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The unmitigated ‘BS’ of modern higher education

Yet another professor is fed up with the deteriorating climate of higher education.

“I have had nearly enough bullshit,” Notre Dame sociology professor Christian Smith writes at The Chronicle of Higher Education. “The manure has piled up so deep in the hallways, classrooms, and administration buildings of American higher education that I am not sure how much longer I can wade through it and retain my sanity and integrity.”

The myriad problems in higher education today, Smith writes, “are contributing to this country’s disastrous political condition and, ultimately, putting at risk the very viability and character of decent civilization.”

Among those problems: “[T]he university’s loss of capacity to grapple with life’s Big Questions, because of our crisis of faith in truth, reality, reason, evidence, argument, civility, and our common humanity.”

“[T]he farce of what are actually “fragmentversities” claiming to be universities, of hyperspecialization and academic disciplines unable to talk with each other about obvious shared concerns.”

“[T]he expectation that a good education can be provided by institutions modeled organizationally on factories, state bureaucracies, and shopping malls — that is, by enormous universities processing hordes of students as if they were livestock, numbers waiting in line, and shopping consumers.”

Then, too, Smith writes, a significant problem is found in “the standard undergraduate student mentality, fostered by our entire culture, that sees college as essentially about credentials and careers (money), on the one hand, and partying oneself into stupefaction on the other.”

Smith continues:

Lest readers think this is only sour grapes, let me clarify a few facts. I absolutely love scholarly research. I am a fortunate winner in the research university system. I know it takes money to achieve excellence. I have worked to help raise and sustain my universities’ program rankings and institutional status. I have taught classes of more than 300 students. And I really love college sports, especially football, volleyball, basketball, and soccer. So naming the BS is for me actually painful and morally complicated.

But calling out the BS is not about my personal experience, limits, or feelings. It is not even only about the unconscionable fact that countless millions of students are receiving compromised and sometimes worthless college educations, as sickening as that is. Ultimately, we must grasp the more dreadful reality that all of this BS in the academy is mortally corrosive of our larger culture and politics.

Ideas and their accompanying practices have consequences. What is formed in colleges and universities over decades shows up for better or worse in the character and quality of our public servants, political campaigns, public-policy debates, citizen participation, social capital, media programming, lower school education, consumer preferences, business ethics, entertainments, and much more. And the long-term corrosive effects on politics and culture can also be repaired only over the long term, if ever. There are no quick fixes here. So I do not speak in hyperbole by saying that our accumulated academic BS puts at risk decent civilization itself.

“Under the accumulated weight of the mounds of BS,” Smith says, “the island [of higher education] has been swamped…by many of the destructive outside forces that the academy exists to hold in check and correct.”

“Much of American higher education now embodies the problems it was intended to transcend and transform: unreason, duplicity, refusals of accountability, incapacities to grasp complexity and see the big picture, and resorts to semi-masked forms of coercion.”

Read the whole piece here.

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