Sunday, May 10, 2015

Higher Education Myths: The "Golden Age" Fallacy

My good friend Steve Saideman had an excellent post this morning taking on Mark Bauerlein's NYT article "What's the Point of a Professor?" I'm sure that Bauerline's piece will get plenty of response in the higher ed world - it could be described as a form of trolling, or at least the NYT stooping to click-bait to boost their online attention. But I'll go ahead and jump into the fray anyway.

I do so because Bauerline is guilty of one of the most common fallacies in higher education writing: pining for a "golden age" of college, usually back in the 1960s, when things were so much better and wonderful and isn't it a terrible shame how far we've gotten away from that idyllic time? Or, as my friend Steve puts it much more succinctly, "Kids these days!"

Bauerline's argument is that "back in the day" - when Todd Gitlin was a "fiery working-class kid at Harvard" in the 1960s or when he himself was a student at UCLA in the early 1980s - students were much more engaged (especially with faculty), were more interested in the intellectual conversation that faculty serve as mentors and shepherds into, and were more intent on "developing a philosophy of life" than in crass material things like getting a job. It was a wonderful time when you couldn't walk down the hall of the English department without tripping over the legs of students who couldn't wait to engage in deep, meaningful, mentoring conversations with their professors. No doubt when Bauerline chose a career in higher education, he hoped to have a similar experience from the other side of the desk. And now he's not - and he's got surveys to prove it!

There are several problems at work here. One is the narrow view of higher education which many in higher education themselves hold. Three specific institutions are mentioned in the article: Harvard, UCLA, and (if you count the byline) Bauerline's employer, Emory University. These are all brand-name institutions, instantly recognizable across the country. And because most people in higher ed went to elite institutions like this (and yes, UCLA and Emory ARE elite institutions), they tend to think that these experiences represent the whole of higher ed.

The truth, unfortunately, is much more prosaic. Most college students - especially today, much more so than in the 1960s - don't go to these kinds of institutions. Most of them go to comprehensive regional universities near where they live: University of Akron, Wright State (my employer), Wichita State, Bridgewater State, Millersville, Shippensburg, SUNY (there are 64 SUNY campuses, only a small sliver of which are in or near NYC), and so on. Many of them are the first in their entire families to go to college. These students are, in my experience and observation, practical people pursuing practical things. Most of them don't have the background to understand the Golden Age image of the Life of the Mind that Bauerline is talking about. That's not to say that they can't come to appreciate those goals - but that's not where they are.

These students - many of them also post-traditional, not fresh-from-high-school - make up the vast bulk of college students today. So when Bauerline starts comparing surveys of students today to surveys of students in the 1960s, he's comparing apples and orangutans - they're completely different things. A MUCH larger swath of the American population goes to college today than did in the mid-60s, or even in the early 1980s when Bauerline was in school. It's no wonder they answer the questions differently - they're different people.

Then there's the problem of the supposed "culture shift". This is the "kids these days" part of the argument - Bauerline's lament that "back in the day" college students cared more about self-development, but now they just want to get jobs and make money. It's tempting to blame that shift on the kids themselves, which as Steve points out makes us old folks feel good about ourselves. Except that it isn't the kids' fault - its ours.

As a professor and administrator at an institution much closer to the median of higher ed than Emory, I see this on a regular basis. Every state politician - governor or legislator, Republican or Democrat - talks about education (and higher education in particular) in one manner only: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs! Our entire state government - made up completely not of slacker 20-somethings but of grown men and women older than Bauerline or me - views universities through this lens. Jobs and workforce development are the beginning and the end of the conversation. What state dollars we get depend on our ability, as a public university (which, remember, is where most students go), to sing from this hymnal. Is it any wonder that our students have absorbed what their elders spend so much time talking about?

This sometimes leads to another fallacy - the faculty "call to arms", in which professors complain that their university presidents should "push back" against this "crass commercialization" of higher education. Some of them want to mount the barricades and "take back the university" from those who would extinguish the higher purpose in pursuit of mere economic growth.

That's a comforting battle cry when you're a tenured full professor at a stable and elite university. I've known faculty to get extremely worked up demanding that their university presidents take up this standard and "fight back". But that ignores the reality that presidents face every day: they have to keep the lights on and the salaries paid. State dollars, dwindling as they are, are important for doing so. So are tuition dollars, and a full-throated old-school demand for "higher education the way it was Back In The Day" doesn't pull students in. Again, that's not where our students and their families are. And if we insist that they meet us where we want them to be - if we move the starting line back to someplace we think it once was, and then demand they follow - they won't. Call that crass commercialization if you want, but it's reality. Any good teacher knows - you have to meet students where they are, not where you wish they were.

And why is it, anyway, that politicians are so bent on casting higher education as jobs and workforce development? Look to their constituents - only 35% of them, in most areas, have a college degree. In really well-educated places like San Francisco or Boston, that figure can challenge 50%. But that's it. The reality is that 2/3 of the country hasn't gone to college in any meaningful way - and even accounting for differential rates of voting and participation, those folks are still a large part of the electorate. When Bauerline talks about the "moral authority" of faculty as mentors, most people have no idea what he's talking about. And those are the people who vote, pay taxes, and aspire to send their kids to college.

In a way, then, the problems which Bauerline and his Jeremiad brethren complain about are really the result of the enormous success of higher education. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when very few people went to college but the country was consumed with the idea of upward mobility and making things better for the next generation, there began a vast expansion of higher education as a means of bringing more and more people into and upwards within the middle class. That boom resulted in large numbers of new students, massive growth at existing universities, and the creation of new ones. My current employer is a byproduct of that growth - in 1967, Bauerline's benchmark survey year, Wright State didn't even exist. Now it sports 18,000 students and is looking to grow past 20,000.

All that growth inevitably changed the nature of higher ed. As more students arrived who DIDN'T have a multigenerational experience of college, the broader environment of norms, ideas, and expectations shifted. These newcomers brought their own goals, and universities naturally adapted to try to meet those goals. I won't argue that the broader culture hasn't changed, too - we are perhaps more concerned with jobs and careers and economic growth than may have been true in the past. But if that is true - and we need much better evidence for it than Bauerline offers - it's not the fault of our kids, its the fault of us and our parents, the people who really drive society.

None of this is to argue that the Liberal Arts ideal is dead, or that we shouldn't strive for meaningful mentorship as faculty. I'm a product of the liberal arts world myself, and still believe strongly in its benefits both for career-building and for enlightened citizenship. But the ways we instill that in our students - most of whom work, many of whom don't know what college used to look like, and most of whom have life experiences very different from ours - will of necessity be very different.

The story of a bygone "Golden Age" may be comforting to some, but it just isn't true. We haven't lost the opportunity to engage with our students, and students aren't necessarily less engaged than they used to be - they just engage in different ways. Real transformation is still possible in higher education - indeed, it happens all the time. Meaningful relationships and conversations do still go on between faculty and students. Students themselves frequently talk about the real and significant impact which faculty have had on them. These experiences just don't necessarily happen during regular office hours anymore. Better that we figure out how to do more of this in light of today's realities than pine for a past which isn't coming back, if it ever existed at all.


  1. "I do so because Bauerline is guilty of one of the most common fallacies in higher education writing: pining for a "golden age" of college, usually back in the 1960s, when things were so much better and wonderful and isn't it a terrible shame how far we've gotten away from that idyllic time? "

    I am a great fan of the message of this post, but neither that title nor the paragraph quoted here makes any sense. You have not described a fallacy or even a misperception. By your own description a "golden age" of the type many pine for did actually exist. You just have a much more effective explanation for why the golden age died away, and why many of the values of the modern professoriate conflict with the golden age experience (e.g. mass education). But you have nowhere proved that this concept of a golden age--a time when universities were understood to be places for educating the soul, not collecting work skills--is incorrect.

    I would add two additional points to your analysis: 1) back in the 60s, the number of students who graduated with a college degree was much lower, so simply having a college degree granted a large amount of economic security--enough that students did not need to obsess over career prospects 2) in those days college cost much, much less. One doesn't need to worry nearly as much about career prospects when not saddled with $40,000 in debt.

  2. T. Greer - thanks for your comment. Looking back, I wasn't as clear about the "fallacy" part of the argument as I might have been, and I've tweaked it a little by adding a couple of sentences in the last paragraph to nudge things in that direction. The fallacy, as I see it, is the belief that there was a "Golden Age" in the past that is now gone today - I think that the past wasn't nearly as good as these folks thing, and today isn't nearly as bad as they want to argue. One could say, I suppose, that that's not so much a fallacy as simply a misperception. But I believe the misperception is a real one.

    You're also correct on both points - the rarity of college degrees raised their value, while the lower cost of college made the cost-to-benefit ratio much better. Thanks for adding those observations on!