A closer look at higher education

There's been a flurry of media attention in recent years around the charge that a cadre of left-leaning professors on American college campuses today regularly inject impressionable young students with weekly doses of toleration and cultural relativism.

Michael Bérubé, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University, finds such a notion amusing. "Honestly," he once heard a colleague confess. "I just wish I had the power to persuade them to do all the reading."

In What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and 'Bias' in Higher Education, Bérubé is a plucky advocate of a liberal arts education.

To begin with, he points out, most college professors are asked to assume very challenging jobs. Armed with nothing but books, a cluster of tables or desks, perhaps a chalkboard or lighted screen, college faculty communicate love of their subjects to young people who are either indifferent, unprepared, or – occasionally – excited.

They do this in spite of awareness that ignorance, like mold, grows without any help at all, while education flowers mysteriously, weeks or years later. They do it in spite of the lack of pay, public recognition, prestige – or power. "The political forces outside the university, as we professors have learned time and time again in such matters, are considerably stronger than anyone inside the university," Bérubé asserts.

Meanwhile, Professor Deborah L. Rhode of Stanford Law School offers In Pursuit of Knowledge: Scholars, Status, and Academic Culture, a bipartisan sketch of the state of the many components of higher education in America. Rhode examines the inefficiencies of higher education, along with its peculiar strengths, its longevity, its resilience, and its vulnerabilities.

Why, for instance, she asks, "does higher education rely so heavily for managerial work on faculty members who are not trained for that task?" And even more baffling: "Why do teachers and scholars who prize the intellectual life take jobs that allow so little scope for its pursuit?"

Rhode, who is a lawyer, tackles some important questions about higher ed but steers a narrow path in her discussions and answers. She is careful, correct, and, at times, just plain dull. At her worst, she sounds like a feckless graduation day speaker: "Our pursuit of knowledge should always include self-knowledge, and a commitment to connect our principles with our practices."

"In Pursuit of Knowledge" is a quasi-textbook – in both the best and worst ways. As a piece of writing, this work is carefully crafted, but it too often comes across as sanded clean, formulaic, only occasionally leavened by interesting firsthand experience, quotation-book quotes, and wry observations.

"Why does a profession committed to the search for knowledge know so little about the effectiveness of teaching, which it claims as one of its primary missions?," Rhode asks. Good question, but the answer is a bit too neatly smoothed over, placed in the to-do file, and left for somebody else to deal with.

Reading "What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts" is more fun, except when, in a miscalculation of his own powers as a dramatist or philosopher, Bérubé plunks us down in his undergraduate classrooms for nearly a third of his book. There, readers must endure Bérubé's pseudo-Socratic meanderings through two literary classics.

In the end, however, Bérubé does manage to offer a spirited defense of the outcome of US higher education. Critics attack America's colleges and universities "not because they don't work but because, by and large, they do.... Economically they're powerhouses; not only does a degree enhance the future earnings of college graduates for the rest of their lives ... but universities do indispensable, basic research and development and technology transfer in their corporate and applied-science sectors as well."

In the end, Bérubé insists, education is really a faith-based endeavor. Students go to college because almost everybody tells them it's a sensible thing to do. Professors, on the other hand – atheists or not – teach and then can only pray that some of what was communicated will sink in.

"One of the signal virtues of liberal arts education is that it bucks the trends of the corporate 'multiversity,' and puts faith instead in ancient, 'inefficient' forms of teaching like lecture and discussion and independent study," Bérubé writes. In this sense, he insists, "students' beliefs are part of the very fabric of the class."

Bob Blaisdell edited "Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy's Writings on Education."

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