leaving their real intellectual and moral needs unmet.

University administrators have discovered that a “successful” classroom is only in exceptional circumstances positively correlated with the academic excellence of the person instructing it. In fact, the two are increasingly inversely related — the more academic excellence, the more work, the less fun (of the type I’m describing, at least — for some of us, real effort is fun), the poorer the ratings, the lower the subscriptions, and therefore the less “success.” So why care about academic excellence at all? Why care whether your faculty members know their subjects thoroughly and deeply or have real degrees from real institutions when the appearance of these things will do?

In place of such full-time academic staff, the university is filling up with a new class of instructors who march to a very different drum. I’m not speaking about occasional or term contract staff, many of whom are first-rate scholars and teachers. The instructors I’m thinking of are those with terminal master’s degrees, sometimes in bona fide academic disciplines but increasingly in professional programs like education that have much more to do with technique, or scholarly writing about technique, than with scholarly work per se. For a long time such people received only the scraps from the academic table — the odd sessional contract or semi-administrative post required to fill a temporary and unanticipated hole in the timetable. But administrators have begun to understand the real value of such people.

First, they are not scholars but employees. They think of administrators as people they work for rather than people who work for them by supporting their teaching and research.  Second, they are vulnerable and therefore remain mostly silent about critical matters. If a sessional instructor complains publicly about her institution or its declining standards, she will do so only once. Like the staffers of a Mexican resort, if she refuses to cooperate and insists on talking to the guests about the truth of the place, she will be summarily dismissed and replaced by one of the hundreds just like her, ready to assume her position. Finally, the very act of employing, empowering, and often elevating such people denigrates real scholars and scholarship by definition. If a person who knows next to nothing of what you know can do what you do just as well as you do it, then what is the value of what you know? There is no clearer example of the administrative caste’s contempt for faculty. But there is also no clearer example of their contempt for your children.  Under-educated instructors fill university classrooms, compromising the value of your sons and daughters’ education. But these instructors also allow administrators, many of them without PhDs, to weaken and destroy real academic departments, thereby giving themselves a free hand in setting a curriculum that has far less to do with knowledge than with pandering to market forces and student whims. The curriculum that results from this practice is more a mirror than a book or other object of study. When you look into it you encounter no enigma, no question or “other” luring you from your solitude, but only a precise reflection of yourself.

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Universities, like people, are duplicitous and loathe having their duplicity exposed publicly. They therefore seek ways of obscuring the truth of their decline while also creating the impression of ever-increasing achievement. But how is this grand trompe-l’œil to be sustained? How can you cease to do, or at best do very badly, what you claim is the raison d’être of your institution — cultivating intelligence and learning — while still persuading people to pay you large sums of money for your services?  Without putting too fine a point on it, you lie, obfuscate, and “redefine” your mandate so as to hide the truth of your institution.

Consider, for instance, the growth of university Public Relations Offices, or Communications Departments, as they are more often called these days. These Offices and Departments work directly for the upper administration, and so do its bidding without resistance. They advertise the university, inflating its accomplishments and spinning its failures so as to maximize exposure and limit damage. And they are often quite well resourced. At my university, which is a small, primarily undergraduate institution with a student population of roughly 4,000, this department has a full time staff of 12 in addition to whatever operating budget it receives.

Another remedy is the “building program,” for which capital funds are solicited from various governmental and non-governmental sources to help “build the future” of the institution and its community, a future that usually assumes the face of one or another professional program — nursing, engineering, education. In some cases, of course, these building programs are warranted. However, often they are undertaken not to serve real needs but to generate revenue and pad the CVs of senior administrators in preparation for their next career appointment, frequently to the detriment of existing programs from which they draw operational monies in order to sustain themselves, particularly in their early development, when they have yet to generate income from student tuition fees. But what photo opportunities they make possible!

Such remedies are designed to manage community perceptions and to satisfy social agendas. But what remedy is there for the problems of declining student competence and increasing student illiteracy? Ability and literacy are the true deliverables of a university education, aren’t they? How is their disappearance to be managed?

The first remedy is simply to juke the stats. Over the past 14 years of teaching, my students’ grade point averages have steadily gone up while real student achievement has dropped precipitously. Papers I would have failed 10 years ago as unintelligible and failing to qualify as “university-level work” I now routinely assign grades of C or higher. Each time I do so I rub another little corner of my conscience off, cheat your daughter of an honest low grade or failure that might have been the womb of a real success, and add a little bit more unreality to an already unreal situation.

I am speaking, of course, of grade inflation. For faculty, the reasons for it range from a desire to avoid time-consuming student appeals to attempting to create a level playing field for their own students in comparison to others to securing work through high subscription rates rather than real popularity to cynical acceptance of the rule of the game. Since most degrees involve no real content, it doesn’t matter how they are assessed. Beyond questions of mere style, there are no grounds for assigning one ostensibly studious paper an A and another a B when both are illusory. So let the bottom rise to whatever height is necessary in your particular market, so long as there remains at least some type of performance arc that will maintain the appearance of merit.

For students, the motives for grade inflation are similar to those of their professors in some respects and different in others. Given the way the university game is currently played, they too desire a level playing field and understand the importance of appearing to be, if not actually being, competent in their chosen field. But as practices change so do habits of mind and expectations. As students are awarded ever-higher grades, over time they will begin to believe that they deserve such grades. If this practice begins early enough, say in middle or secondary school, it will become so entrenched that, by the time they reach university, any violation of it will be taken as a grievous and unwarranted denigration of their abilities. Perhaps somewhere deep down they know, as do we, that their degrees are worthless and their accomplishments illusory. But anyone who challenges them will very likely be hauled before an appeal board and asked to explain how she has the temerity to tell them their papers are hastily compiled and undigested piles of drivel unacceptable as university-level work. The customer is always right. As one vice president I know of states on her website, she promises to provide “one-stop shops” and “exceptional customer service” to all. Do not let the stupidity of this statement fool you into believing it is in any way benign. The sad truth of the matter is that it more accurately describes the manner in which modern universities operate than the version I am arguing for here. We no longer have “students” — only “customers.”

None of what I am describing here is ever said in so many words. It doesn’t need to be, because in this regard the university operates much like a reality television show in which overt scripting is unnecessary, because everyone — the participants (students) as much as the directors (professors and administrators) — knows the script by heart: be outrageous, stupid, vulgar, and then cloyingly sentimental to bring the whole story to a satisfactory conclusion. The university’s narrative is not quite so lowbrow but it is just as scripted and just as empty: fill your classrooms with the rhetoric of experiential learning, e-learning, student-centered learning, lifelong learning, digital literacies and so on, and then top it all off with superlative grades to confirm the truth of the rhetoric, QED. Thus you may dispense with real learning and real intelligence, just as reality television has dispensed with reality.

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Online courses are perhaps one of the most complete expressions of this denigration of university education. In contemporary university classrooms, students and professors are like a married couple that has been separated for months but still lives together in the same house for reasons of convenience. They don’t like one another and they’re not talking anymore, but they find it financially and socially expedient to continue cohabitating. Online courses mark the end of this arrangement. It is the moment at which even the pretence of conviviality is abandoned, the divorce papers are signed, and both parties pack their bags and head their separate ways. From then on they email only, and only for the sake of the kids.

Online courses are often justified as an effective way to eliminate spatial barriers and deal with the complex schedules of our students. However, the fact is that, increasingly, these courses are taken as a matter of preference by students already in attendance at the university full time and who often live on campus. Why go to class when you can watch a video online and then do a quiz? If your learning style is visual (if you can’t read) and your range of concentration is 15 minutes (if you have no attention span), then you can watch the video in only 15-minute chunks. And if you don’t like what you’re hearing (if you find it micro-aggressive or simply boring), you don’t even have to pretend to listen and can just turn it off and ask your friend about it later. And if you don’t understand what is being said or argued at all, don’t worry. Who will know? Not only is such an arrangement more convenient, it’s also easier. No one will ever ask you a difficult question that makes it apparent you’ve not done your readings; it is much easier to fudge your assignments or to plagiarize them outright; the assignments themselves will tend to be simplistic, multiple-choice-style tests and quizzes that fit the technical structure of the medium much better than more complex forms of writing. All of this comes with the added perk for professors of not having to read longer and often poorly written essays and reviews, and for students of not having to write them. Such is the character of the modern online university course.

Becoming stupid is not a good thing. Ever. The problem is that these structures and habits do precisely that to both professors and students. No one is immune.

I recall a meeting in which an administrator asserted enthusiastically that the university’s online teaching platform demonstrably improves student performance because one of his tech staff had discovered a correlation between more frequent usage of the platform and higher grades. Never mind that course materials are delivered through the platform and that better students tend to pay more attention to (I don’t say read) such materials; in flagrant disregard of such obvious considerations, this administrator credited a rather pedestrian technical device with the ability to make students significantly smarter and thereby to justify the pressure the institution wished to exert on faculty to deliver ever greater portions of their courses electronically. The fact that such things can be said in public without those who say them being laughed out the room is an indication of how desperate the situation has become. And it is no consolation at all to suggest that one can simply play the game while keeping one’s own counsel about the reality of the situation. As Socrates admonishes Callicles in the Gorgias, if he wishes to make any real progress in the affections of the demos it will not be enough merely to feign complicity with them — he must genuinely resemble them. Ditto in the modern university. It may be possible to denounce angrily the mediocrity you see around you when you return home at night for your first cocktail, but your criticisms will not save you from your own decline. As your anger soars, your character will diminish. You will soon find yourself using textbooks instead of primary sources, squinting at C papers until they become Bs, and watching your standards fall and your own ability with them.

All the literature says that if you drop standards to accommodate inability, students will not try harder and become better — they will become worse, and this no matter how much universities lie to you about it. But every semi-conscious, or semi-moral administrator (for it takes courage to go even this far) will tell you that the short-end money always says it is more prudent to go with the flow and allow and even encourage the illusion of achievement while letting the bottom fall out of the university than to take a real stab at genuine improvement. A new building, a strategic plan, a Gadget Design Center, a politically correct benefit drive — all of this is infinitely easier than taking in hand a generation of beautiful young people we have systematically corrupted and cheated and truly helping them become the people they might, with a little real effort and some luck, become.

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As university classrooms die, the administrative sector of the institution thrives and grows at a staggering rate.[4] The reason is that this sector is the new raison d’être of the university. The increase in administrative positions in the university — multiple vice presidents and associate vice presidents, the many staff members required to run their offices, the expansion of human resources, communications, and student services departments, and the burgeoning of registrars offices — is apparent everywhere. But it has nothing to do with administration in the old sense of the term.

In the old, “reality-based” world of institutional organization, administration was necessary in order to facilitate the actual work of the institution — teaching, learning, and research — and to support those who did it — students and professors. Because administrators were stewards (an old and beautiful word) of their institutions’ finances, they did have a say in program development and academic planning. But this say was limited to a definite range of pragmatic rather than substantial matters. Administrators were in this sense mostly nameless, behind-the-scenes folks who understood the real activity of the institution and were there to support it and those engaged in it. And because they did indeed think of themselves as “stewards” of the public trust, they tended to be sober-minded about the use of its monies.

I tried to illustrate this old-style understanding for colleagues and administrators at a colloquium at my university a couple of years ago by offering a pictorial representation of the university as I thought it should be. First I drew a very large building named “Students,” then another of comparable size named “Professors,” then a still larger one named “Library,” and finally a tiny shed well off to the side named “Administration.” I wasn’t attempting to insult anyone by this, but simply to make a serious point in a mildly amusing way. In the event, my meaning was not lost on one administrator, who, noting the disparity in proportions and considering it necessary to match wits with me, suggested that come time for the renewal of my contract, I would not be found in any one of my fictitious university buildings. How is that for real university debate? Suggest a deficiency in university governance and it’s a pair of cement galoshes for you.

The older administrative cast, with its sobriety and its appreciation of the real ends of the university, no longer exists. Today presidents and vice presidents act like bosses and CEOs as they jet around the world, post pictures of themselves on their institutions’ websites receiving clown checks, cutting ribbons, and shaking hands, and build around themselves large cadres of expensive staffers dedicated exclusively to serving, well, them. What they and their universities’ boards of governors fail to understand is that we don’t really care about their strategic plans and new programs and buildings projects because we do not recognize their authority to do these things. The university does not belong to them, nor does it belong to us; it is a public trust, a beautiful idea to which all of us who inhabit it subscribe and to which we must subordinate our own interests in order that its real work may be done. Anyone who violates that trust violates also her place in the institution and forfeits her right to act on its behalf.

As money is siphoned from academic programs through attrition, it is channeled into a host of middle-management positions of the types I mentioned earlier. For instance, in my university there are some 56 employees in just three administrative departments — communications, student services, and the registrar’s office. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. To get a real sense of the staffing proportions, consider that in 2011 there were 609 permanent and contract staff members working for the university and 303 permanent and term faculty members.[5] In other words, the number of people employed to support the work of the institution was over double the number of people employed to do the work of the institution. When you follow the money, the proportions get even worse. Despite the rhetoric of large faculty salaries gobbling up precious university resources, the numbers tell a different story. In a conversation last year with a senior executive of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, I was told that the average proportion of Canadian university budgets that goes to pay faculty members is 25%! A business working on such a model might not necessarily go bankrupt, at least not right away. It might even prove extremely lucrative for certain high-ranking executives and shareholders for a time, as it was in 2008 and afterward for US banks. But if assessed on its ability to generate and distribute real wealth, its emptiness and unsustainability is palpable. Like such businesses, universities are able to continue functioning because parents, students, and governments keep supplying them with capital on the assumption of a genuine return on investment. But since the institution no longer produces anything, no such return is forthcoming. Its “product” — cultivating intelligence and learning — has been abandoned in favour of a host of other, far less demanding activities delivered by staff members much more amenable to the new ethos.

These are the student services personnel who are populating our universities in ever greater numbers and draining our budgets. Now that they have achieved a certain critical mass and because they work directly for and have the favor of the upper-level administrators who employ them, they have become a sector unto themselves with their own agenda and considerable power within the institution. That agenda? As one of my friends put it to me recently, the student services cabal is no longer there to support faculty in their work of educating students but “but to compete with them to define the student experience.” And what is the experience they wish to define? Many things, but at bottom, one in which students are made to feel happy, empowered, valued and the center of their own learning experience, all of which will be orchestrated by the student services department itself, which will guide students to this beatific end and shield them from cantankerous faculty who insist on raining on the parade by actually attempting to teach them something.

If you think I overstate the matter, consider this: I know of faculty members who have been summoned by student services staff members to “discuss” a grade with which one of their students was unhappy. Never mind that grades are not designed to make students happy but rather to encourage them to grow intellectually by setting goals just beyond their reach; and never mind also that in the university, students are considered adults who are required as a matter of policy to take their complaints directly to their professors. Partially educated student services staff members are able to intervene in academic matters for which they have no qualifications because the institution in which they work allows them to do so. As a result of their actions, your sons and daughters may well feel happy and empowered and valued in their programs. What they won’t be, however, is educated — the only true and lasting way really to experience these sentiments.

¤

Richard Arum and Joseph Roksa’s book Academically Adrift demonstrates that, of all the things going on in modern universities, serious cultivation of students’ intelligence is not one of them.[6] Their book has been a great help to me because it confirmed things I was experiencing in the classroom but which had bewildered and eluded me because of my nagging, and as it turns out, naïve belief that universities are places that, well, value intelligence. But there was one thing that continued to trouble me, even after reading Arum and Roksa’s analysis, and that was the question of why. Why was this so? Why was it impossible to educate my students, in any meaningful sense of the word, when we (me, my colleagues, even some administrators) knew perfectly well how to do so? It was like wondering why that sweaty, panting guy in the gym clothes standing next to the fountain with a cup in his hand refuses to drink.

But then I had an epiphany. It occurred one evening while I was giving a seminar to a small group of students from a large first-year course I was coordinating at the time.[7] If all the financial, physical, and intellectual equipment necessary to educate these people were present, and yet they remained uneducated even after spending five or even six years in our classrooms, then the problem was not that we were unable to cultivate their intelligence but that we did not want to, and that participation in the world we had created for them somehow did not require it of them either.

I remember the shock. For years I had been thinking that the reason no one was being educated was due to a failure, one that could be rectified if only we were able to discover its real source(s) — mine, the students’, the university’s. That was my rational world, a world in which we were all in agreement about the goal of the enterprise but were having some trouble sorting out the details of how to reach it. It was my belief in that world that led me repeatedly to try to fix things: by improving my lectures, by arguing with administrators about lax standards and inflated grades, by proposing ever more complex and vigorous course structures and supports to encourage students to take the material seriously. But then my epiphany occurred, and that was when I realized that what I was experiencing wasn’t failure in the sense of a deviation from a shared norm, but a wholesale abandonment of the enterprise itself. My university world was no longer rational.

I was so compelled by the insight that I tried in some fumbling way to (what else?) explain it to my students. The first thing I did was to walk around the room and gather up all their cell phones, calling out the dancing bears, as it were, to grab the audience’s attention. Once I had it I said something like this: “You know why you’re all texting and shopping and Facebooking (is that even a word?) while I’m trying to teach you this damn book? You’re not here to read books! You know as well as I do that that is not the point, not the reason you’re here. You’re here to have fun, to have lots of cool social and personal experiences, to ‘get a degree’ and perhaps acquire a couple of employable skills along the way. But you are not here to learn or to become more intelligent. What’s worse, no one cares if you do or don’t! So why the hell am I wasting my time? Why are you?” I wasn’t angry — not at all. Nor did I think it was their fault. Someone did this to them. And at bottom they were smarter than me about it because it was their world we were talking about and they knew its rules far better than I did. It was a complex moment in which I was trying to catch up with them, but also trying to persuade them to slow down and consider other possibilities. In other words, even then I was trying to teach them!

The response from the students was as you might imagine. A few were intrigued by my diatribe and began to take my courses. Others were amused but unmoved. By far the majority simply enjoyed my “enthusiasm” and the fact that I had “sworn” in class (I know because they said so on their student evaluations). My response was like that of the first group — it sent me down a path I am still on, and which has led me to write this long note to you, dear parents.

¤

The fact that universities are allowing your children to become steadily less intelligent does not mean that the rank order and hierarchies of their world will disappear in a miasma of undifferentiated stupidity. Remember the film Idiocracy? Even after its collapse, the upper tier of that society remained, but it was in the hands of “Camacho,” a professional wrestler turned President of the Republic who was having considerable trouble solving the nation’s food shortage because he and his staff insisted on watering the crops with a sports drink called “Brawndo.” If it makes athletes and professional wrestlers stronger, why not corn?

In the case of your children, their rank in the society will depend in large part on the degree they (or rather, you) can afford. The kids who attend the types of universities I’ve been describing are, except for a few very exceptional cases, destined for the lower ranks in the modern chain of production and consumption. They’ll work in retail or the bottom end of the tech industry, drive Kias, and eat at East Side Mario’s rather than do design work for Apple, drive BMWs, and eat at Chez whatever. You might think that the worst thing about this scenario is just that — finding yourself in the former as opposed to the latter group — but it’s not. There are genuinely happy, well “educated” people who drive Kias, munch on Chicken Parmesan, and work for Dunkin’ Donuts. And there are very unhappy and malformed people who sit staring at their Beemers from the balcony of La Société contemplating their partner’s recent “merger” with someone with even better economic prospects.

The worst is not any of these fates, because all of them, high and low, are still concerned only with the life of animal laborans — the labor of sustaining life rather than the living of it. The worst fate for our children, yours and mine, is that because their education has been about little more than fun, self-affirmation, and “skills acquisition,” when the easy pleasures of youth run out and self-affirmation is all they’ve got left, because the student services cheerleaders aren’t around any longer to reinforce that particular illusion, what will remain for them is not just bad work, unappetizing fare, and the dreary distractions of the modern entertainment industry — all of which can be tolerated, as bad as they may be — but the absence of something to live for, the highest and most beautiful activity of their intelligence. To cheat them of that is the real crime, and the most profound way in which modern universities have betrayed the trust of an entire generation of young people.

It is about time we all said “enough.” After hearing my brief tale, should you choose to take a stand against this appalling denigration of the university and actively attempt to pry your children free from the pandering and irresponsible grasp of the administrators, professors, and managers I’ve described here, I assure you that tens of thousands of us would join with you in your fight — on your and your children’s side of the barricades.

¤

[1] John Seery, “College at Its Best (Hint: Small and Real),” The Huffington Post, accessed November 20, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-seery/college-at-its-best-hint_b_8348222.html.

[2] These polls have been taken in first-year, university-wide courses that included students from all faculties and disciplines. Though statistically still anecdotal, the cross-section lends support to my claim that this sentiment is not confined to arts programs. Indeed, there is a feeling that, were students no longer to think solely about career prospects, they might well prefer to study arts instead.

[3] Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (New York: Public Affairs, 2014), 37-42.

[4] Benjamin Ginsberg, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[5] “UPEI by the Numbers,” accessed November 19, 2015, http://www.upei.ca/files/home/bythenumbers.pdf

[6] Richard Arum & Joseph Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[7] The inspiration for that epiphany was a lecture I had heard earlier in the day on Jean Baudrillard’s analysis of modern technological society, by my colleague, Gil Germain. He had argued that, instead of an erotic and tragic world in which we longed for things we could never fully possess – things like wisdom – and that we would perhaps not otherwise attain except through education in the best sense, ours was an operational one, in which efficiency trumped love and performance rather than action was the real engine of our various “behaviors.”

¤

Dr. Ron Srigley teaches classical political philosophy and religion and literature at the University of Prince Edward Island. He is the author of Albert Camus’ Critique of Modernity and the translator of Camus’s Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism


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