Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Is there hope for a conservative critique of academia?

Robert Weissberg has written one of the latest from-the-right essays on what's wrong with college today. The piece so perfectly exemplifies what a good conservative critique of academia could be, as well as where the genre inevitably goes wrong, that I had to respond.

Within the article are two potentially-separable strands. One is the classic, the requisite, the bitter, the Conservative Critique of Academia. We learn of colleges that "prescribe birth control devices," that through a "university-funded identity group one can reaffirm one’s homosexuality or blackness." We learn, "Instilling dependency is especially evident with academically struggling African-Americans. If there was ever a category of students who might benefit from acquiring self-reliance, it is this one." (Blacks should work harder! Gays should be more discreet! Wimmin should stop with all that premarital whup-di-do!) It is this portion of the article whose sheer predictability immediately repels 99.99% of people with anything to do with academia, including those with some conservative leanings.

Which is a shame, because if you isolate the other strand, a reasonable argument emerges. One I don't find entirely convincing, but one that merits a discussion. That argument is: How far should colleges go beyond offering courses and hosting libraries? What tragedy would befall us if dorms were replaced by students either living at home or in rooms or apartments near campus? If the parallel transportation systems some universities provide that precisely mirror existing public-transportation options were eliminated, and students were forced to take the oh-so-frightening M14 if they wanted to get from Avenue C to Union Square without exercise? (Not that riding the purple trolley isn't awesome in its way.) What if, rather than eating in dining halls, students had to learn how to procure ingredients and prepare meals? What if (and this one's my pet peeve) the ever-present landscaping services at elite universities, the ones that involve digging up and replanting what looks like the same exact thing each season, were eliminated (to be replaced by... concrete? student volunteers interested in planting an organic garden? does it matter?), and the tuition went down accordingly. Because whatever you happen to think of any individual beyond-classes expenditure (sports facilities, College Republicans, gay-identity-affirmation clubs, etc.), the end result is higher tuition, tuition beyond what many students could even think to meet on their own, without at least some parental assistance. This assistance, in turn, makes the default situation of a motivated 21-year-old "dependent." (Default, insofar as students at expensive colleges whose parents can't or won't pay any of the tuition need to alert others to this fact.)

I'm not so sure conservatives would like the results of a bare-bones university overhaul. What it would do, in effect, is shift adulthood up a couple years. College students would simply be adults living in Town X who happen to be taking classes. The safety net would be gone. (See item 2 in this post for a good explanation of the hands-off versus hands-on conservative visions of the academy.) The whole mythology of the College Experience would be gone. The insistence that students share rooms with other students so as to build character, the taboo surrounding undergrads dating anyone who isn't also an undergrad... The end result might be a conservative-friendly situation, with married, financially-independent 20-year-olds who are also getting BAs. Or maybe the very young would just enter the big, scary world prematurely, in-loco-parentis-less, and with a tougher time tracking down potential marriage partners. The "medieval" model ("When I tell my students that medieval universities only offered lectures, they are dumbfounded.") exists today, but among the less-well-off (community colleges) and residents of socialist-scary Western Europe, groups whose mores conservatives don't necessarily want middle-to-upper-middle-class Americans emulating.

But all in all, it makes sense that a more hands-off university would encourage responsibility, and that this is something that can be argued sensibly from the right, that could be a useful conservative contribution to discussions of academia. All I'm getting at here is that we have, once again, an example of a reasonable enough, definitively conservative, suggestion getting lost in a sea of knee-jerk sameness veering on offensiveness.


jim said...

It's not true that medieval universities only offered lectures: Oxford colleges were essentially dorms.

Taking lodgings in town works in large cities -- medieval Paris, contemporary New York or Chicago -- but it's harder in, say, Hanover, New Hampshire or Wooster, Ohio or, where my youngest went, Sweet Briar, Virginia, where there is no town.

Phoebe said...


You may be right re: medieval universities - this is not something I'd ever thought about, I have to say! I was just referring to what the author of the article was claiming.

Re: dorms... I agree that cities make finding apartments and transient living in general easier (except when they make finding apartments more difficult), but I don't see how dorms would have to exist anywhere. The university could provide housing (as in, in the case of a non-town, rooms in a house, or as in the case of first-year grad students at NYU, rooms in an existing apartment complex), and the housing could be university-affiliated without being a dorm. By "dorm" I mean a place with RAs, activities, roommates hand-picked to challenge yet complement each others' comfort zones, (the illusion of) community and supervision, and so on. There's student housing and there's student housing. Something like what exists for grad students might for undergrads as well - rooms that assure proximity to campus are one thing, but an all-out environment is another. Meanwhile, if a non-urban college didn't offer housing, but offered enough otherwise to attract students from far away, I'd imagine the market would take care of it, in the form of locals renting out rooms. Which (and now we're going full circle) is kind of how many students live in NYC as it is, where to rent an apartment on your own as a student is far more complicated than finding someone on Craigslist with a spare attic in Queens.

jim said...

I suspect that for colleges in small towns not offering dorms, the market that would take care of it would be the Greek system. I remember someone telling me a while back that in his day at Dartmouth you really had to pledge if you wanted someplace comfortable (for undergraduate notions of comfort) to live. Nineteen-year-olds want an environment.

Phoebe said...


What 19-year-olds want is fairly related to what 19-year-olds have grown up to expect. I can think of some examples (my boyfriend's college experience in Belgium, or my own at UChicago, living in a dorm that was basically just rooms that happened to be owned by the university, what I've heard from various sources about college in France, not to mention the case of community colleges, or of 19-year-olds in the workforce full time) of 19-year-olds without "the college environment" who do just fine. The issue is the expectation, in America and perhaps in England, that college means far, far more than classes. As I said in the post, I'm not 100% sure college should be so pared down, but given the outrageous cost of getting an education, it seems a question worth asking.

Miss Self-Important said...

The other problem with the "medieval model" was that when students took rooms in town, they also took entertainment at local alcohol-providing venues, and what we now call "town-gown relations" tended to suffer as students turned town into a really big frat party, except with weapons. Intense Jesuitical supervision of boys in dorms helped to bring an end to the long European tradition of violent student riots. (The end was later in coming in England, where these uprisings only ended in the 19th century.)

Of course, now we have co-ed education, and it's my strong suspicion that the presence of women goes some way in defusing male violence. Still, I wouldn't underestimate how deeply ingrained certain "college experiences" (like drinking and brawling) are in the West.

Phoebe said...


Now I wish I studied education in the Middle Ages!

In terms of college debauchery these days, though, I'm not sure how far it extends beyond the US-UK sphere. For example: in Heidelberg last summer, it was not unusual to see even very young teens consuming alcohol (not to mention tobacco) 100% in public. Nothing different from what's done by Americans the same age, just the openness. But the only time I was harassed by drunks, it was when some American college students overheard me speaking to Jo in English, and kept yelling, "Americans!" and getting offended that we didn't, I guess, join them in their extended pub crawl.

I mean, I think it's a silly myth that Americans drink to get drunk, while Europeans sip fine wines for their gourmet value only, even at 19. College-age means drunkenness everywhere where that's even slightly allowed. But The College Experience - the assumption that 18-22 exists outside society at large, to which one must return only after graduation - is not universal, even if one saw hints of this, apparently, in the Middle Ages. Even if a certain amount of rowdiness is inevitable, it can obviously vary according to the set-up a college (or national educational system) provides.

Britta said...

If you are more interested in this subject, read Timothy Burke's blog "easily distracted," he writes as a professor quite a bit about redesigning college for the 21st century, and it's pretty interesting. On the whole "what should colleges provide" issue, I am ambivalent as well. I went to a fancy-pants East Coast liberal arts college for undergrad, and it did veer over into country club territory in ways that seemed a little ridiculous--(sushi bar in the science center? Seared tuna in the cafeteria?), though it does seem like some elements, like dorms, can add quite a bit to the education/socialization processes of young adults.

On the alcohol, I used to be much more pro lower drinking age until I lived in Australia for over a year, where I was in a city where you could not go out on Friday night without literally stepping over 18 year olds vomiting in the gutter (I think at most I saw 5 people vomiting on one street at the same time). Also, alcohol induced violence is a HUGE problem in the UK and Australia, and since basically it is legal for 18 y. olds to drink themselves into a violent rage/coma, there isn't a whole bunch people can do, besides shutting pubs early and banning cleavers (Scotland).
On the other hand I started drinking at 16/17 at home with my family and at restaurants, so I do think alcohol is something teenagers can handle (and is handled better in places like France), but I do think Americans romanticize drinking in Europe and the colonies. I remember reading an (I think BBC) article about alcohol related deaths (including the long term effects), violence, accidents, etc., and all of Northern Europe has far greater problems with alcohol than America. Also, 40% of Americans don't drink alcohol at all, which I find kind of astonishing.

Kaleberg said...

I think the golden age of the independent college student was probably in the late 40s and early 50s with all the veterans going to school under the GI Bill. The New Yorker had a hilarious cartoon of the commencement with the speaker saying "... as we prepare to face the outside world ...", and there are the students with their wives and children toddling around or in baby carriages. Of course, modern conservatives aren't so keen on things like the GI Bill.

I gather college violence was rather a serious problem in Germany at one point. Wasn't the Heidelberg dueling scar near one's eye usually acquired during one's college years, often in a sword fight over a woman? Those proto-Graustarkian "student prince" stories had their share of drinking, whoring and brawling. My guess is that the problem is much older and revolves around concentrations of young men, and now women, with no real place in society. I read at least one old Egyptian letter (translated from the hieroglyphic text to English) in which a father is berating his son for hanging out in taverns with unsavory friends. Why was the father writing a letter? Where was the son getting his money? Why didn't his father cut him off or demand his return home? My guess is that the son was studying something or another at whatever passed for a university back then.

Don't get me started on the Pythagoreans. Weren't they co-ed?