Reviews | October 08, 2013

Dissing Academia: From Casuistry to Common Sense
By Kristine Somerville

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
William Butler Yeats

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic by Professor X, Viking, 2011, 258 pp., $25.95
The Education of Millionaires: Everything You Won’t Learn in College About How to Be Successful by Michael Ellsberg, Portfolio/Penguin, 2012, 274 pp., $16 (paper)
College (Un) Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students by Jeffrey J. Selingo, New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, 238 pp., $26
College: What It Was, Is and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco, Princeton University Press, 2012, 229 pp., $24.95

On my first day of freshman comp in fall 1982, my professor, a man who eventually became a lifelong friend but at the time scared the hell out of me, assigned an in-class essay. The question: “What do you hope to gain from a college education?” The class put pencil to paper and scratched out the same answer: a job and, by virtue of lots of money, the good life.

My professor, dressed in the requisite herringbone jacket and polished loafers, perched on the edge of his desk, crossed his arms and efficiently took apart our notion of college as vocational training. He reminded us that we were attending a liberal arts college, and if we were in pursuit of marketable skills, we had come to the wrong place. College was about more than a paycheck after graduation. He hoped that we would leave with an education, not just a job.

We looked at him blankly; this was news to us.

As we writhed in our plastic chairs, he continued to speak of “spaciousness of mind,” “intellectual curiosity” and “joy of discovery.”

Where I got the faith and confidence to follow his suggestions and trust in the places college would take me, I’ll never know. I was paying for my own education, so I suppose I had the luxury of doing exactly what I wanted. Also, no one seemed to expect much of me. I’d spent my high school years in the Ozarks, where education wasn’t a priority. Less than 10 percent of my graduating class went to college. Many were thrown into the challenges of adulthood—keeping a job, maintaining a marriage, raising children—before they had discovered who they were and what they wanted from life.

I made the hazy decision to major in English, while most of my peers jumped on the computer science or business bandwagons, hoping after college to lock in management jobs with Wal-Mart, Dillard’s or Tyson, major recruiters on campus. And while it took me longer than my more practical-minded classmates to find my way, I eventually became a professor of English and creative writing at a small liberal arts college.

Like my former composition professor, I was what some today would derogatively call an “educationist,” a person who sees higher education as a means to creative growth and individual potential. It was an intellectual position that each year became harder and harder to maintain as the tectonic plates of higher education were shifting under my feet. Each year my college added more “career-ready” degrees and certificates at the expense of its liberal arts mission. My fellow humanities professors slowly disappeared from the corridors of the general classroom building. Faded world maps, chipped busts of great thinkers and reproductions of iconic artworks went into storage. And my college is not unique. For some time now, there’s been a dramatic flight from the arts and sciences to occupational and vocational areas.

Higher education is under siege, attacked on all sides by economic uncertainty, the pressures of globalization, a revolution in technologies, the breakdown of faculty tenure, the extended state of adolescence in young people and the challenges confronted by K–12 teachers to instill basic skills and knowledge. Media reports are full of apocalyptic prophesies of the future collapse of academia as we know it. Newspapers, magazines and the blogosphere swing widely from realism and cynicism to outright delusion as they question the value of a college degree. Public anxiety is at an all-time high over rising costs of colleges and universities. Suddenly everyone is an economist, offering cost-benefit analyses and an evaluation of what they abstractly call “the market.”

The media throws around statistics that confuse the argument. Yes, college is expensive and tuition and fees have grown three times faster than inflation, while salaries have remained flat. But the media would have us think that graduates are drowning in debt that they’ll never manage to repay. Students from the class of 2011 left college with an average debt of $26,000, while their median starting salaries were $36,000, well within the recommendation that total debt should not exceed what a graduate will make his or her first year out of college. Only 10 percent of borrowers owe more than $50,000, and less than 1 percent owes more than $100,000. Simply put, a college degree still makes good economic sense. According to the Department of Education, the median income for those with a bachelor’s degree remains 50 percent higher than for those with only a high school diploma. The difference in lifetime earnings is up to nearly a million dollars.

Colleges and universities are regularly depicted as greedy big businesses filling their coffers with state dollars, while in fact there’s been a relative disinvestment of public funding in higher education. More and more, universities can be described as public in name only. Eight percent of the University of Virginia’s funding comes from the state, while the University of Wisconsin receives 19 percent of its budget from public funds. Fluctuations in state spending are the principal cause of tuition increases, and unfortunately, as state spending on higher education is decreased, students and their families make up the difference.

Confusing statistics, anticollege propaganda and perhaps most significantly the impact of the recession on family incomes have people scratching their heads: Is the cost of college really worth it? A number of recent books have taken up this debate. Some obscure the discussion with impassioned yet single-minded arguments, while others offer a clear-headed, reasoned conversation of what college is and should be.

In In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, Professor X gives us a bleak view of the college classroom. He changes the names of the colleges where he teaches because he has no desire to single out his institutions or, perhaps more likely, lose his job. Professor X’s story begins at the peak of the housing bubble. In order to maintain a middle-class existence for his wife and two children, he buys a house that he cannot afford. To subsidize his income, he takes a position as a part-time English instructor at two schools: a small private institution and a community college. He plies his new trade at night in what he calls “the basement of the ivory tower” to students whose skills “graze the lower reaches of high school.”

Many of his students don’t want to be in college in the first place. So why are they? Professor X blames “credential creep”: too many occupations require unnecessary degrees. Increasingly employers are requiring higher levels of education for positions without a corresponding increase in the demands of the positions themselves. The best illustration is in the healthcare field, where almost every position requires credentials that weren’t necessary thirty years ago. For example, a doctorate has replaced a bachelor’s degree as the minimum a pharmacist needs to practice. Professor X warns that in coming years, physical therapists and nurse-practitioners will need the same, despite there being little evidence that additional education results in better patient care. Educational requirements continuing to rise will result in rampant educational expansion. In 2016 the number of undergraduates is expected to reach 21 million, which for Professor X means ever-replenishing classrooms of underprepared, largely indifferent students for whom education is a meaningless exercise.

So what does a professor do about students who not only can’t read or write but have no business in the classroom at all? Very little. Writing is a skill that develops over a lifetime of reading and mimicking what we’ve read. It’s not a craft that can be mastered in sixteen weeks, although after years of practice, Professor X’s students may reach an adequate level of skill. The question he struggles with is whether one dumbs down the curriculum so students can pass or simply fails high numbers of students. The answer is a little of both. “Hidden remediation” has crept into college coursework. Professors are forced to cope with the deficits in their students’ previous schooling by surreptitiously introducing basic skills. Many students are being put in classes that they simply can’t pass, with or without remediation. Fifty percent of community college students drop out before their second year. For Professor X, teaching and failing the unprepared is a wrenching, draining and sorrowful business.

Despite his sometimes tiresome lamenting, Professor X successfully gives voice to a growing phenomenon on college campuses: underpaid, overworked part-time faculty trying to cobble together a living by teaching at two or three campuses, dealing with students who are simply in over their heads. He contends that we lack high-quality educational substitutes for those ill-suited for traditional colleges and universities. Yet he sees no solution in sight. Higher education will remain necessary as long as jobs require college and dictate who needs to go. He believes that the biggest winners of the “college preferred” problem are the colleges themselves. They obviously have an economic interest in growing enrollments. Credential creep doesn’t appear to be slowing. By 2020, two out of every three jobs will require some sort of higher education.

In The Education of Millionaires: Everything You Won’t Learn in College About How to Be Successful, Michael Ellsberg, a blogger for, would have us avoid college education entirely, claiming it is no longer essential to the American dream. Ellsberg’s hyperbolic proclamations are meant to shock and awe: We’ve all been lied to. We’ve all been indoctrinated into the “every-child-on-the-planet-must-go-to-college-or-else-they’ll-all-end-up-janitors ideology.” College has been pitched as a surefire, can’t-lose financial investment. He contends that the notion that if we study hard in school, get good grades and earn a degree, we will be successful is a sham. College students are simply wasting their time in the classroom learning useless knowledge and forgoing earnings while their entrepreneurial betters are snatching up the best jobs. Oh, and don’t forget: academic institutions are heading toward “some sort of cataclysmic national reckoning”— what it is exactly, you’re left to guess.

Ellsberg would have you believe that Americans unduly venerate higher education. Attending a four-year college is so ingrained in our culture that we have trouble imagining anything else. But, he charges, it’s time to stop the madness, and he intends to show us the way. We can accomplish great things in the “real world” if we follow the lessons he’s learned from a handful of “self-educated” millionaires and billionaires who just said “no thanks to education.” Before Ellsberg divulges his secrets to education-free financial success, readers must wade through a lot of generalized ranting about the differences between street smarts and book smarts, practical intelligence and academic intelligence, and suffer an onslaught of clichéd phrases such as “real-world skills, capabilities and mindsets,” “new breed of opportunities,” “spheres of money,” “the art of making a living,” “the race toward the top,” “networking magic” and “the sweet spot of overlapping money and meaning.”

Ellsberg offers numerous profiles of the “most successful people on the planet who don’t have college degrees.” He also happily promotes numerous books by self-educated entrepreneurs. One of his favorites is billionaire investor and cofounder of PayPal Peter Thiel, who, in 2011, reacting to what he called the “default perception that everyone has to go to college,” announced that he would pay twenty students $100,000 each not to attend college and pursue their entrepreneurial dreams instead.

Also featured is an eccentric selection of “self-educated mega-famous or mega-rich” mostly male entrepreneurs: Facebook founding president Sean Parker, Cisco founder Scott Banister, John Paul Mitchell hair care cofounder John Paul DeJoria, fashion magnate Russell Simmons, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, owner Mike Faith, along with several high-paid marketing consultants, motivational speakers and authors of best-selling personal finance books. Several of Ellsberg’s success stories candidly admit that they got lucky, but it’s an assertion he downplays in favor of warmed-over motivational advice about tenacity, determination, hard work and risk-taking, meant to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Occasionally his experts are quotable and self-revealing: “I love education—but education that makes you rich,” and “the biggest lesson I’ve learned is how to fail faster”—but unfortunately too often the people and their rags-to-riches tales are no more stirring or memorable than reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show. And missing from these tales of degreeless success is the fact that many of them did attend some college and had access to the high-end facilities that colleges provide. If pushed, they would have to admit that the likelihood of the ubersuccess of dropouts is like the possibility of high school basketball players getting drafted by the NBA and the drama geek being cast in a summer blockbuster—it rarely happens. Saying no to college is only reasonable for the rarely talented and ultralucky few—but what about the rest of us?

Aside from providing a forum for the author to thumb his nose at academia, Ellsberg’s book is a rather standard “how to succeed in business” motivational work. When he does get around to offering his “very specific plan for living a very meaningful life” it comes down to marketing, networking, sales and leadership. Granted, he puts a little meat on those bones as he tells us more or less how to invest in being better at these key skills. His advice swings wildly from the eccentric notion that you are to develop a “kinetic sense in your body of how it feels to have money to pay your rent, to pay your bills on time, and to take your sweetie to a nice restaurant” to the more mundane “don’t forget to create room to experiment” (at what, he doesn’t say).

The Education of Millionaires oozes with unbridled anti-intellectualism. Ellsberg reduces a college education to self-exploration with expensive, fancy books or a long break before adulthood. Maybe that’s what he got at Brown in the ’90s, but times have changed. College is no longer the pastime of eccentrics, as he seems to think. Ellsberg’s rant that universities are hopelessly sclerotic and removed from the “real world” is ultimately tiresome, dull and self-serving.

In the extremity of their arguments and the passion with which they are written, Professor X’s and Ellsberg’s books are sometimes entertaining, on rare occasions informative, but mostly maddening as they focus too fixedly on the authors’ personal experiences and biases. They seldom pull back and provide a big-picture view. Jeffrey J. Selingo, editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, offers in College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means to Students a more reasonable, balanced and informed discussion of the current state of education. His problem is not that students are going to college but that for a number of complex reasons, they do not finish. Only 50 percent of American students who enter college leave with a degree. More importantly, we are in danger of having successive generations less educated than the ones that preceded them. He wants the collegebound to make an informed choice about their education, and he provides plenty of practical advice to address the simple fact that too many are leaving school empty-handed.

Selingo makes quick work of the myriad of familiar problems facing higher education—flagging state support, huge federal budget deficits and falling household incomes. He moves deftly to his key point that potential buyers frequently do research before making major purchases, yet when it comes to higher education, parents and students lack rigor in the selection process. Too often their reasons for selecting a school are emotional rather than practical. He warns that not all colleges are created equal. Consumers need to be proactive in getting the information they need on retention, attrition, graduation and job-placement rates to make bottom-line comparisons between options. To facilitate better decision-making, he provides a checklist of what students should know before settling on a school, such as the mobility of credits, the college’s priorities and level of academic rigor and the institution’s financial health.

Also, students seriously need to ask, “How much debt is too much debt?” Selingo warns that “education debt may be good debt, but too much of it can hurt you.” He points out that there is little evidence that an expensive college degree is worth considerably more than a cheap one. Going to college is worth it, but doing so expensively does not make a lot of sense. Students are seduced by the cachet of the Ivy League, while in fact, three out of four college students happily attend a state school. He wisely advises students to balance their dream college against the financial reality of paying for it.

The author also contends that a student’s field of study is less important than how he or she acquires knowledge. The best way to experience college is through deep commitment to one subject combined with broad exposure to knowledge across the board. So should a student pursue the arts and sciences or the practical arts? Selingo reveals that employers are split: “45 percent of hiring managers prefer students acquire an education that specifically prepares them for the workplace; 55 percent favor a broad-based education.” But Selingo reminds us that because Americans switch jobs on average every four years, curiosity and the willingness to adapt are more important than a particular field of study. All employers look for the ability to be flexible and solve problems. He also reminds us that today, one of the most valuable skills a person can possess is the ability to write.

Selingo concludes that when focusing on the costs of higher education, we overlook the lifetime gains to the individual and ignore the fact that college is a place where students transform themselves. According to the Pew Research Center, three-quarters of those who have attended college feel that it helped them grow intellectually and mature as a person. He also maintains that they live longer, happier lives with better, more satisfying working conditions, more civic involvement and engagement in the arts than those with a high school diploma. College serves as a turning point in the lives of those who have the good fortune of attending; it’s where they learn to fit into the world and create meaning in their lives.

Interestingly the debate about college is as old as the establishment of Harvard, America’s first college. In College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Andrew Delbanco, professor of American literature at Columbia University, offers an informed, often entertaining discussion of the history, current state and future of academia.

Delbanco undertakes to teach us about the history of American higher education: “not just about admissions and financial aid, but about curriculum, teaching techniques, the financial structures of institutions, and more importantly the premise and purposes of a college education.”

He begins by asking what any college should seek to do for its students. Straightaway he delves into the fundamental principles inherited from the past that higher education “should help develop certain qualities of the heart and mind” through encouraging students to develop a skeptical discontent with the present, make connections between seemingly disparate phenomena, value the natural world through an enhanced knowledge of arts and science, cultivate a willingness to imagine experience from a different perspective and develop a sense of ethical responsibility—what Thomas Jefferson might have called “education for citizenship.” College should also strive to be “an aid to reflection, a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents, passions, and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others.”

The assumption that young adults should pass through a period of higher education on the way to adulthood is not new. Aristotle believed that the three or four years before the age of twenty-one was an important, formative time for mind and character. Young Greek men attended lectures that resemble our notion of college courses, and Roman students gathered to receive instruction while also having available libraries, fraternities and organized sports. Eventually, by the Middle Ages, nascent educational centers were formed. In the United States the Founding Fathers drew on these ancient and medieval precedents while adding dimensions they encountered from their own experiences at Cambridge and Oxford.

From the beginning of American higher education, colleges sought to provide a community of inquiry where ideas came alive, in hopes of re-forming students as social beings, enlarging them from self-interest to broader sympathies. Students were encouraged to discover the difference between informed insights and mere opinions as well as to accommodate in their thinking uncertainty and paradox.

According to Delbanco, belittling and disparaging the lofty aims of higher education is hardly new. Colleges have always defended themselves against public doubt. The two colleges in the American colonies—Harvard (1636) and William and Mary (1693)—according to critics, offered nothing more than deadening routine of memorization and recitation. As institutions of learning rapidly grew in numbers during the eighteenth century, it was commonly thought that colleges were little more than “disorderly burlesques,” a place where young men went to chase after pleasure and power.

Delbanco reminds us that despite the continued complaints of the failings of higher education, our universities and colleges have remained the envy of the world. Ninety-three percent of respondents to a recent survey in the United States considered our academic institutions a national treasure, and on the international list of the world’s best universities, fourteen of the top twenty are American.

Despite the debates, Americans still believe in college. Postsecondary education remains in high demand, with over 18 million people attending four-year and two-year institutions. And while some seek to diminish its personal and professional value, others decry the fact that the lower and middle classes are being priced out of the market. As we know, the odds of going to college and getting into a competitive institution are closely linked to family income. Children from families who make more than $90,000 have a one-in-two chance of getting a bachelor’s degree. From there the numbers quickly plummet; students from families who make less than $35,000 have a one in seventeen chance of going to college. There’s a very real fear that the opportunity to learn will be available only to the wealthy, brilliant and lucky few.

In 1776, in a letter to her husband, Abigail Adams complained that “education has never been in a worse state.” Complaints against higher education have never quieted. Ellsberg’s diatribe mimics the derision of the largely self-educated Andrew Carnegie a hundred years ago: “College as it exists today with its focus on antiquated ideas and dead languages is suitable only for life on another planet.” There have always been those who see college as hopelessly backward and irrelevant. And the public and educators alike have always quarreled over the “types” of education offered: knowledge versus skill, inspiration verses discipline, insight versus information. Yet, in truth, these “types” of education have coexisted for some time in the college environment.

After fifteen years in the classroom, I’ve come to realize that teaching is a mysterious profession. The best you can say is that it’s a living, breathing, untamable creature, but one worth wrangling with. At the end of Professor X’s confession, he concludes that a few of his students will thrive, even flourish, a few will fare okay, and even more will wither. This was true when I was in college as a student and later as a professor. But it’s a chance worth taking, and a price worth paying.

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