What I Have Seen

Wisdom from a higher-ed career

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Magazine

The lament about our failed schools and universities is by now familiar. From the left, the complaint is that they are underfunded, even ignored by a shortsighted and heartless public. The pay of teachers and professors supposedly remains poor in comparison with similarly educated private-sector professionals. Schools are asked to educate troubled youth and thereby rectify societal ills, all the while seeking a broad equality of result among departing graduates; universities must also accept students who in the past were simply not college material.

Conservatives answer that the schools and universities have adopted a therapeutic curriculum in pursuit of political objectives. Teachers and professors — through powerful unions, archaic tenure protocols, and easy legal redress — are largely unaccountable, and the incompetent among them are immune from removal. While the cost of administration has grown, the quality of education — as measured by either test scores or the ability of students to meet traditional course requirements — has declined over the last four decades. The problem is not too little money, but rather how much money is misspent.

I recently retired from a 20-year career in the California State University system — the world’s largest public university, with over 400,000 students. The Fresno campus where I taught was roughly representative of the system’s other 22 campuses, which dot the state from San Diego in the south to Humboldt and Chico up north — a good cross section, in other words, of public education in the nation’s bellwether state. Looking back, I think CSU is symptomatic of how vast is the problem of higher education in America — and how unlikely it is to be resolved anytime soon.

In some ways CSU is an admirably idealistic institution with enormous challenges: It educates the children of some 3 to 4 million illegal aliens, deals with a series of state recessions and budget disasters, and survives under the control of the most partisan and politicized state legislature in the country. While the smaller and more prestigious University of California system offers Ph.D.s and has campuses in upscale Berkeley Hills, Davis, La Jolla, Santa Cruz, and Westwood, the blue-collar California State University grants nothing higher than the M.A. and occasional Ed.D. degree — mostly in applied and vocational fields — and has campuses in middle-class places like Bakersfield, Chico, Fresno, Hayward, and Turlock. Its commendable populist mandate is to educate students — many of them talented and hard-working — whom other universities might not let in.

CSU’s students are not poor by global standards, at least if the ubiquity of nice cars, expensive sneakers, and iPods among them is any indication. But they are usually culturally impoverished. Many have never been out of California (much less overseas), visited a museum, attended a symphony, or read a classic work of literature. The university puts great emphasis on diversity and racial sensitivity, but the cosmopolitan student body usually divides spontaneously into racial enclaves in university plazas and eating places. Popular culture and mixed-race dating, rather than dozens of ethnic-studies classes, help to save CSU from tribal sectarianism.

The university’s full-time professors are required to teach eight semester-length classes per year — no easy task when they are given neither teaching assistants nor adequate research budgets. A union shop on all campuses requires full-time faculty members to subtract high membership dues from their paychecks, even though only about a third have joined their appointed bargaining agent, the California Faculty Association.

Since expensive faculty members are often not replaced by similar permanent professors upon retirement, some 52 percent of the teaching faculty is not tenured or even on a tenure track. This trend, which is occurring not just at CSU but across the nation, is poorly reported — surprising, given its illiberal nature. The new horde of outsourced part-timers, many equipped with Ph.D.s, can be paid at a far cheaper per-course rate, often without benefits or employment protection. CSU has come to resemble ancient Sparta: absolute equality and privilege for the depopulated peers inside the system, rampant exploitation for the growing mass of helots outside it. Few worry that students cannot find their adjunct instructors for a meeting during office hours, or that those who increasingly do the teaching have no input in the governance of the university.

One of the more Orwellian aspects of the contemporary university is loud support from faculty members for such liberal causes as diversity, multiculturalism, and “social justice,” even as they embrace these decidedly unfair employment practices. The administration’s apparently cynical logic is undeniably brilliant: Full-time faculty, with tenure and generous benefits, will expend their critical energy yammering in abstractions about universal oppression without even questioning the concrete and immediate exploitation at home. It is almost as if savvy college administrators knew that the more their faculty mouth “Bush lied, thousands died” or show the propaganda film Jenin, Jenin on campus, the more they can ignore an outsourced Bill Smith who drops in, all but invisible, to teach two night classes, each paying about a quarter of what a full professor would receive for the same work.

The CSU system by its charter must admit any California applicant ranked in the top third of his high-school class who has at least a 2.5 grade-point average. Yet of that select cohort, nearly 40 percent are not eligible to enroll in regular university coursework without first completing a remedial, high-school-level math class, and almost half must take a course in basic English. Maddened professors usually blame the secondary schools for sending such unprepared students to their university. In response, high-school teachers cite all sorts of exculpatory circumstances — the breakdown of the family, illegitimacy, drug abuse, racism, poverty, suburban malaise, and the ennui of the American teenager — that make their instructional tasks nearly impossible.

One tactic that the university has not attempted is a return to the kind of universal and rigorous liberal-arts education that would challenge students. I had little if any success in convincing anyone that Latin, for example, rather than bilingual studies would improve migrant students’ test scores — even though, as a classics professor who taught Greek and Latin to such students for two decades, I believed that to be the case. Most of the time, it was hard enough for principled faculty to fight off such politically motivated absurdities as allowing a course on slavery to be substituted for a required core class in American history, or introducing “Star Trek and the Humanities” into the curriculum. That curriculum fails to emphasize grammar; traditional composition skills; oral presentation and the defense of one’s ideas during rigorous questioning; memorization of facts, dates, and concepts; and attention to history, literature, music, and art. From my own limited experience of seeing minority students of classics and ancient history excel after graduation, I believe such an emphasis on basic education would allow us to graduate once-disadvantaged students with enough verbal and analytical skills to compete with anyone in the cutthroat marketplace.

Instead, the CSU system finds itself trapped in a chicken-or-egg conundrum: Either it has to offer a great deal of fluff because so many of its students arrive fluff-headed, or so many of its students leave fluff-headed after taking a great many fluffy classes. Mediocrity is apparent not just in new and vapid academic programs and departments (“Recreation and Leisure Studies,” “Conflict and Peace Studies”), or in the proliferation of such courses as “Basic Massage,” “Rock Climbing,” and “The Chicano Family.” Far more revealing is the vast growth of new centers, programs, and services that simply could not have been conceived of in the university of the past but are now institutionalized — and require floor space, release time from teaching, new technologies, endless counseling, and millions of dollars in secretarial and administrative support.

The array of these projects at the Fresno campus alone is dumbfounding, and I offer here only a partial list: the Center for Educational Research and Services; the Department of Counseling, Special Education, and Rehabilitation; the Special Education Program; the Curriculum and Instruction Department; Early Childhood Education; the Department of Educational Research and Administration; Educational Administration; the Early Education Center; the Instructional Technology Resource Center; the Literacy and Early Education Department; the NASA Joaquin Valley Regional Teacher Resource Center; Reading/Language Arts; the Reading Recovery Project; the Teacher Preparation and Services Center; the Interdisciplinary Spatial Information Systems Center; the Solutions Center; the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning; Distance Learning; the Educational Opportunity Program; the Learning Resource Center; the Intensive Learning Experience Program; Southeast Asian Student Services; the Summer Bridge Program; University Migrant Services; University Outreach Services; the Educational Opportunity Center; Educational Talent Search; the Student Support Services Program; the Upward Bound Program; the Reentry Program; Services for Students with Disabilities; the Women’s Resource Center.

Such programs go a long way toward redefining the university. No longer is it necessarily a place to prepare students for a sophisticated and competitive society; it is, rather, increasingly devoted to inculcating students with the philosophy that past inequalities perpetually create legitimate grievances that in turn deserve ever-expanding compensatory measures.

That philosophy has precisely nothing to do with education as we have understood it in the past. The new goal is rather to create a particular type of citizen. Conservatives are inexact when they decry the absence of civic education in our schools. In fact, there is quite a lot of civic education going on — but not of the sort that conservatives envision. The modern public university teaches the student that his verbal or analytical shortcomings have little to do with his lack of discipline, effort, or talent, but instead arise from a variety of social and state pathologies — ranging from poverty and racism to gender bias and public neglect. Redress can start only when the student realizes why and how he has been victimized and discovers that the same government that harmed him also offers more enlightened public servants to undo the damage. He is expected, after graduation, to proselytize for this creed of entitlement, big government, and victimization.

The often well-meaning educators who advance that ideology embrace a therapeutic rather than a realistic — and, therefore, often tragic — view of human nature. They are committed to the idea that their budgets, counseling, and sensitivity can do what math, science, and liberal arts cannot: produce a happy and nice citizen. It is not so much that these adjunct staffers (who, unlike part-time faculty, are often employed full-time and well protected by the university) are irrelevant to the academic mission of the university as that they are antithetical to it. They give students perennial crutches, teach them to believe that others are responsible for their shortcomings, and persuade them that skills can somehow be obtained in ways less painful than the old academic notion of reading great literature, mastering English composition and basic math, and learning correct grammar.

On the other hand, if we dispense with the arcane notion that the billions spent on public higher education are supposed to produce creative, independent, thoughtful, and well-versed Americans, and assume instead that what we need are students who feel their nation’s injustices and express their disillusion with exquisite sensitivity, then the university is not failing at all.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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