Time for 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-.