The Higher Ed Bubble as a Cultural Opportunity

Welcome, Instapundit readers!  And welcome, Transterrestials!

Over the last few years, talk of a Higher Education Bubble has grown.  As the costs have skyrocketed and returns have dropped, both students and employers are increasingly questioning the value of what’s being taught.

Higher ed, as currently packaged, marketed, and sold, is increasingly being valued on the basis of past performance rather than underlying value, which is pretty much the investment definition of a bubble.

While some established colleges and universities are moving towards online offerings, Stuart Butler argues convincingly in the current National Affairs that the more likely development is new schools using new technology and models to provide a different, more relevant mix of skills:

In truth, a takeover scenario is less likely than an end run — in which new technological developments, and new educational institutions with very different business models, circumvent higher education’s established players. Today, competitors are exploring markets that are ill-served by the traditional model, such as working Americans who want to enhance their skills and lower-income potential students looking for much cheaper degrees. Meanwhile, rapid change in information technology is giving creative new entrants a growing technological edge — an essential precondition for transformative change.

The most obvious technological threat to the comfortable world of higher education is online education. Online learning changes the entire relationship between student and teacher; it enables information to be transferred, and student performance to be monitored, at a fraction of conventional costs. Often called “distance learning,” online education has the potential to completely upend today’s established universities.

Following the election, PJ Media made the case that restoring American values ultimately rests on cultural, rather than political solutions.  This coming shakeup presents the perfect opportunity for conservatives to retake the liberal arts classroom, without the overhead of faculty battles, “going undercover,” or otherwise remaking the culture of a hostile academy.  The model is much the same as when the right, beginning with Heritage, created a parallel system of think tanks to get conservative or free-market thought into the hands of policy-makers.  Cultural conservatives and classical liberals can give themselves back the voice they’ve lost in undergraduate education, while beginning to undo the massive damage the Academic Left has done to students and the culture as a whole.

Jacques Barzun, who passed away recently, published a collection of essays in the late 80s, The Culture We Deserve.  He discusses the baleful effects of handing over our culture to college liberal arts departments.  The proper repository of culture is the people, and it is the proper job of education to transmit that culture from generation to generation.  Instead, universities, beginning in the late 1800s, began to teach scholarship instead.  Rather than experiencing the cultural canon, students were taught to analyze it in increasingly narrow and politicized terms.  The purpose of “Hamlet” isn’t to serve as a template for the study of patriarchal roles in Tudor England, it’s to teach about the failure of thought as a substitute for action.

The liberal arts ought all to be pulling in the same direction to teach a common cultural literacy, understanding of each enhancing appreciation for the others.   Barzun understands that historical knowledge is necessary to know the mindset of the artist.  But chasing after the respectability of science, college history departments have increasingly forsaken broad historical themes for narrow, isolated problems, what he terms, “retrospective sociology.”  Victor Davis Hanson observed the same thing, in the difference between how his Fresno State students read Thucydides, and how it was taught at Stanford:

Scholars and graduate students talk grandly of Thucydides ”the realist” whose bleak assessment of human nature was a valuable antithesis to romanticism. But this remote, literary language takes us far from the actual Thucydides, a hard-eyed pragmatist whose judgments derive from first-hand experience. As a working mother at Fresno put it, ”Thucydides might like Carter better, but he’d want Reagan dealing with the Russians.” Another student, an immigrant, agreed: ”Be trusting with someone else’s life — not mine.”

Liberal arts departments also began to teach more and more contemporary art and literature.  So it’s no wonder that the culture has stagnated as it is deprived of the chance to be experienced on its own terms before being subjected to analysis.  New art and literature has evolved to please critics and provide scholars layers of meaning, rather than to please audiences and ruminate on life.  This line of thinking would lead Barzun to write From Dawn to Decadence, arguing that western culture had reached an impasse.

Though Barzun didn’t say so, this situation is tailor-made for the Left.  With contemporary culture stagnating, and cultural literacy reduced to analysis, leftist political philosophy fills the vacuum.  Allan Bloom decried this development in The Closing of the American Mind.   It’s also true that the success of companies such as The Teaching Company show that working Americans know that they’ve missed out, and thirst for something to fill that gap.  If for themselves, why not for their kids?

The opportunity for conservatives, with the creation of new institutions, is clear.  Our view of how the liberal arts ought to work is the traditional view – as a set of studies to enhance and understand the human condition.  We are aided by the fact that the reasoning and writing skills necessary for their mastery are in demand in the world.

While the shakeup provides an opportunity for conservatives, we shouldn’t overestimate the window available.  Many of the most successful of the big-money, high-wealth donors to the Democrats have been Internet entrepreneurs.  Many of those fortunes have been made in social media, and education, at its best, is an intensely social activity.  First movers will be able help shape both expectations and will have a leg up on defining credentialing and certification standards.

Barzun closed From Dawn to Decadence with the hope that we could replace or reinvigorate the university, and revive our cultural creativity.  With the right effort, conservatives could use the coming shakeup of higher education to do both.

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