Reaffirming Higher Education by Jacob and Noam M. M. Neusner
How Did University Education Stray So Far from Its Purpose?
AUGUST 01, 2001 by GEORGE C. LEEF
Transaction · 2000 · 209 pages · $29.95
Reviewed by George C. Leef
Father and son authors Jacob and Noam Neusner here devote their considerable experience (especially Neusner père, who has held many teaching positions in American and European universities) and writing talents to a book observing the condition of higher education in the United States. They dislike much of what they see and contribute significantly to the growing awareness that higher ed has to a large extent become an “emperor wearing no clothes” phenomenon. Their call for a reaffirmation of higher education—as opposed to the robot-like accumulation of credits leading to degrees—is right on target. Descriptively, the book is splendid, but unfortunately it doesn’t really diagnose the maladies. More on that point later.
The book is organized around a number of questions on which the authors voice their thoughts and occasionally vent their spleens. First, they ask, “Who should teach in a university?” They answer that many who now do, shouldn’t. Too many professors are practitioners of what the authors call “hyperscholarship”—doctrinaire pedagogy that coldshoulders intellectual inquiry and rational criticism. They write, “Professors who espouse Marxism or Marxist causes as a substitute for scholarship are ridiculed by conservatives and moderates alike for circling the wagons when criticized—they do not argue in the name of ideology, choosing instead to couch their defense in the language of hyperscholarship. To their critics and many disinterested observers, their defense makes no sense. After all, what kind of theory can’t be criticized in a university of all places?”
American colleges employ (usually with tenure, a practice the authors question) far too many of those foaming-at-the-mouth professors. They also employ far too many who treat teaching as a lark. The Neusners excoriate the teacher “who entertains and curries favor—generously granted by students at the slightest effort, since they would rather laugh than learn—and treats the classroom as a place not even for adventure, but mere fun.” In contrast, the good professor is one “who can enter the mind of another person and bring to life the mind of that other person. A good teacher does the work by arguing, pressing, asking questions, challenging answers, asking more questions.” Alas, there aren’t many like that.
The second question the Neusners address is, “What should universities teach?” They contend that “the true purpose of the university is to demonstrate the universal uses of criticism, reason, rationality, and rigorous thought.” And how do our modern universities fare in that regard? Not very well, the authors say, observing that “special pleading replaces learning, politically correct opinions substitute for free debate, proscribed attitudes substitute for free inquiry, and a reign of intellectual terror has descended on those who dare to deviate from accepted scholarship, particularly at the most expensive and liberal universities.” Moreover, the curriculum has been debased to appeal to the great mass of students, thereby denying to serious students the learning experiences they would otherwise have had.
Third, the Neusners ask, “Who should go to college?” The education establishment promotes the notion that everyone ought to go to college, much as McDonald’s wants everyone to drive in for a Big Mac, fries, and Coke. Our authors dissent: “The myth that all high school graduates must immediately set their sights on college has destroyed more than a few adolescents who could have saved themselves effort and their parents money by putting off college.
It is a myth fed partially by the federal government, which subsidizes American colleges with billions of tuition loan guarantees, interest payments, and scholarships every year.” Daring to speak a highly politically incorrect truth, they observe that “Not everyone can think abstractly, read responsively, or write intelligibly and correctly. . . . The few who can will benefit from higher education; the many who cannot will do better in other kinds of post-high-school programs.”
Lastly, the authors ask what function universities have in the modern Internet era. Their answer: “What universities owe society is the protection of the heritage of learning that sustains the social order of civilization. That heritage of learning is preserved in books, but best transmitted in person.” They’re absolutely right.
Therefore, what? The Neusners have given us a cri de coeur. They want to see a renaissance in higher education, but provide little in the way of guidance as to how we might bring that about. Except for a brief mention of the deleterious effects of government student aid, they say nothing about the corrosive effects of government funding and the politicization it has wrought on campuses large and small. It would have been impossible for American higher education to get so far astray from the educational purpose the Neusners identify had it not been for the cascades of money available from Washington and state capitals. Nevertheless, if you are concerned about the miserable state of higher education, this book should be near the top of your reading list.