Pricking the Bubble

Our special section in this issue, “The Higher Education Bubble,” continues the discussion that we began in our previous number. The idea is spreading that the college degree no longer delivers enough bang for the considerable buck it costs, and therefore demand for it will shortly decline. In the Fall 2011 AQ we made a case that a college bubble exists. In this issue, six of our writers offer ideas on what higher education might look like if and when the bubble bursts or deflates.

Perhaps with a dash of contrariety, however, we begin with “The Liberal Arts Bubble,” by John Agresto, who doubts that we will see a bubble bursting anytime soon. Agresto believes that “the federal government will continue to pour billions into higher education—not because it’s rational, but because the American people have been persuaded that it’s somehow disgraceful not to give all a society can to the education industry. Anything less is to shortchange the next generation and consign America to permanent international second-class status.”

What Agresto does discuss is the bubble before the bubble, so to speak—the one that has already deflated—the collapse of the liberal arts as predominant among student majors today:

Let’s start by looking at some numbers. In 1970–1971, American colleges and universities awarded just about 840,000 bachelor’s degrees. While the number of bachelor’s degrees in English language and literature had already declined to 64,000, that figure still represented almost 8 percent of all graduates. Business programs accounted for 115,000 degrees, or just under 14 percent. By 2008, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded rose to 1,563,069—virtually double—but the number of English and literature graduates fell to 55,038, or just 3.5 percent of all graduates. Meanwhile, business majors now accounted for almost 22 percent of all graduates. Indeed, business, health professions, and education now account for over 35 percent of all majors. By comparison, history accounts for only 2.2 percent of all graduates.

Although Agresto doesn’t use the term “golden age,” the post-WWII decades seem to have been something of such an era for the liberal arts, in which America offered the chance to study the best that has been thought and said to anyone with the desire and ability to absorb it, not just to the leisured and privileged few. Now desperate students try to fashion their majors into job training, as with “parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies,” and “security and protective services.”

What happened? Among other developments, postmodern liberal arts professors deliberately and perversely undercut the value of their own subjects. Agresto, former president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, who has been instrumental in bringing liberal education to Kurdish Iraq, has much more to say about the history and state of the humanities in this wise and forward-looking piece.

Next up is Roger Clegg, who, in “Affirmative Discrimination and the Bubble,” discusses how affirmative action contributed to an unnatural rise in enrollments in the first place, and argues that since momentum is already building against preferences, the trend will only increase as funds dry up. Not part of our bubble section but germane to Clegg’s discussion is Gail Heriot’s “Just Say No to Affirmative Action.” Heriot explains how minorities wanting to major in science and math have been ill-served by affirmative action, which often places them in colleges where they eventually drop out rather than in schools that are a better match for their credentials.

If indeed fewer young people go on to college, and high school becomes their last chance at formal education, then the secondary school curriculum had better be strengthened. In “High School Flight from Reading and Writing,” Will Fitzhugh explains that American public high schools confine assigned reading mainly to works of fiction and assigned writing to personal and creative efforts. Fitzhugh edits The Concord Review, which publishes the academic work of secondary students, and he recommends that high schools assign complete nonfiction books as well as serious term papers requiring in-depth research. The lack of rigorous assignments of this kind is why so many college teachers complain that their students are deficient in basic academic skills.

Richard Fonte, “The Community College Alternative,” explains how community colleges will be well positioned to offer lower cost education in career preparation for many fields as well as the programmatic and scheduling flexibility especially important to working adults.

In “Will Universities Recover Their Core Mission as They Shrink?” Adam Kissel suggests that with narrower margins for frills, colleges will need to reexamine their commitment to what they formally profess in their mission statements, whether it be the dissemination of knowledge or “social justice” and “diversity.”

Jane S. Shaw, “What Will Colleges Do When the Bubble Bursts?” discusses an array of post-bubble solutions that universities might consider, and argues that for-profit colleges will be in the best position to survive a curtailment of funds.

Our reviews in this issue cover a range of topics and tones. In his review essay of Ricardo Duchesne’s The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, AQ editor-in-chief Stephen H. Balch discusses how the author counters disparagement of the success of the West as due solely to things like guns, germs, and steel. This review points toward our next issue, which will consider the question, “Why is Western civilization worth studying?”

In “Can Teaching Really Matter?” this issue’s second review essay, Peter Lawler brings a humanistic perspective to two books deploring the state of higher education: Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, and Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, by Mark C. Taylor.

Harry Stein will make you laugh in his review of a book that will also make you laugh, Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, by Andrew Ferguson. And as a practicing lawyer, Gerald Russello can appreciate Walter Olson’s Schools for Misrule: Legal Academia and an Overlawyered America.

We are very grateful to our departing poetry editor, Robert Pack, who has graced our pages with his own work and with poetry of his choice for many years. In the Spring 2012 AQ we will have a review of Laughter Before Sleep, Pack’s latest volume of poetry, and his choice for this issue is “Psalms for the Fallen World,” by Joel B. Peckham, Jr., which surprises us with a spiritual directness seldom seen in contemporary verse.

Our guest columnist for Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest is Robert VerBruggen, who details some important developments in “Racial Gaps in Testing and Scholastic Achievement.”

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Correspondence to Carol Iannone.

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Iannone, C. Pricking the Bubble. Acad. Quest. 24, 388–391 (2011).

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