Walking Among the University’s Ruins

From Public Books:

Universities might be facing a moment similar to what befell early modern English monasteries under Henry VIII. For generations, explains Ronald Musto in The Attack on Higher Education (2021), monasteries were the center of English intellectual and religious life. They were innovators that developed new ideas. But, following the dissolution acts of 1535 and 1539, “the monasteries’ daily routines, chants, liturgical hours, processions, rituals, instructions, and labors concentrated in particular places simply ceased to exist.”

Could the same happen to universities?

It’s already happening. Today, we walk among the ruins of an institution that once had a larger purpose. It’s not clear what role universities should play in society, and to what or to whom they are accountable, other than their corporate interests.

To some, that’s not a problem, at least, according to Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt in The Great Upheaval (2021). They see higher education undergoing the same transformation that reshaped the music, film, and newspaper industries. Rather than place-based education overseen by tenured professors, they anticipate “the rise of anytime, anyplace, consumer-driven content and source agnostic, unbundled, personalized education paid for by subscription.”

Between Musto’s existential fears of disruption and Levine and Van Pelt’s embrace of it lies a third path. It takes the form of a wager—outlined by Ronald Daniels in What Universities Owe Democracy (2021)—that universities can and should continue to matter because of their importance in civic democratic life.

How did we get here? Under globalization, the modern university lost its referent, as Bill Readings wrote in his book The University in Ruins (1996). By this, Readings meant that the university no longer understood “the end and meaning of its activities.” Universities had once connected the education they offered to preparing citizens and the knowledge they produced to serving national interests and “uphold[ing] national prestige.”

But today, these purposes no longer animate our institutions. Even in 1996, Readings concluded that the university no longer functioned as “an ideological apparatus of the nation-state.” Instead, he warned, it had become “a relatively independent bureaucratic system.” It is this context, I argue, that makes the wager Daniels offers in What Universities Owe Democracy so urgent.

Ronald Daniels is the president of Johns Hopkins University, which is billed as America’s first research university. The pandemic reminded us of how essential these universities are, as Hopkins and others took the lead in generating and sharing information about the coronavirus. Hopkins, in this sense, lived up to its founding president Daniel Coit Gilman’s aspiration in 1885 that universities be places that acquire, conserve, refine, and distribute knowledge. Amid the ruins, Daniels argues for the need to reconnect this important work to higher civic purposes in order to rescue universities from a skeptical public, tight-fisted policy makers, and culture warriors on and off campus.

Universities, Daniels asserts, have four essential functions: (1) providing access in ways that encourage social mobility; (2) educating democratic citizens; (3) creating expert knowledge; and (4) encouraging students—and citizens—to engage in dialogue across difference. These four purposes are not particularly novel; other writers, indeed, have made similar claims. But the purposes are important at a time when elite institutions, in particular, often re-create existing inequalities and when universities are being pressured to replace liberal education with vocational majors. Importantly, Daniels recognizes that the public’s willingness to support higher education’s democratic mission depends on universities reengaging with the nation-state.

Daniels believes not only that universities “serve and enrich liberal democracy” but that they have the obligation to do so. By seeking truth, speaking truth to power, and creating campuses in which dialogue across difference checks dogmatism, “colleges and universities are among liberal democracy’s cornerstone institutions.” Although Canadian by birth, Daniels gives his book an “American focus.” Universities must make the case that they serve not just democracy, but American democracy.

Will Daniels’s wager work? It’s not clear. Administrators and faculty these days do not seem particularly committed to the nation-state. “Internationalization” and “globalization” are all the rage. Cynically, one might view this as a way to bring in tuition dollars from foreign students, but it also reflects the professoriate’s genuine intellectual and political commitment to a world that overcomes national parochialism. On campus today, it is suspect to call oneself a patriotic American, as if love of country is something reserved for those other people in red states.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG does not claim to be an expert on the American university system, either as a whole or in part. He does, however, read articles about universities as part of his desire to understand what is going on in the United States as a whole and his friends include university professors and executive administrative staff.

From the outside looking in, PG believes that a great many institutions of higher learning are shamefully overpriced. The pricing philosophy seems to be to hit the rich and near-rich with the increasingly high sticker price and use scholarships and large government-backed student loans for those who would otherwise be unable to attend.

As PG has mentioned before, he attended a very respectable private university in ancient times, making his way via scholarships, student loans and working one or two jobs during the term. Payments on his student loans were an amount that he could manage without a great deal of difficulty on his post-university salary working for a couple of large business organizations. In PG’s assessment, his degree and where he got it was important for his obtaining his first job after graduation and not very important for any jobs he had after the first one.

That said, the amount of student debt is just extraordinarily high at a great many private universities.

Per the Education Data Initiative, the average non-profit university bachelor’s degree graduate has $33,700 in student loan debts. The equivalent average debt from a public university is $27,000.

Looking at average student debt on a state-by-state basis, 74% of bachelor’s graduates (from both private and public institutions) in New Hampshire graduate with student loan debt. The average amount of debt accrued by a New Hampshire graduate is $39,410.

85% of Black graduates had debt compared with 66% of White graduates. Black graduates have nearly $8,000 more debt on average than White graduates.

A higher percentage of female students incur debt than male students and the total debt average at graduation for women is somewhat higher than for men.

Between 2004 and 2016, average student debt at graduation doubled.

The average medical school graduate owes $241,600 in total student loan debt. The average law school graduate owes $160,000 in student loan debt.

The total student loan debt in the United States is currently $1.75 trillion,

It takes student borrowers over 20 years on average to pay off their student loans. The average medical school graduate’s salary is not sufficient to make their student loan payments.

Don’t forget that student loan debts are accruing interest, so payments must cover the amount borrowed plus interest. Most borrowers have to use 10-20% of their salaries to pay off their student debts, so in some cases, marriage, children and acquiring a home are deferred.

The overall dropout rate for undergraduate college students is 40%. Nearly a third of college freshmen drop out before their sophomore year. 38% of college dropouts – the largest portion – said they left due to financial pressure.

Again, PG obtained all his cost, dropout, etc., information from The Education Data Initiative

5 thoughts on “Walking Among the University’s Ruins”

  1. Companies used to give people tests for hiring. But, the minorities didn’t do as well as whites. So, companies just switched to demanding degrees. They outsourced the test and let colleges handle the screening.

    Today, there is a huge store of excellent videos on all kinds of subjects on the internet. Some free, some paid. I can envision a more extended testing system than we have today that would certify competence in various areas that companies want.

    There is a new resource in the game. Exactly how it will be used remains uncertain. But, I am certain it will be used extensively. I have learned about everything from installing a new kitchen drain to Fourier Transformations. If I can do it, anyone can.

  2. I notice that the supposed purpose of universities ISN’T to turn out people educated for jobs and life after college. They’re bemoaning the pressure to include more vocational programs, but if they focused more on making their current programs viable for earning a living after college and less about playing with kids’ brains and national politics, maybe they’d be worth more.
    In the meantime, we have a shortage of skilled trade workers. Why *not* push vocational programs, as a student can get through those and enter the workforce with a much better guarantee of being able to pay their bills.
    These people need to quit moaning about the death of universities as it relates to playing with people’s brains and start thinking of how to actually be useful.

    • Technical colleges and Institutes are already filling in most of those needs.


      “A technical institute offers programs that teach students about technology systems and the technical aspects of a particular career through hands-on training. Academic courses are not taught at these institutions. Many technical institutes offer degree programs, and some degrees can be earned via distance learning.

      “A technical institute, sometimes called an institute of technology or a polytechnic institute, is a school that offers education focused on research and vocational training. Students taking courses at a technical institute prepare for careers that are based on practical applications and include on-the-job training. Programs might lead to careers in computer science, electronics, drafting, medical information technology, business and health sciences. Courses in these programs are specifically designed to prepare students for the workforce and often do not include academic classes in general education or the humanities.”

      The biggest gap is in the trades and even there are some specalized schools, like for trucking. Nowhere near as many as needed, though.

      Above all the biggest need is in high school counselors. People that can explain to kids that puppetry and street art aren’t quite as remunerative as nursing, EMT, or lab tech jobs. Less jobs in those areas, too.

      • Oh, I’m familiar with technical institutes. We had one of the more prominent ones in the state in my hometown. My husband went to it. His youngest brother was one of its youngest graduates ever, before he graduated HS even, and proceeded to make money hand over fist almost immediately. I went to one online for my certification. A lot of community colleges are introducing more and more vocational programs too.

        My point is, universities should teach, not muck around with using students as social experiment guinea pigs. Although I agree with the need for school counselors in HS. I hit college completely at sea and made a total hash of the first go around.

        • Agreed.
          But first the Universities need to stop hiring ideologues.
          And get out of “amateur” athletics. The corruption starts with the money.
          As long as tbey get the big bucks they don’t need to worry what goes at the student level.

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