The State Of The 21st Century University

The state of the modern university is in question. In visiting any major campus, one will witness a stunning array of students wandering a sprawling campus, weaving through numerous buildings and across countless pathways. Degrees are conferred by the millions each year. Yet for all the activity on the typical campus, legitimate questions are arising over whether modern higher education really enables its graduates to achieve great heights.

U.S. News & World Report contributing editor Marty Nemko described the bachelor’s degree as “America’s most overrated product” in the May 2 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. In Mr. Nemko’s article, he highlights two stunning realities surrounding the modern university.

First, “Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later.” This fact was first cited in a study by Clifford Adelman, a former research analyst at the U.S. Department of Education.

Second, Mr. Nemko reveals, “Only 23 percent of the 1.3 million high-school graduates of 2007 who took the ACT examination were ready for college-level work in the core subjects of English, math, reading, and science.”

In 1984, the Hart-Rudman Commission called out the failing standards of public education in unequivocal terms: “The inadequacies of our systems of research and education pose a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war.” In 2001, a follow-up report by the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century noted “the decline has already begun.”

This decline is evidenced in the modern university, which is today a creature without a soul. The Never Ending Story, the children’s tale that tells of Fantasia, the land of spirit and imagination, being lost to an encroaching Nothing, has proven itself as a parable of our time.

According to the Institute for Higher Education Policy, despite a system that takes 18 years just to get young men and women to college, the “core function” of college has been reduced to “remedial education.” Things appear bleak. The liberally educated, well rounded adult American rarely makes it out of today’s universities.

This crisis in higher education can be traced to the abandonment of the classical idea of a university as most clearly articulated by John Henry Cardinal Newman in his seminal work first published in 1852, The Idea of a University. The real university, according to Newman, “will give birth to a living teaching,” that emphasizes individual formation over mere knowledge acquisition. Facts alone, observed Newman, resulted in “a generation frivolous, narrow-minded, and resourceless.”

The abandonment of Newman’s idea of a university began, unsurprisingly, in the 1960s. UC Berkeley Chancellor Clark Kerr had a new and radical idea of the college campus not as a university, but really a “multiversity.” This was the proposition that colleges should exist merely as a means by which to train young workers in certain skill sets in order that they may go on to serve their function in the military-industrial complex.

Kerr’s radical reimagining of the university not as an institution of liberal thought and wide-ranging inquiry, but instead as knowledge factory for specific trades, is what sparked the campus riots that remain a hallmark of that decade. The riots, first begun to protest the abandonment of the classical university model, quickly transformed into the free speech movement after Berkeley officials reacted by breaking up demonstrations and protests against the new “multiversity.”

Today, nearly all leading public universities have embraced the idea of the multiversity in ways large and small. At Penn State University, President Graham Spanier explicitly endorsed the multiversity as the model for the future in some of his first remarks to the Trustees in 1995.

Yet, the abandonment of classical formation in favor of a trade-school mentality to higher education has wrought disaster for our nation’s youth from the collegiate level downward. Even as glorified trade schools, our modern “multiversities” are failing our youth, as nearly every study on the intellect of the undergraduate — including those mentioned here — has demonstrated.

Despite our ability to recognize the failings of our higher education system, we cannot hope for a better future without first understanding our past and rediscovering the full implications of the classical idea of a university. In my next column, we will explore that vision and the nature of the university educated man.