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Over the last year or so, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to critics of American higher education. The best ones are from a “disruptive” or libertarian point of view, a kind of libertarianism that’s found in Democratic Silicon Valley as much as among economists and  Republican governors. Those criticisms are all about “bubbles.” There’s the higher educational bubble in cost, which is very similar to the bubble that burst not so long ago in the housing market. Tuitions and total costs are rising much more rapidly than the rate of inflation;  meanwhile, the product, especially in the social sciences and the humanities, is getting increasingly shoddy.

Then there’s the bubble that insulates colleges students from the “real life” rigors of the twenty-first century competitive marketplace. Residential colleges are rife with aristocratic privileges divorced from the corresponding responsibilities. Students and faculty inhabit a bubble (like the bubble boy on Seinfeld) of self-indulgence that does the opposite of prepare them for the responsibilities and opportunities they will encounter.  

Faculty are shamelessly overpaid and underworked. They use tenure as a way of resisting being  held accountable for their productivity in any sense of the word. They play let’s make a deal with the students: I’ll give you a give a good grade even if you learn and accomplish nothing, and you’ll give me a good student evaluation even I don’t even try to teach you anything. Not only that, colleges are turning into luxury resorts: gourmet food in the cafeterias, gyms that are more like health clubs, dorms that are more like hotels, and students affairs staffs that are really “concierges” working tirelessly to keep students from being bored or lacking in self-esteem. Who can deny that an important cause of soaring college cost is the bloating staffs that administer the residential college’s participation in what amount to an amenities arms race?

So, the disruptive critics say, the only alternative is to burst both bubbles. Costs have to be driven down by making colleges as efficient and productive as possible in helping students acquire the skills and competencies to assume a place in the twenty-first century marketplace. Everything else has to be regarded as a useless luxury, as an amenity that’s really not worth what colleges are charging for it. As the libertarians say, no real human standard trumps productivity; everything else is just a preference or hobby.

Because there is considerable truth and even more persuasiveness in these criticisms, we conservatives have to rally to defend the diversity that is the saving grace of American higher education. By diversity, of course, I mean the devotion to moral, religious, and educational missions that are about much more than productivity. We have to articulate a persuasive case for the continuing relevance of liberal education, call the disruptive critics on  their shameless exaggerations concerning how decadent American education has become, and work hard to keep our pockets of excellence from sucked into the whirlpool of holding everything accountable according to standards of measurable productivity.

All this is an introduction to a conservative defense (against the libertarians) of higher education that I wrote for Modern Age.

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