Frank Bruni on Higher Education

Fenster writes:

Time for perfesser Fenster

perfesser fenster
to grade Frank Bruni for his essay on higher education in the NYT.


I’ll grant him an A in the effective writing department, as always.  No typos.  No misspellings.  Good structure.

I’ll give him a B+ for ambition.  It takes a certain amount of chutzpah in today’s climate to mount a really, really old-fashioned defense of the classical virtues of higher education, and he deserves a certain amount of credit for that.  Forward into the past!

Persuasiveness?  Well, that depends on what he is trying to say.  For sure he says that for him college was transformative in the old-school way, courtesy of a course in Shakespeare’s tragedies at the University of North Carolina.  Yes, Shakespeare can do that. And if his little essay is intended simply as a personal testimonial, I find it persuasive and will give it a B+.

Is it just that?  Pundits can dabble in the memoir form but one suspects there is a larger point to be made.  Bruni (perhaps intentionally, perhaps prudently) does not explicitly look to link his personal experience with a sense of policy, of what to actually do.    But what to do, what not to do . . .  that is the question, no?

Here we have to go mostly by inference.  Bruni takes aim at a couple of easy (Republican) straw men, moving his argument toward politics if not policy.  He chides Scott Walker, who recently suggested (and then wisely withdrew) a change in the statutorily-defined mission of the University of Wisconsin.  According to the Washington Post:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker submitted a budget proposal that included language that would have changed the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system — known as the Wisconsin Idea and embedded in the state code  — by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”to drop the phrase “search for truth” and insert “meeting the state’s workforce needs”

I am enough of a purist to find this stupid as well as politically ham-handed, and Walker withdrew the proposal.  But to criticize an extreme instance of dumbing-down is not a compelling defense of the ideal university, which has its own problems in the real world.

Bruni also chides Reagan, natch, whose 1967 pronouncement as Governor of California that taxpayers should not “subsidize intellectual curiosity” has been seen by some as a pivotal moment in the turn towards utility as the primary goal of higher education.

I am happy to concede this may have been a pivotal moment, as Bruni puts it.  But most pivotal moments have a turning point quality, meaning that they represent the moment at which a series of forces cause a meaningful turn.  So with Reagan.  Bruni might like to flirt with the idea that the utility meme is the Gipper’s fault, but it is a lot more complicated than that.  What he wants us to believe, it seems, is that some bad political ideas somehow somehow got traction–who knows how?–and that we are now all the poorer for them.  I don’t buy that.

More importantly, having luxuriated in his moment of conservative bashing, he lets himself off the hook in terms of offering anything up other than pabulum to fix things.

Here’s the quote that gives the game away:

But it’s impossible to put a dollar value on a nimble, adaptable intellect, which isn’t the fruit of any specific course of study and may be the best tool for an economy and a job market that change unpredictably.

Two problems here.  The first is the notion that you can’t put a dollar value on something like this.  That’s just bad rhetoric.  Too many college educations cost a king’s ransom and trotting out the hoary old notion of “no price tag possible” just doesn’t work anymore.

So then you come to the second problem with the quote–the notion that the liberal arts are arguably the best possible training for a fast-changing job market.  There is actually some truth to this notion, I will concede.  There is a good argument that in theory that the liberal arts can do a better job at prompting critical thinking, building good communications skills and instilling problem-solving ability than can, say, a plain old business degree.  But that is an argument in theory.  In practice, as Arum and Roksa pointed out in their well-regarded book from couple of years ago, too many colleges do a poor job of just these things.

So Bruni accomplishes two sleights of hand in this sentence.  First, he disparages the idea that costs have to be taken account of at all, and this at a time when costs are out of control.  Second, by ignoring costs, he also is able to ignore the important concept of cost-benefit, an idea that would require a reckoning on the benefit side in addition to an accounting on the cost side.  That’s where the action is, and Bruni’s feel-good rhetoric doesn’t help with an answer.

Overall persuasiveness:  C-.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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7 Responses to Frank Bruni on Higher Education

  1. agnostic says:

    Acquiring a productive skill places such limits on how you can earn a living.

    Whereas all domains may be colonized by lib-arts grads who have honed the skills of obfuscation and bullshitting (“essays”), backpedaling (“you misread what I wrote, what I *really* meant was…”), and buck-passing (“that’s the impression the source gave me”). Discussion sections refine these skills in a face-to-face setting.

    Shameless euphemisms like “nimble” and “adaptable” betray his ideal of a protean, rootless, slippery egoism, rather than education preparing the individual to fit into society.

    I wish we could just toss the opinion columnists into a mass grave, and that would be that. Unfortunately they’re only hollow mouthpieces for the received wisdom, whose norms need to be attacked at their root.


  2. peterike2 says:

    As usual, backwards causality from a Liberal. A liberal arts education doesn’t create people who are good at critical thinking, have strong communications skills and problem-solving ability. People with those traits become liberal arts majors.

    On the flip side, a present-day liberal arts education will go a long way toward killing all those skills. Critical thinking becomes “blame it all on whites/men/Republicans/Christians.” Communications skills become regurgitated cant and empty neologisms of the moment (“the male gaze”). Problem-solving ability goes back to critical thinking — “blame it all on…” — rather than actually solving problems.


  3. JV says:

    I can’t argue against a classical liberal arts education. It seems to equip those who’ve gotten one quite well in most situations, even/especially those Ivy Leaguers who bemoan their Ivy League and prep school educations (there wouldn’t be any of those lurking around these parts, would there?). I can’t even say it isn’t for everybody. I actually think everyone could benefit from such an education. It can open one up to a lot of cultural richness that pays dividends throughout a lifespan, no matter the line of work you go into. I’ll agree that what passes for liberal arts in a lot of colleges “these days” seems to tilt towards social justice. Which, I believe, has its place, but not in, say, a literature class.

    Of course, this isn’t the most pressing issue in higher education. As you say, tuition cost renders all other education discussions moot for a growing segment of society. There are a lot of reasons for rising tuition, primarily less and less state funding every year, from what I can tell.


  4. Fenster says:

    nice to have you around.


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