What’s Wrong With the American University System – The Atlantic

July 29, 2010 at 2:45 pm 5 comments

The Atlantic this week interviews Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus about how higher education in America is “wasting our money and failing our kids.”  I found the interview fascinating, and their critiques are often spot-on.  Where I think they missed is the last part of the subtitle of their new book “Higher Education?” and that is “And what we can do about it.”  I find their proposals to be unconvincing, like this one quoted below.  To get everyone to think more and focus on vocations less, we should have everyone get a liberal arts degree and not try to get jobs coming out of college. They dislike majors in engineering or business (or computer science?).  (They explicitly say that they want kids to go spend a year working at Costco or Walmart after graduation.)  That just doesn’t make economic sense.  I can’t imagine how we could get there from here, and the authors don’t really paint a vision for how to do it, either.

One of your more controversial points is the idea that every student should major in liberal arts. You’re not fans of majors like engineering or business that try to set a student up for a career right after college.

There are two ways to look at it. First of all, freshmen come in at age 18. Let’s suppose they’ve decided to major in sports management. What’s an 18-year-old going to do in a freshman course in sports management? I’ve attended some undergraduate business courses. The students are young; they don’t have business experience. Really very little is imparted.

The second way to look at it is that liberal arts, properly conceived, means wrestling with issues and ideas, putting the mind to work in a way these young people will only be able to do for these four years. And we’d like this for everyone. They can always learn vocational things later, on the job. They can even get an engineering degree later—by the way, in two years rather than four.

via What’s Wrong With the American University System – Culture – The Atlantic.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  July 29, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Hi Mark

    According to Amazon, the book is not due out until Aug 3rd, so it’s hard to comment.

    For example, it’s not clear what the authors think of the state of high school and just how much remediation is actually required in college. The article is too short for the importance of this subject.

    So, while I don’t yet know whether I agree with them or not, there is a lot to be said for the general notion of everyone being put in contact with a curriculum of “powerful ideas and how to deal with them”. There are many important reasons for this, including what citizens actually need to be able to do in the way of thinking and perspectives.

    I think that the Brooklyn Technical High School regimen in the 50s — of wedging a 6 year curriculum in liberal arts *and* engineering into 4 completely packed calendar years — might not be the best way to handle the problem here. It worked for 6000 students graduating 1500 a year, and, if you were not in the college prep track you got an AA degree along with your high school diploma.

    But I think most kids today would find the amount of work that had to be done to be just staggering (it certainly seemed close to impossible “but not quite” when I attended there).

    Tech worked (as did Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant) because all of them required a very tough test to be taken and passed when one was in 8th grade. And they had no discipline problems because they could throw you out whenever they wanted (you just wound up going to a local high school — which was deep punishment in those days).

    For universal education, we need something different than sampling the 14 year olds and selecting the ones who for one reason or another accumulated better preparation than most.

    I think this is where democracy in general and education in particular have come to a sticking place. It’s so easy to do lip service for all and then find ways to sample the bell curve for “the winners”. But “the system starts gaming the system” when reforms are tried.

    The big question for me has always been “If there is always a bell curve of variation which is about 6 standard deviations wide, can the top 4 of these — 83% — be helped to get above real thresholds of fluency for modern knowledge and thinking?”

    I’ve always thought the answer is yes, and yet the current system is very resilient at blunting efforts to change it for the better.

    Back to the article: it’s hard not to like the statement at the end of the article. When asked the question about how good are students in a city college with pretty open admissions, the answer was “I make them great”.



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  • 3. Lisa Kaczmarczyk  |  July 29, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    I too would like to read the book and see what their full argument is and how far it extends down through the current educational system. But until that happens, the thought that comes to mind is that the authors might need to read the book “Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America” in which Barbara Ehrenreich went to several places in American and tried to live off of minimum wage jobs. She disguised her education and qualifications and took jobs at restaurants and places like Walmart. It became quite clear that it is virtually impossible to live off a minimum wage job.

    So what are college kids supposed to do if they are to take a job like that after college? Live at home I suppose – assuming that is an option. I can’t see how this would be a useful experience for them – especially after 4 years of being educated in how to think creatively and critically and innovatively.

    But I am curious to see what the full argument of the book is, to find out if there is more to the discussion that doesn’t come through in the interview.

    • 4. Alan Kay  |  July 30, 2010 at 9:06 am

      Hi Lisa,

      I agree that the Ehrenreich book (like all of her books) is really important for everyone to read.

      One idea that appears periodically is for there to be several kinds of “buffer zone national service opportunities” between high school and college, in the midst of college, and right after.

      Right now we have a very attenuated Peace Corps, some domestic programs, and the military. I like the idea of vastly increasing the possibilities here. And I think that besides paying “just livable” wages, that an additional incentive could be to also reduce the student loans as part of the remuneration.

      I could imagine that much of the excellent technical and other training in the military could also be extended to civilians in the new service organizations.

      Some countries require several years of “service to the community” of their young people, but that doesn’t fit very well into American traditions (and I pretty much agree with us having more choice in the matter).

      On the other hand, the “buffer zone” experience could be of great help to all.

      Far from a complete solution to the real problems of early work, but worthy of consideration.

      Best wishes,


  • 5. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  July 30, 2010 at 12:54 am

    There is considerable question whether a liberal arts degree, originally intended as the social marker of a gentleman (i.e., someone who did not have to work for a living) is really what we need all our students to be educated with


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