Higher education isn’t a scam

Lauren Williams's picture

A dispute is emerging in conservative thinking about higher education. On one side are those who embrace “creative destruction.” Nimble, cheap, online competitors will drive many brick-and-mortar institutions out of business, and good riddance to those bloated, government-backed guilds that care more about indoctrinating students than they do about preparing them to get jobs. Resisting the destruction of the old model is, on this account, both futile and “wicked.”

On the other side are those who acknowledge the defects, even the “decadence,” of much of higher education but worry that the “transformative agenda” is “about exploiting the decadence to root out the quality as well.” The “disruptive logic of the market” may lead not only to a comeuppance for conservativism’s many enemies in academia but also to the “disappearance of close reading of the ‘real books’ of philosophy, literature, theology, and so forth . . . because they’re unreliable and not cost-efficient.”

A weapon of choice for the creative destruction camp is the claim that college is merely a very expensive screening device that flags not what students have learned in college but attributes they had before they got into college, which got them there. If college signals a student’s preexisting strengths rather than cultivating those strengths, then even those who are eager to preserve the study of great works may have to concede that they are better off finding another home than they are bunking with flim-flam artists.

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