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Muckraking Inside the Ivory Towers

ISSUE:  Winter 1998
Bright College Years: Inside the American Campus Today. By Anne Matthews. Simon & Schuster. $23.00.

Long before Anne Matthews, author of Where the Buffalo Roam and a professor in New York University’s graduate journalism program, decided to spend four years conducting interviews at a wide range of American colleges and universities, I kept having a recurring nightmare—namely, that Ralph Nader, consumer advocate and author of Unsafe at Any Speed, turned his attention to education and ended up producing a no-holds-barred exposé entitled Ungood at Any Grade. Nobody would be spared— not the kindergarten teacher who taught me my ABC’s; not the third grade drill master who goaded me through the multiplication tables; not the usual mix of the incompetent and the inspirational I met in junior high and high school; and most certainly not the college and university professors who care more about careerism than the baffled student in the sixth row.

The nightmare first began to flit across my mental screen during the late 70’s, and picked up considerable steam in the 80’s. How much longer, I wondered, would parents, legislators, and the public at large put up with a higher education industry (read: racket) that raised tuitions on one hand and lowered educational quality on the other? Not that I numbered myself among those who yearned for a return of the Golden Age, those times (largely imaginary) when students were bright, thoroughly prepared, and intellectually curious. As Matthews reminds us, however, many of the problems that read like last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education first raised their ugly collective heads in the early 14th century: “Undergraduates major in drinking and hazing, or cling to their own ethnic group and fight all the rest; student riots can last days. Faculty specialize in vicious tenure struggles and recruiting wars, rely too much on teaching assistants. . . .” In short, the more campus life seems to change the more it remains the same.

Still, those who make much of the difference between college life pre-1964 and its current post-60’s condition are not entirely wrong. Add, as Matthews does, sobering statistics about the sheer cost of academia’s dizzying growth (colleges and universities now employ some 2.5 million people, more than the auto, steel, and textile industries combined—and at an annual cost of $300 billion dollars), and the elements necessary for muckraking are in place. Small wonder, then, that government agencies and parents alike wonder if higher education continues to deserve a free pass, or if it should now compete with any number of other worthy causes, from improving highways to medical research. Not surprisingly, administrators are longer on glitzy brochures and large promises about upward earning curves than on hard thought about exactly what a liberal education means and how it might best be achieved. After all, many presidents and deans insist, analogies to other sectors of the free market do not work when applied to the special circumstances of “ideas.” Again, they have a point, at least so far as counting the number of shoes a factory produced in a given quarter is easier to measure than what students learned, or did not learn, in a given semester. Longstanding as this debate has been (Writing under the pseudonym of Silence Dogood, a 16-year-old Benjamin Franklin complained, in the pages of his older brother’s Boston newspaper, that many a Harvard graduate returned to his parents “as great a blockhead as ever.” This opinion, however, did not prevent him from founding the University of Pennsylvania or lending his name to the college that butters my particular parsnips), what rankles are ads like this one from the tell-it-like-it-is folks at The Gap: “Bachelor’s degrees required, and the ability to lift fifty pounds.”

For better or worse, my life on campus stretches across the imaginary divide separating the placid 50’s from the raucous 60’s. No doubt elements of both have their lingering effects, as I discovered recently when I unearthed a carton containing love beads and peace medallions, a pair of bell bottoms and a tie-dyed shirt. Recognizing just how powerful the popular culture can be humiliating (did I really wear that stuff? Answer: I did), but not necessarily fatal. After all, I long ago put away the props of an age that made much of theater and a good deal less of rational sense and returned to the khakis and blue button downs of my undergraduate years. As my children like to put it, when I get dressed in the morning, it’s 1955 all over again.

Yet, even in those benighted times, now so derided and debunked, there were cautionary tales that anyone with eyes could see. In my freshman Introduction to Philosophy class, for example, most of the students rather enjoyed being plunged into deep philosophic waters. (One week the class read Aristotle, another Acquinas—with the likes of Descartes, Locke, Hume, Mill, and Marx waiting in the wings.) True enough, we thrashed at the heady waters as opposed to effortlessly swimming through them, but what we clearly lacked in sophistication we more than made up with enthusiasm. All of us, that is, except one pinchfaced type who resented that this was a required course and made his displeasure known by his silences and the pained expression on his face.

Imagine our surprise—to say nothing of our instructor’s surprise—when, unexpectedly, uncharacteristically—his hand shot up. He had, it seems, a question. But first he launched into a long preface during which he pointed out that, on one page, Socrates implies that virtue is knowledge, but a few pages later, the position seems very much in doubt. “Exactly right, Mr. Rosen,” our instructor replied. “And now, what is your question?” As the cliché would have it, we were on the very edge of our seats, amazed that Rosen had powers of speech heretofore unexhibited, and curious about the Big Question he was itching to ask. “My question is this,” Rosen began, “for purposes of the mid-term exam, is virtue knowledge or not?”

We hardly need a book like Bright College Years to tell us that such students have always been with us—the dolt who writes down everything from “Good morning, class” to wishes for a good Thanksgiving break into his notebook or the pragmatist who figures (often rightly) that regurgitating her professor’s views is the sure-fire path to a competitive G.P.A.—and they will, no doubt, remain a burden, an embarrassment, and a considerable portion of the tuition-paying ranks. As a dean I much admired liked to put it, when somebody inquires about how many students attend our college (or, indeed, any college), the only honest answer is to say “one out of ten.” But he knows better, so he tells prospective students, and their parents, that the number is 1,700—first, because it’s easier, but also because faculty members such as myself would surely become despondent if only 170 warm collegiate bodies were paying the freight that includes our salaries.

Bright College Years means to update the longstanding tensions between professors and students, each wanting very different things from classroom learning, as well as between what parents hope to receive for their educational investment and what actually goes on at most colleges and universities. It is, in Matthews’s words, “an informal portrait of today’s American campus” (here, informal means unfootnoted and largely anecdotal), one that focuses on the forces that shape a campus and that go rigorously unreported in mission statements, catalogue descriptions, and recruitment literature: “the weight of tradition, the tangles of ego, the empty pocket, the shock of the new.” Matthews writes engagingly enough about all of these to sustain one’s interest, even if the one in question is a college professor who has spent far more time than a person should at faculty meetings or on blue-ribbon academic committees.

Moreover, Matthews means to be fair-minded and evenhanded. As she puts it in her Foreword:

As participant and observer—a rare crossed wire—I have combined social history, narrative, memoir, and reportage to offer a native daughter’s field notes, trying to suggest points of entry to an ancient and not always welcoming society, to investigate the tensions and riddles all schools face at century’s end. Does this nation want the campus to be a counterworld or a social mirror? How much are we truly willing to invest to produce college graduates able to cope with, and compete with, the rest of the planet? Our answers, like our silences, will shape twenty-first century America in direct and often disconcerting ways.

The rub, alas, is that Matthews has a better ear for snatches of vivid conversation than she does for sustained analysis. Thus we learn from one faculty member she interviewed: “As we say at our campus, the administration pretends to pay us, so we pretend to work” and from a high school senior, “I want to experience a philosophy or a sociology. There are none in Florida.” It’s hard to turn many pages without feeling the alternating currents of recognition and despair; but after we finish her chronicle of a conflated academic year, one that begins with her account of a hucksterish college fair conducted at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and ends with her description of Princeton’s commencement rituals, we’re all sadder, but none of us much wiser. Indeed, what we’ve learned is that most campuses are anything but selective, and that these colleges and universities will do anything, literally anything, to attract, and then retain, warm bodies bearing yearly checks. The questions that most concern college presidents are (1) is there a lawsuit pending? (2) is a student rebellion by one faction or another brewing? and (3) can we pay the electric bill? If the answer to the first two is “no” and the answer to the last one “yes,” then presidents sigh with relief and declare it a good day at their version of East Overshoe State College. There is no time—and most important, no particular need—to ruminate about what sort of learning went on from the first 8 o’clock class to the last seminar breaking up at 4:30.After all, our mythical president might respond, these days it’s mighty hard to say what “learning” really is (mention “pursuing the truth” at a ceremonial occasion and many faculty members will roll their eyeballs in exasperation), and who cares anyhow. What matters is what has always mattered: that people believe education is good for them, however they happen to define the goods.

Ironically enough, those who do have ideas about educational reform get short, dismissive shift. If the night-campus (Matthews’s term) is defined by binge drinking and date rapes, fist fights at fraternity parties, and increasingly serious crime, some have suggested that more homework might be a solution. After all, too many students have too much time on their hands. As Matthews points out, “The average national college workload hovers near a twenty-nine-hour week, an all-time low, as opposed to about sixty hours of schoolwork in the early 1960’s.” But don’t tell this to most faculty members—not to the ones who insist that quantity has no relationship to quality and certainly not to those who have turned the time-honored question “What should an educated person know?” into a shouting match:

Why require Western Civ courses in a transcultural America? some faculty demand. Students don’t know what they don’t know, other professors retort: 80 percent of undergraduates now study anything they want, too much of it warmed-over high school. Meanwhile, only 35 percent of first-years do six or more hours of homework, as opposed to 44 percent as recently as 1987.

Thus we now have campuses that are more akin to shopping malls or summer camps than places of higher learning. Matthews puts her finger on a wide range of problems (the pampered, often irresponsible life of tenured professors and the miserable lot of exploited adjuncts; the freshman who crowd in unprepared to handle college level work and those who blink as they pass them along; and perhaps most of all, the enormous money that is generated by everything from sports programs to soft drink deals), but she pulls back when it comes to offering up solutions. Moreover, those who do—for example, the National Association of Scholars or the National Alumni Forum—are dismissed out of hand because they presumably get their marching orders from conservative foundations. No doubt Matthews would say that her object in Bright College Years is to be descriptive (and as Holden Caulfield might put it, she is “descriptive as hell”), but she is also somebody with no stomach for agitating her friends on the loopy Left. Still, the fact remains that many of those radicalized during the 60’s are now the very professors and deans she takes archly to task. Any insider account of contemporary campus life needs to take the culture wars, and their implications, much more seriously than Matthews’s off-the-cuff impressions do. It’s not merely that her account is highly selective, given to sound bites and attention grabbing examples, but more important, that it is just plain thin. If I were a parent shopping around for a campus worth a thousand big ones a week, I would think seriously of sticking my tuition dollars into the stock market. Even lottery tickets look like a better deal. But since I’m a college professor with 30+ years in the trenches, I prefer to say that Bright College Years is, at best, half a loaf about a subject that deserves a fully stocked bakery.


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