Campus Navel Gazing

Two insider books ponder the future of the university.

In any area of public policy one cares to mention, there will almost certainly be a book published this year decrying its present state. Publishers, for obvious commercial reasons, tend to focus on policy tomes that foretell some form of imminent doom. The actual subject matter is barely relevant: cities, hospitals, schools—all of them have their own books suggesting that things are going to hell in a handbasket.

Higher education is no different in most respects, except that where other institutions have allegedly disinterested outsiders chronicling their decline, the chroniclers of universities’ decline are almost all insiders. With the exception of critics of the Dinesh D’Souza variety, one almost never sees journalists or other outsiders writing critically about the state of higher education. Rather, it is professors, deans and presidents doing the bewailing, and the self-interested nature of these Cassandras does much to undermine the credibility of these tomes. Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis, by James Côté and Anton Allahar, which chronicles and attempts to explain the decline in standards in universities, should be approached with this in mind.

The phenomena of falling academic standards and grade inflation are much remarked upon inside institutions but are awfully difficult to prove. Just as complaints about dissolute youth go back at least as far as Plato, few university teachers in history are recorded as having suggested that the present generation of scholars is smarter than the previous one. Moreover, given the lack of any time-series data credible enough to measure students’ ability and effort expended in class, it is difficult to prove that grade inflation is actually occurring. The authors are therefore forced to rely on some second-rate data sources to make their case that grade inflation (meaning similar grades being given for ever-lower amounts of intellectual effort and ability) is actually occurring at Canadian institutions. The resulting evidence could not be described as watertight, but only the most churlish of empiricists would deny that the authors are probably on to something in stating that academic standards have declined over the last generation or so.

Having demonstrated the existence of the phenomenon of grade inflation, the authors begin to examine what they believe are its proximate causes: too many under-prepared students and too many overwhelmed professors. The former should not be a surprise to anybody. As access to universities expanded over the years, the new recruits were by and large of lesser academic ability than the smaller but more elite group of students that came before them. The number of bright and prepared students is the same as ever and may even have increased. But the expansion of access to education has meant that students on average were not as prepared for or committed to the intellectual life as they previously were.

The issue of overwhelmed professors is a fundamentally odd one. Côté and Allahar do the professoriate no favours in this book by making them out to be wimpish in the extreme, unable to stand up to the wheedling of their under-prepared undergraduates and handing out undeservedly good marks in order to get away from them. This may, of course, be true, but it suggests that the problem lies as much with poor teacher preparation as it does student behaviour. And indeed, to the authors’ credit, they also identify structural factors within universities that lead to grade inflation, in particular the practice of tying professors’ pay and promotion in part to student course evaluations that are known to be biased in favour of easy-marking professors. Their suggested solution—adjusting the results of course evaluations to reflect each individual professor’s marking proclivities—is a sensible micro-solution to this problem.

At its core, therefore, Ivory Tower Blues is an excellent 60-page meditation on the existence, causes and consequences of grade inflation. The problem is that this is a 200-page book that suffers a steep drop in quality when it shifts from the world of institutional micro-policy to larger societal questions about the place of higher education in a modern economy.

The authors note that a large number of students are not particularly engaged by their studies, a point of view they can competently document with available research. They then go on more controversially to suggest that in fact most of these students do not belong in university and might be happier somewhere else. What is preventing them from moving on, they say, is a society-wide problem of credentialization, meaning an overvaluation of formal credentials over actual skills, especially of the more blue-collar variety. This, they contend, is not only bad for professors (in that they have to teach a lot of bored students), but also bad for the students themselves as the undergraduate degree becomes devalued and graduates struggle ever harder to get good jobs and sometimes take jobs for which they are overqualified. And all of this, they contend, is happening because the youth labour market is so terrible that school becomes the default option for youth, parents and public policy makers.

The problem here is that there is very little good information to back up the Côté-Allahar position on any of these points. The youth labour market has not, as they claim, been declining steadily since the 1970s; youth unemployment has actually stayed roughly constant at twice the overall level of unemployment throughout this period. If the job market had really become “saturated” with undergraduate degree holders in the 1980s, as they claim, we would be seeing declines in starting salaries for graduates and this simply is not the case. As for graduates being overqualified for jobs, the authors’ analysis misses the two rather obvious points that, first, recent graduates often take time to find ways to use their skills properly and, second, that one of the ways that skills spread throughout an economy is by people with higher levels of education taking on jobs that previously did not require such levels.

Ivory Tower Blues is, fundamentally, a lament for the fact that universities are too big. They no longer cater to professors’ lifestyles and interests the way they use to: they are less personal and more focused on productivity. But in a democracy, given the demand for higher education, that is more or less the way it has to be. If there is a villain here, it is universities that have tried to maintain an ivory tower fiction about the undergraduate experience while massifying to the point where undergraduate studies became the new high school. In a better world, Canadian universities would have had active internal debates about how they could adapt their offerings to best help a wave of new and, on average, less well-prepared students adapt to collegiate life. The sad fact is that they did not, and as a result we have a lot of unhappy professors out there, teaching unengaged students.

If there is a radical re-think of universities to be undertaken, it is along these lines. The Côté-Allahar alternative of shrinking universities is flat-out impossible because the middle class will see it as a threat to their ability to keep their own kids in the “best” form of education. It is one thing to bemoan credentialism; it is quite another to do anything about it. Credentialism is a long-term societal trend that will define the shape of the future university; the task of universities is to adapt to it successfully rather than fight it.

George Fallis’s Multiversities, Ideas and Democracy is in many ways the antithesis of Ivory Tower Blues. Certainly, it is much more aware of the need to surf the constraints of modern liberal capitalist society rather than try to engage in Canute-like combat with it. However, in its own way, it too suffers the myopia of the insider.

Fallis, a professor of economics and former dean of arts at York University, has a sophisticated understanding of the history of higher education, which he outlines deftly in his opening chapters. Modern Anglo-American universities, he says, do not have a single intellectual progenitor. Rather, they have many ancestors: the medieval tradition of professional finishing schools, the German tradition of research institutions, the Anglo-Irish tradition of small schools dedicated to the “cultivation of the mind” and a Scots-American tradition of schools providing “practical knowledge” in the service of the community. Modern universities are therefore not in a historically unique position with respect to their indecision about their proper role: tensions about the proper role of the university have always been present. Indeed, he goes further to suggest that this tension between very different activities is the cause of the success of universities as a social institution.

Fallis then argues in five long-winded but for the most part correct chapters that a variety of external forces—such as the constrained welfare state and advances in information technology—are changing the balance between the four historical goals. He is in no doubt which of the four legs of the chair is wobbling, either: it is the Anglo-Irish tradition of cultivating the mind, and education for the sake of education, that is losing out. In most universities, the keepers of this tradition are in the humanities, and it is for these students that he has written the book.

Now one might be forgiven for believing in the rhetoric about the diminution of humanities; certainly one hears a lot of it at universities. One also hears a lot about the fear that students are ever more career driven and less interested in study for the sake of study. But again, frankly, the data do not really bear out either fear. The proportion of the student body in Canada that is enrolled in the humanities has remained more or less stable over the past few decades. In fact, Statistics Canada data show that over the course of the 1990s, the two disciplines that lost the most ground proportionally were the distinctly boffin-ish (and un-liberal) disciplines of economics and mathematics. In the United States for the past 30 years, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute has been surveying freshmen on their reasons for attending college and over that time the most common response has always been “to learn about things that interest me.” Not quite a gathering storm, then.

But Fallis does not bother with actual data to bolster his case—he is after loftier stuff. The liberal arts, he says—and by this he means the concept of a broad-based education including both arts and sciences, albeit with a fairly heavy emphasis on the humanities—are crucial to democracy writ large. And therefore, universities that offer liberal arts and humanities programs are axial institutions in modern democracy.

If one leaves aside the fact that this logic actually applies to all universities and not just the large research-oriented “multiversities” of which the book title speaks, it remains true that this is an argument to warm the heart of all humanities graduates. But Fallis, a well-rounded and seemingly quite sensible person, seems to have a peculiarly tin ear with respect to how terribly offensive this idea is to anyone not in possession of an arts degree. Stripped of unnecessary verbiage (of which there is an unfortunate amount in this book, including two entire paragraphs of the section on information technology on the mechanics of binary code), what he is saying is that people can become better citizens by studying the liberal arts. Once this argument is made, it rather follows that people who have not received a liberal arts training have a diminished capacity for citizenship.

Quite apart from what graduates of other disciplines may feel about this, it would seem normal that if liberal arts were so truly crucial to citizenship then all citizens would be required—or at least given the opportunity—to take them. That would mean either providing all with university education, or providing the kinds of liberal arts teaching Fallis describes at lower, more universal levels of schooling such as colleges and high schools. But Fallis’s narrative does not even come close to dealing with this problem. Instead, carried away by the writing of Henry Giroux, he extols universities (no differentiation here between “multiversities” and other institutions) as places where thought can be free, democratic and able to challenge the West’s plutocratic elites. The fact that nearly all these plutocrats are themselves university graduates—indeed, liberal arts graduates—does not quite make it into the book.

Overall, Fallis’s work is deeply uneven—every paragraph is a model of clear prose but chapters meander unnecessarily. The book’s historical scope and understanding are magisterial, but the true relationship between education and democracy is subjected to very little critical scrutiny. But there is redemption for Fallis of a very odd sort: while his claims on behalf of liberal arts are grand, his actual proposals are modest in the extreme. For all his claims about the importance of liberal arts to democracy, Fallis’s calls for reform amount to recommending the establishment at all multiversities (apparently ordinary universities are irrelevant here, for reasons that are not entirely clear) of a sensibly designed liberal arts elective minor, which would include a course on the history of universities. It is a reasonable proposal—but not one that required a 400-page introduction and, to be honest, not one that one would have thought could have garnered a book deal.

In many ways, these two works are mirror images of each other. Ivory Tower Blues takes a small problem—grade inflation—and explores it well before engaging in some less than stellar argumentation on the larger subject of credentialism. Multiversities, Ideas and Democracy begins with some masterful examinations of big issues such as the history of universities and of the macro-forces affecting education, and ends in a damp squib about course electives. Both are worth reading, but preferably in a selective manner. Neither seems likely to end up a classic.