Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Higher Education, In Retrospect

Here's an op-ed piece I published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, January 25, 1989, -- 21 years ago! I'll leave it to your good judgment as to how we have done since then and if these issues still apply.

"Are we witnessing a rising tide of anti-intellectualism in this country that sometimes manifests itself in the form of “university bashing?” or are we failing to recognize and respond to a growing number of public concerns about higher education?

The tide-watchers point to several disturbing signs, including our Presidential candidates’ less-than-artful dodging of their ivy-beleaguered pasts during the fall election campaign, and the tendency of well-educated office-seekers elsewhere to hide impressive academic credentials in the closet alongside other political skeletons.

Observers cite George Bush’s crack that Michael Dukakis formulated his foreign policy at a “Harvard Yard boutique” and Dan Quayle’s chiding “Dukakis and his Harvard buddies” for suggesting that Iowans supplant all-American corn with something as sissified as Belgian endive. This seeming pandering to what H.L. Menken called the “booboisie” is seen as a part of a larger pattern of anti-intellectualism, supposedly a major force in American politics. Certainly some portion of the American public is anti-intellectual, but how much of the intellectual community is anti-public?

Peruse your reference books of famous quotations and you may find a couple of brickbats directed at intellectuals, but you’ll find many more snide swipes at the American public penned by intellectuals.

That said, there is no question that many Americans love to deflate, puncture, or lampoon those who seem to be putting on airs, and I hope no one would argue that higher education is not given to pretension from time to time. The United States is still a young democracy, one that wrested its freedom from a monarchy a mere two centuries ago. Our revolution was fueled in part by a desire to shed the yoke of aristocratic privilege and let natural ability seek its own level. Deeply ingrained in the American character, then, is an anti-aristocratic, anti-elitist streak.

But even when “intellectual” is used pejoratively by a critic, we might remember that the word is laced with multiple meanings and that there can be a great difference between one person’s implication and another’s inference. Someone may use the word to connote fuzziness, abstruseness, impracticality, or haughtiness while making a grudging concession to intelligence. If “intellectual” is too often used in a derisive way by the American public, “genius” is more often used in an adoring, if not an indiscriminate, way.

Americans are not viscerally anti-intellect; they cherish genius of the Thomas Edison, applied-intellect sort, while remaining wary of the absent-minded professor type. Americans also are not viscerally anti-higher education, as is demonstrated by the many polls that show solid support for our mission and by increased private giving to colleges and universities.

Laying too much of today’s criticism of higher education on the doorstop of anti-intellectualism is intellectually lazy and bad public policy. Blaming the public for our problems will not endear us to those whose support is so vital to our future.

The best way to respond to criticism is to break it down into manageable parts, separating the major from the minor, while remaining particularly sensitive to that which reflects widespread public concerns, whether they are expressed by politicians or by the Bennetts and Blooms of this world. The worst possible tack is to act as if all our critics are a part of an unholy alliance of dunderheads bent on mindless destruction.

Nor is it wise to focus on the personality or motivations of our critics without countering the criticism itself. Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett has lost his pulpit but not his disciples. While Allan Bloom continues to convince many people that higher education has been closing their minds, the defenders of the academic faith respond by charging Bloom with marrow-mindedness. He scorches the academic landscape and we call him names. Hardly an effective response.

If we take a hard look at such criticism, especially that which strikes a responsive chord with the public, we might gain invaluable insights into the way higher education is perceived by key constituencies. If we hope to broaden our base of support, we cannot continue to discredit public concerns by exaggerating the prevalence of anti-intellectualism.

There is, of course, a problem with this line of argument. If we are not swimming against the tide of anti-intellectualism, why aren’t we making greater progress in winning public support?

Who is to blame for the misunderstandings and misperceptions that do exist? To a large extent, we are. And nothing demonstrates our shortcomings better than this tendency to dismiss, if not smite, our critics. Yes, in recent years we have done a much better job in communicating and fund raising, and in establishing ties with elements of the private sector. We’ve let down the drawbridge and sent out more and more emissaries, but we’re still leery about letting anyone but unabashed advocates within our walls.

We are, it seems, still somewhere in transition from the pre-Vietnam War era, when higher education seemed above reproach and a college degree was a sure-fire ticket to success, to a future where greater public support and understanding will come at the cost of greater scrutiny and accountability. We want the best of both worlds and so, in our official pronouncements, we continue to read from yellowing lecture notes filled with platitudes about the intrinsic value of higher education, assuming the public will play the part of dutiful students and ask only the most respectful questions.

If we want to increase public support, and enjoy all the benefits that flow from it, we much conduct nothing less than a concerted campaign. Ours must feature the elements of all successful campaigns, including savvy spokesmen, well-developed positions on major issues, a willingness to seek out constituents and engage them on their ground and in their own terms, and effective communication of a limited number of compelling themes.

In the current climate, the most important themes must be those of creating opportunities and remaining accountable.

If we can show that we are carefully scanning the horizon and consciously creating opportunities for students and the general public through our admissions efforts, curricular design, research endeavors, and cooperative arrangements with the private sector, we stand a better chance of convincing our constituents and the public that the rising costs of education are justified; that we seek more revenue to improve the quality of their lives, not just ours. The opportunity theme will help illustrate that our intentions and instincts are ultimately democratic, not aristocratic; that we seek to be the means by which our society can become more of a meritocracy.

Contradictory messages must be resolved. For instance, we can’t boast of our inclusiveness to the public at large while assuring our students, alumni, and major donors that they are participants in a highly exclusive society.

A theme that stresses accountability will make us seem less prickly ad show that our doors and books are open. We must show that we have not become a world unto ourselves. We must demonstrate that we are consumed with something more than enhancing our individual or collective reputations, that we are willing to be judged by criteria other than those which we establish for ourselves. Individual institutions must show that they aspire to something greater than a pinched superiority measured by the S.A.T. scores and class ranks of incoming freshman, by the total dollar value of externally financed research, or by the ludicrously arbitrary ratings of guides to colleges and universities.

The campaign, which must be waged by institutions and their national associations, must focus on the major misperceptions about higher education. These can only be gleaned by listening more carefully to our constituents through formal surveys, informal conversations, and every other means available. Creative communications could dispel some longstanding misperceptions – that scholarly prominence can be achieved through something less than herculean effort, that the return on the public investment in higher education has been something less than remarkable, or that applied research is a more sensible alternative than basic research.

Higher education will continue to be confronted by critics. The question is how will the public view the confrontation? Will they see us as a good-natured Gulliver being taunted by grumpy Lilliputians, or as an arrogant Goliath underestimating the damage that can be done by determined Davids? Much will depend on our actions.

A more effective public policy must begin with a more considerate attitude toward the public. If we want the public to appreciate us, to understand our multifaceted character and our numerous contributions, we could begin by doing the same for the members of the public. We stand to benefit from listening to their doubts."