Yet for a system that—according to Taylor, especially—is deeply in crisis, American higher education is not doing badly. The lines of people wanting to get into institutions that the authors say are just waiting to cheat them by overcharging and underteaching grow ever longer and more international, and the people waiting in those lines don’t seem deterred by price increases, even in a terrible recession.First of all, he’s lumping college in with the discussion of public schools for kids, as if the higher-ed bubble, as Instapundit calls it, is organically connected to the problems of inner-city schools. This is like discussing the War in Afghanistan in a piece about the high cost of paying for overtime to Fargo policemen. Second, his thoughts on college demand seem rather . . . shallow. They lines for college are longer because people still believe that college is either required for success, or a necessary accomplishment for anyone who aspires to enter the overclass. The latter point I’ve never understood: if I had to hire someone, and one applicant worked for four years in a corn-canning factory while spending his or her evenings chewing through the great works of Western literature and philosophy, and the other spent $100K to get a bachelor’s degree in proto-Renaissance art history, there wouldn’t be any question. (I say that as an Art History minor, by the way.) (High Renaissance, though. That’s where the action was.) If they’re not deterred by price increases today, it’s because they’re not paying for it now, and still bet that a degree will open doors and allow them to pay off the crushing debt. Which it might, if it’s a useful degree. Anyway, Lemann’s column warns us not to do away with public education. Mend it, don’t end it! Spend it, don’t rend it! Amend it, don’t unfriend it!
The story line on education, at this ill-tempered moment in American life, expresses what might be called the Noah’s Ark view of life: a vast territory looks so impossibly corrupted that it must be washed away, so that we can begin its activities anew, on finer, higher, firmer principles. One should treat any perception that something so large is so completely awry with suspicion, and consider that it might not be true—especially before acting on it.In other words, progressivism is the new conservatism. It may be a large and vast issue viewed from an Olympian perspective, if you’re sitting in the ivory tower looking out over the great land below, helpfully labelled “EDUCATION MESS” in enormous letters. Most people see the problems of their schools as something much smaller, and they care less about Federal reform than the freedom to do something down the block. But we shouldn’t see education in local terms, because it’s, well, er, a system:
We have a lot of recent experience with breaking apart large, old, unlovely systems in the confidence of gaining great benefits at low cost. We deregulated the banking system. We tried to remake Iraq. In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken. We have a moral obligation to be precise about what the problems in American education are—like subpar schools for poor and minority children—and to resist heroic ideas about what would solve them, if those ideas don’t demonstrably do that.Which ideas he doesn’t want us to try, he doesn’t say. So I’ll supply a fave: vouchers. Keep the public system intact, let parents opt out if they like, and see if non-union schools unburdened by mandates do better. Bold, persistent experimentation – isn’t that what FDR advised? Don’t think that’s what he has in mind. I have no idea what he does have in mind, except to spend more money on subpar schools. But the President himself says that’s not the answer – not because he believes it, but because this is the season in which such things have to be said. So what are we supposed to do, then? That doesn’t matter as much as you’d think. For the moment, it’s important we not do what the reformers want. When that threat has passed, we can go back to talking about the students. By then they will have graduated with diplomas they can barely read. But there’s always a fresh crop coming up. There are some people who are Waiting for Superman for different reasons, and they have a briefcase full of Kryptonite. Just in case he tries something.