Briefly Noted: James Pierson on the State of American Higher Education

Who knew? Noteworthy conservative critics such as William F. Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, Allan Bloom, and Roger Kimball no longer stand alone in their critique of American higher education (for dismantling core curricula that stand at the headstream of Western tradition, desperately seeking to be politically correct, emphasizing the trendy over the proven, and allowing liberal thought to have a stranglehold over the academy). James Pierson’s recent article, “What’s wrong with our universities?” (The New Criterion) examines three recent liberal assessments of the state of the American University, and prospects for the future.[1] The liberal critique is interesting, according to Pierson, precisely because it joins critiques long-held by conservatives.

Pierson first discusses Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Money and Failing Our Kids­­-and What We Can Do About It (Henry Holt & Co., 2011). This book is written with “the premise that higher education has lost its internal compass and can no longer fulfill its basic obligations to the rising generation of Americans” (19). Writing from the standpoint of the pre-1960s view (old-school liberalism) that democratic education and liberal arts should operate in tandem, the authors observe several ills in American higher education: emphasis on faculty research rather than on teaching, the multiplication of superfluous administrative posts, and the depreciation of the liberal arts. Although the authors’ observations are helpful, Pierson argues, the authors do not offer much evidence to substantiate their claims (20). Nonetheless, the book provides an interesting indictment of American higher education and offers some controversial proposals for remedying the ills.

Second, Pierson treats Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (U. of Chicago Press, 2011). Arum and Roksa claim, in the light of a good deal of complex data, that “college students are studying and writing less and learning far less than their peers of a generation ago, while our competitors are passing us by in measures of achievement and rates of college graduation” (22). As Pierson states, “though burdened by the social science excess of data and methodology, Academically Adrift is a serious effort to find out if colleges and universities are delivering on their promise to educate all students” (22). Although the authors’ diagnosis of higher education is nothing new, their proposals for improvement are focused and helpful.

Third, Pierson discusses Mark C. Taylor, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (Knopf, 2010). Taylor published this work as an expansion of his 2009 op-ed in The New York Times. In line with other critics, Taylor is troubled by the emphasis on faculty research at the expense of classroom instruction. The primary distinction of Taylor’s book is his analysis of the impact of the “Great Recession” on America’s universities (25). The negative of the book, according to Pierson, is that it does not provide a robust constructive proposal.

[Editor’s Note: This post is the first installment of a new series at BtT. “Briefly Noted” will consist of brief notes about ideas, literature, and events that might be of interest to our readers.]

[1] “What’s wrong with our universities?” The New Criterion 30 (Sep. 2011): 17-25.

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  1. Nathan Moore   •  

    It seems to me that much of Great Recession of American Higher Education is in the liberal arts fields. Disciplines that require licensure seem to have higher standards in academic preparation. Isn’t this because there is tangible accountability for educators? This is yet another reminder that we are a people in need of accountability and incentives. This deterioration is alarming considering the many benefits of a liberal arts education for the development of the western mind. This must also be a of concern for the church as we are “People of the book” and find ourselves tasked with mastering a book full of words, grammer, ideas, and logic.

    I too lack a constructive proposal other than a vague desire to see the church taking a more central role in education.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Nathan, yep. One of the many reasons to build a firm liberal arts curriculum (w a study of the Western Mind) is to understand our own context. And as ministers of the Word, we will always be preaching/teaching the Word in the midst of particular context. And our present American context is rooted in our Western heritage.

  3. Dean   •  

    Several years ago I was having lunch with a gentleman from our church who is the chairman of the Math Department at a large university. I asked him a question that popped into my head, “If Jesus were to show up today at your university, what department would He judge first?” Without hesitation he responded, “The History Department – they teach history as if the most important person who ever walked the earth never even existed.” You could apply some form of that answer to most every department in the average university. “Chronological snobbery” combined with a lost compass has made for quite the mess.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Dean, great point. Revisionist history is a prime example of what we’re talking about.

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