Dubious Courses May Burst Tuition Bubble

Wednesday, 08 Feb 2012 04:19 PM

By Herbert London

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It has become glaringly apparent that the college tuition bubble is about to burst. At a time of financial exigency, the cost of $250,000 for a four-year education at a private college is beyond the means of most middle class parents.

That story is now very much front page news. What may not be front page news, but is itself a related bubble, is the excessive commentary surrounding the liberal arts.

If one speaks to an academic immersed in the academic culture, he is likely to wax lyrical about the virtues of the liberal arts curriculum. I, too, was once in this camp.

However, the liberal arts have been injected with foreign steroids that have ballooned the number of offerings and vitiated the meaning of the curriculum.

If one were to rely on the Matthew Arnold standard of the best that is known and thought as a guide, the current curriculum is anything that will fit or whatever you can get away with.

The absurdity of the offerings from the Occupy Movement to Film Noir represent little more than outcroppings of the contemporary imagination.

In fact, so absurd are many of the college level courses that it is impossible to caricature them.

The university has let itself become a feast for those bursting with expression. Rather than distinguish between the worthy and the ridiculous, scholars refuse to distinguish at all.

Every course fits the bill surrounding standards to some anachronistic moment in the past.

This is the age of open arms, of responding to student demands, of acceptance. Far be it for some crusty academic to argue that a course on the films of Woody Allen hasn’t an appropriate place in the curriculum. To reject this premise is to be judgmental, a sin in the new order.

What students get out of these experiences remains unclear. Surely some of these courses are entertaining, some may even be illuminating, but what, if anything, do they offer the liberal arts?

The presumption of the liberal arts experience is that by studying the great works of civilization, one arrives at an understanding (even a partial understanding) of the human condition, i.e., what makes us tick.

Differences in time will reveal variegated themes, but passion, loyalty, sadness, conflict, envy, greed, and love do not vary. These are the conditions of life in the very air we breathe, and they are revealed in literature, philosophy, drama, and poetry.

To suggest — as the contemporary curriculum does — that these ideas don’t matter is to miss the point of the liberal arts by allowing the trifling, the trivial, and the current to insinuate themselves into the curriculum and devalue the college experience.

As I see it, encouraging serious students to engage in an exercise like work or travel or even reading on their own might be as desirable as paying for the privilege of studying the inconsequential. The tuition bubble is about to burst and with it may be a curriculum that is flatulent and unworthy of scholarship.

Clearly my detractors are baying at the moon as they contend my allegations are exaggerated. But I have a useful exercise for the critics: read a core curriculum guide from 1950 at any major university and compare it with its modern counterpart.

Even leaving aside breakthroughs in science and computer studies, the number of new courses with exotic titles is staggering. Expression is deemed good; all aspects of life are considered worthy of investigation and the line between scholarship and self exploration unclear.

At some point, those who underwrite this very expensive education — whether they are parents, trustees, or government officials — will ask if we are getting very much of a return on investment.

If the best one can say is the result is dubious, the bubble could disappear like soap suds.

Colleges and universities won’t die, but they will be obliged to define and justify their missions.

That is a task both necessary and desirable for a nation that puts a premium on education and for an institution that has seemingly lost its way.

Herbert London is president emeritus of Hudson Institute, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and author of the book “Decline and Revival in Higher Education” (Transaction Books).

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