Wednesday , February 21 2024
Conservative academics lament the state of higher education in America.

Book Review: Is College Worth It? by William J. Bennett and David Wilezol

Is College Worth It? ask right-wing academic William J. Bennett and his co-author Davu Wilezol, and they answer with a resounding, if perhaps neither particularly surprising nor earth-shaking, “not necessarily”.

This is a little book on a big subject, and if Bennett and Wilezol say very much the kinds of things about the state of higher education you would expect from such staunch conservatives, nonetheless, their critique needs to be taken seriously. Clearly higher education in the United States in the 21st century has problems, significant problems.

Bennett and Wilezol begin by outlining the problems:

  • Tuition is excessively high causing students to pile up back breaking debts that haunt them for years.
  • More often than not the education they receive for their tuition fails to prepare them adequately for any kind of productive employment.
  • College and partying have become synonymous.
  • Students who have no real interest or aptitude for further study are herded into the university because it is expected of them.
  • Poor K-12 education fails to adequately prepare students for college.
  • Professors are more interested in their specialized studies than they are in teaching their students.

And this isn’t even the iceberg under the tip.

That these problems exist is undeniable. That they are systematic across the broad range of institutions is debatable. But even so, the real issue is what do we want from higher education, and how do we go about getting it?

 If we are looking for the kinds of credentials that will get us a high-paying job in a hedge fund, then we want one sort of education. Or are we interested in the history of Medieval illuminated manuscripts, in which case we would want another sort?

Moreover, in either case, is the taxpayer obligated to help support every student’s particular educational goals?

It’s one thing, these authors argue, for taxpayers to support education that benefits society, it is quite something else when you’re talking about Medieval art, never mind some of what they would consider the more unsavory subjects masquerading as scholarly discourse in some institutions.

All learning from their point of view is not equal. Some studies are more important than others, some studies are better than others. Science is good; film study, a waste.

Of course, if, as a result of their education, the students get good jobs and start to pay taxes and contribute to building a robust economy, then one could argue that society has made a good investment in their education no matter what they studied. Right, the authors argue, and the jobs, the good jobs are in science and math and engineering. Film study graduates are working at Starbucks along with the Medievalists.

Whether for society in general or for the individual student, Is College Worth It? “No! It’s not. Not for everyone,” say the authors. The idea that every student needs to attend the best most prestigious university he or she can get accepted to no matter what the cost is silly.

Individuals need to examine what they want from life realistically. They need to determine whether four or more years of study and a mound of debt to pay for it is really the best plan for their future.

There is, however, another point of view worth some conideration. There is the idea that all knowledge is worthwhile, that everything that increases human understanding is worth studying. The authors are fond of quoting Matthew Arnold on the idea that culture is concerned with the “best that has been known and said” as though they have some direct pipeline to what that is. But, shouldn’t the university be open to all knowledge, else how will we know if we have the best? How will we know if there isn’t something better?

Bennett and Wilezol have some very legitimate criticisms of the culture of higher education. It needs to be better. Whether you think they have the right prescription to fix it probably depends on your political druthers.

Just keep in mind, with all its manifold problems, the American system of higher education is still the envy of all the world. Students come from countries far and wide to attend our colleges and universities. There are problems, yes, but when it comes right down to it, we must be doing something right.

About Jack Goodstein

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