DESPITE CRITICISM, APUSH IS BETTER

The College Board’s new AP U.S. history standards (APUSH) remain in the news. A recent piece by Stanley Kurtz suggests that despite the revisions, the standards remain unsatisfactory and will prevent the instruction of more traditional topics in U.S. history. A piece in EDWeek, on the other hand, has quotes from historians mostly praising the revisions, along with a complaint from a so-called human-rights writer, who suggests that the changes will “foster divisiveness” by failing to sufficiently stress racial tension throughout U.S. history.

A reminder on the nature of the controversy. The 2014 standards generated considerable criticism (including from me) primarily on four grounds, the last three of which I shared:

(1)   The guidelines inappropriately stressed liberal themes at the expense of conservative ones.

(2)   The guidelines sought to impose a race/class/gender pedagogy, to the extent of diminishing the role played by important figures in U.S. history, such as the Founders.

(3)   The guidelines’ addition of a unit preceding the British settlement of North America was faddish.

(4)   The guidelines troublingly conflicted skills with content, suggesting that students could learn a “skill” (such as reading primary documents) regardless of the content of the skill-related item.

I had argued that the second and fourth items were the most significant defects. The fourth brought to mind the dispositions battle, in which NCATE touted a skill “disposition to promote social justice” as a way of denying academic freedom the students. Similarly, the implication was that a student could master the skill through reading Federalist 10—or by reading the diary of an 18th century midwife, suggesting that the two were somehow of equal importance.

But the revised version of the standards, as I previously noted, eliminates many of these problems. The skills/content conflation is gone, and the standards add a section on the importance of the Founders. Language is toned down; one example cited in EdWeek is the cutting of a description of Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric as “bellicose.” I’ve probably used such a description in a lecture in the past—but guidelines should strive to be as neutral as possible in language, and the shift was appropriate. The inclusion of the pre-British settlement section remained, although this material would better be covered in a European history class.

Kurtz, however, suggests that these changes are little more than token. He makes three principal argument. First, he notes that the revised guidelines continue to give insufficient attention to diplomatic and military history. I agree. But, as Kurtz also notes, “The most significant changes to the APUSH framework are the removal of controversial phrases, along with a general paring down of the content.” Paring down the content means that teachers can—and must—look to state educational guidelines, which have a much greater role for traditional topics. I would prefer to see more respect for state guidelines, but that wasn’t likely.

Second, Kurtz cites the experience of an outstanding AP U.S. history teacher, who went to a teacher-training session and got exposed to a lovefest for Howard Zinn. I’ve no doubt that this occurred as described—though I’ve done many of these seminars and have never had such an experience (here’s a link to my latest session, on the Cold War)—but even if APUSH were wholly revised, a Zinn-fest would still be possible.

Third, Kurtz argues that the new guidelines insufficiently stress American exceptionalism. The problem here, however, is that this phrase has become quite ideologically charged. (For that reason, I don’t believe I’ve ever used it in my own right in a class lecture, though of course I’ve noted when figures covered in the class, such as Woodrow Wilson, have operated under such a theory.) There’s also no historiographical consensus on what American exceptionalism is, or whether it’s even accurate to say that it exists. Accordingly, I didn’t expect to see the term play a large role in the revised standards, and am not surprised at the outcome.

Overall, with the exception of the pre-settlement era addition, I continue to think the revised standards are a vast improvement over their predecessor.

WESLEYAN BATTLES DRUGS AND FRATS

Wesleyan University made national news this past February when 12 students were hospitalized for drug overdoses and five were arrested on drug-related charges, amid fears that the drug culture was far advanced at the school.

The university chose last month–a nice, quiet time, with no students on campus–to ramp up its long-term war on fraternities in a quiet way. It announced a revision of the student handbook to prohibit students “from using any…property that the University informs students are off-limits for health, safety or conduct reasons at the University’s discretion.  These prohibitions include using such houses or property as residences, taking meals at such houses or property, and participating in social activities or otherwise being present at such houses or property.”

Translated into English, this was an attempt to deprive one former fraternity and two existing fraternities – one male and the other co-ed – of any ability to generate income, so the university would be able to acquire their historic structures at distress-sale prices.  As Wesleyan President Michael Roth wrote to Board Chairman Joshua Boger on August 20, 2014– in what he expected to be a confidential email– “If we don’t close the houses with the hopes of acquiring them, then we shouldn’t go down this road at all.”

Now it seems that decades of PC zealotry and drug culture are hitting Wesleyan where it hurts – in its fund-raising pocketbook.  In a July 30 email to “Wesleyan Fund Volunteers,” the university’s Director of Annual Giving, Charles Fedolfi, said he shares the worries of the Fund’s co-chairs. “We face a challenge in convincing our classmates to contribute EVERY year…. Our year-over-year giving has fallen to the low 40% to high 30% range…[and] we had approximately 400 [sic] fewer donors than the prior year (9,712 v. 10,209) due primarily to the number of alumni who did not renew their gifts.”

The obvious question is why 497 donors, nearly 5% of the alumni donor base, decided not to give. Maybe they think their alma mater is off course, and are voting with their wallets.

A Close Look at Clinton’s Student Debt Plan

Nearly everyone recognizes that student debt has risen to a level that will be difficult to sustain in the future given the nation’s slow growing economy and the sagging incomes of too many college-educated Americans. Nearly 40 million Americans are carrying some form of student debt; more than 7 million are in default on their loans and many more have missed scheduled payments. Roughly 70 percent of all college students today are leaving school with debts owed to either the federal government or to private lenders, with the average debt per student now well in excess of $30,000. The total amount of outstanding student debt is estimated to be $1.2 trillion, with about two-thirds of this sum underwritten by the federal government.

It is not difficult to figure out the reasons for exploding student debt. On the one hand, high-school graduates and their parents understand that a college education is essential for entry into the narrowing world of high paying professional jobs. College and university enrollments increased by more than a third between 2000 and 2014, from 15 million to more than 21 million students. At the same time, college tuition and fees have been growing at more than three times the rate of inflation for three decades now and at more than twice the growth in the median family income over the same period. In 2015, the average tuition (plus fees) for in state students at public universities is in the neighborhood of $10,000 per year and over $40,000 per year for students attending private universities. A fair amount of careful research suggests that these soaring costs are partly attributable to the increasing availability of loans encouraged by federal policy.

Hillary Clinton’s new $350 billion (over ten years) proposal takes aim at this vast constituency of voters currently paying off student loans or worried about the costs of taking them on. She says that her proposal will enable most students to meet college expenses without taking on loans, a claim that is surely exaggerated in view of the scale and scope of her plan.  At best it is a proposal to mitigate the problem somewhat by permitting borrowers to reduce interest rates on current loans and to use the carrot of federal funds to force states to invest more public funds in higher education.

There are three major parts to her plan:

First, (borrowing an idea from Sen. Elizabeth Warren) she wants to allow borrowers locked into loans at high rates of interest to refinance those loans at current federal rates for student loans, much as people are allowed to refinance their home mortgages when interest rates fall.  Federally subsidized student loans are given at fixed rates (set by Congress), generally for a period of up to 25 years.  The current interest rate (as of 2014) on federal loans is about 3.9 percent, down from 6.8 percent charged a decade ago. That reduction would save a typical borrower carrying a loan of $20,000 or $30,000 between $500 and $1,000 per year.

It is hard to find fault with her proposal, at least in the abstract. Many Democrats and even some Republicans are sympathetic to it as a means of providing some relief for overburdened borrowers. Still, there is less here than meets the eye. Private lenders have long offered variable rate loans that move up and down with interest rates. In addition, borrowers have long been able to refinance their student loans through private lenders, which is already a common practice.

Mrs. Clinton’s plan would allow borrowers carrying federal loans to do so through the federal system rather than through private lenders. This may be a step in the right direction, but it is a very short step when one considers the options already available.  Further, her proposal carries an estimated cost of between $60 and $100 billion per year to the federal government, depending upon where interest rates happen to be and how many borrowers take advantage of the plan. This is one of the sticking points: Congress is reluctant to appropriate such funds in a time of deficits, rising entitlement costs, and generally tight budgets.

Second, she proposes to establish an income-based repayment system so that borrowers will never have to pay more than 10 percent of their income on student loans (the standard in the past was 15 percent) with the possibility of loan forgiveness after twenty years of faithful payments.

This is also a reasonable but modest proposal, and one that has been endorsed by other national leaders, including her fellow presidential candidate Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. One problem with it is that the Obama Administration, following the advice of a task force led by Vice President Biden, has already implemented most of it under a law that took effect in 2014. Under that law, borrowers choosing an income-based repayment plan will pay no more than 10 percent of their income toward student loans and those who faithfully repay their loans for twenty years are eligible to have the remainder of their debt forgiven (those who work in public service for ten years can have the remainder of their loans forgiven after ten years). Mrs. Clinton’s proposal “tweaks” current policy at the margins by consolidating existing income based repaying programs into a single plan, but it does not significantly add to it.

There is another problem with income-repayment schemes that is now beginning to emerge. The Financial Times reported last week that Moody’s Investors Service is reviewing the credit worthiness of some student-loan-backed bonds in response to falling repayment rates on loans.  Moody’s review was triggered by wider use of income-based repayment plans which allow borrowers to repay loans more slowly, creating the possibility that bonds may reach maturity before the underlying loans have been repaid.  This could lead to defaults, even if the debt is backed by a government guarantee.  Such concerns have led to a doubling of the yield on Triple-A rated bonds in recent months and to the possibility that Moody’s might downgrade its ratings on those bonds. As the FT reports in its article, “sharp downgrades could spur an exit from the sector by investors banned from buying low rated debt.” This would drive prices down and interest rates higher on those bonds, which in turn could lead to higher interest rates for new borrowers, and perhaps even to an exit from the sector by private lenders.

Third, Mrs. Clinton proposes to spend $175 billion over ten years to encourage (bribe) state governments to invest more resources in higher education so that tuition charges can be reduced at four-year institutions and eliminated entirely for two-year community colleges.  Under her plan, the Department of Education would make funds available to match state budget allocations for higher education and to reward states that keep a lid on tuition increases.  She would also expand work-study programs to permit more students to work off college expenses during their student years. The combined federal and state funds, perhaps as much as $35 billion per year across the country, she claims, would allow states to maintain tuition at affordable levels for students so that loans would be unnecessary. This is, as already noted, an exaggerated claim. An additional point worth emphasizing:  she is not making tuition “free,” but rather substituting taxpayer funds for student-paid tuition.

Total tuition charges at public institutions across the country in 2012-13 amounted to something like $300 billion, plus expenses for fees, books, room, and board. A mix of federal, state, and private scholarships subsidizes a significant portion of this sum. The federal government, for example, spends about $30 billion per year on Pell grants to support tuition and other expenses for more than 9 million students from lower-income families. Mrs. Clinton’s contribution of $17.5 billion in federal funds per annum would make a dent in this package but it is hard to see how it will ever allow reductions in tuition and fees to levels that would allow students to dispense with loans.

Appropriations for higher education in states across the country have fallen off by an average of 16 percent since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008.   Mrs. Clinton, along with the liberal think tanks associated with the Democratic Party, claims that this is a major cause of tuition increases at public universities and thus a major source of the student debt crisis.   This is another exaggerated claim:  student debt was accumulating for years and decades prior to the financial crisis due to rising college costs and the wide availability of federally subsidized loans.   The financial crisis made many problems worse across the country, including the student debt problem, because it provoked a budget crisis for state governments that extended to all publicly funded programs.

Mrs. Clinton and her advisors might ask themselves why so many states found it necessary to cut appropriations for higher education in the years following the financial crisis.  The major reason was that governors and legislators had other priorities, among them paying for public employee pensions, meeting federal mandates to pay for Medicaid, welfare, and K-12 education, and finding revenues to meet law enforcement and transportation budgets.  Medicaid for years has been the fastest growing item in state budgets, followed by spending on K-12 education. Together these two items now claim close to half of all state expenditures across the country.   In ramping up spending on these two items, governors and legislators have necessarily taken into account the carrots (matching funds) and sticks (mandates and court orders) of federal policy.   In view of federal policies and the hard-nosed politics in play in the states, it is not hard to understand why higher education has been squeezed out in the keen competition for state funds.

Mrs. Clinton would now hold out federal dollars to induce states to appropriate more funds for higher education, just as the federal government already does with Medicaid, welfare, K-12 education, and transportation projects. Her proposal would compel governors and legislators either to raise taxes to cover those added expenditures or to cut budgets in other areas — or, alternatively, to dispense with the federal funds altogether.  The federal government has contributed to the budget crises in the states through its mandates and matching programs, and Mrs. Clinton now proposes to address that problem by adding still another mandate and matching program.  This will only make a difficult problem worse, especially when the next recession intensifies the scramble among interest groups for scarce public funds.

Mrs. Clinton’s plan is undoubtedly one of the more inefficient ways through which we might address the student-debt problem.  The major problem in higher education today is one of cost and expense, and only secondarily who pays for it (students or governments).  American colleges and universities are highly inefficient enterprises that maintain scores of useless, duplicative, out-of-date, and politically correct programs for no other reason than that there are interest groups on campus that would protest if any of them were eliminated.  Too many universities maintain masters and doctoral programs in fields for which graduates have no hope of finding jobs.

This is also true of many undergraduate programs currently in place.  Most of those programs should be eliminated in the service both of long-run efficiency and educational integrity.  Ideally, this kind of streamlining should take place state-by-state and campus-by-campus as governors, legislators, and academic leaders grapple with priorities and limited resources.  It is a nagging problem that academic leaders, particularly in public institutions, should begin to address.  Yet Mrs. Clinton’s plan would encourage them to put off the day of reckoning in the hope that all programs can be maintained with still another infusion of federal funds.

Mrs. Clinton proposes to pay for this program by (no surprise here) eliminating tax breaks and loopholes for the wealthy. Her main target is the charitable deduction, which (like President Obama) she proposes to cap at 28 percent for taxpayers in the highest- income brackets (individuals earning more than $200,000 per year and couples more than $250,000). President Obama, who has included this proposal in his annual budget proposals for the past five years, estimates that such a measure would bring in an additional $320 billion to the U.S. Treasury over eight years (another dubious claim). Ironically, in proposing such a measure, Mrs. Clinton is likely to provoke opposition from academic leaders who rely upon generous contributions from wealthy donors to fund scholarships, new buildings, and important research programs.

Mrs. Clinton’s approach is a typical kind of Democratic plan that relies upon subsidies, higher taxes and more spending, and cost-shifting among participants in the higher-education industry.  It will do little or nothing to encourage restructuring or cost-cutting among institutions of higher learning.  It stands in contrast to the approach taken by Sen. Rubio, who proposes to overturn the accreditation system to allow more participants into the industry, thereby encouraging competition among providers and eventually lower costs to consumers. This is the kind of debate we should have over the future of higher education – between those who wish to prop up the current system and those who propose to introduce competition into the industry as a means to restructure and reorganize it. If it does any good, then Mrs. Clinton’s proposal may provoke such a debate.

The Fading of Liberal Education

The best ranking of undergraduate institutions by their general education is ACTA’s What Will They Learn? project. The evaluation looks at seven core subjects (composition, literature, foreign languages, U.S. government or history, economics, math, and science) and tallies whether schools require all students to show sufficient knowledge and proficiency in each one. The ACTA approach goes straight to the heart of learning, the content of the curriculum. Not the applicant size and selectivity, not diversity, not faculty research or Federal dollars, but only the courses students have to take in core subjects. ACTA has reviewed the requirements of 1,098 schools and scored each one on the standard A to F scale.

The degree to which higher education in America has abandoned the mission of liberal education may be measured by the number of schools that made ACTA’s A List. Today, fully 43 percent of all grades given in college are A grades, a bizarre leap from the 15 percent rate in 1960. But ACTA gave only 22 schools its highest score, or really only 21 if we combine St. John’s Annapolis with St. John’s Santa Fe. That makes for a rate of less than 2 percent.

How are we to square this meager commitment to general education with the findings of Academically Adrift, the opinions employers have of the knowledge and skills of recent graduates, and the rising cost of tuition?

There is something else worth noticing in the A List, apart from its microscopic size. We have 21 schools. Three of them are military: West Point, Air Force Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy. Interestingly, the most represented state is Georgia, with Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Kennesaw State, Georgia Southern, and University of Georgia. Most noteworthy of all is that ten schools, nearly half of the list, are religious colleges:

Bluefield College

Clark Atlanta University

Colorado Christian University

Gardner-Webb University

Pepperdine University

Regent University

Southwest Baptist University

Thomas Aquinas College

Thomas More College of Liberal Arts

University of Dallas

My secular colleagues at research universities might be surprised by this commitment to breadth at religious institutions. In the eyes of many, higher education means thinking your way out of parochial perspectives—and religion IS parochial. When Thomas Aquinas on its home page casts the goal of “A Liberating Education” as preparing youths “to live well the life of the free citizen and of the Christian,” it can only strike secularists as a narrowing process, not a broadening one. Bluefield designs the curriculum as the creation of a “Christian academic community,” a term the irreverent professors regard as oxymoronic. Academia and Christianity don’t go together. Does Southwest Baptist have a vibrant queer theory collective?

But here we have evidence of the opposite, religious schools demanding more history, languages, and science than do their worldly competitors. The number of religious institutions on the list suggests another conclusion: that religious understanding is an opening, not a closure—indeed, that the secular departure from religious aims in the curriculum counts as a constraint, not a freedom.

Emptying Content from College Courses

These comments were delivered at the 2015 Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation Symposium on “The Future of Higher Education” June 3 in Washington D.C. The event was co-sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and National Affairs. The full transcript of the symposium is here.

Some conservative critics say that the main problem in American higher education today is that tenured faculty don’t teach enough. It would be better if their lazy self-indulgence could be controlled by more accountable cost-cutting administrators.

Tenure from this view is a kind of union and faculty governance akin to collective bargaining. But the union-taming critics don’t understand that our administrators have already been achieving what the critics want. The truth is that the number of tenured and tenure-track faculties is rapidly diminishing as a percentage of our instructional work force. People with tenure and on tenure track now are still fairly unoppressed and, I admit, an often fairly clueless minority.

Buying Off Tenured Faculty

There are doubtless good reasons why in some places tenured and tenure-track faculty should teach more. It would be better if more students had their personal touch. But given how cheap adjunct faculty are — they work for less than subsistence — it is a big mistake to believe that tenured faculty taking on an additional class or two would produce a significant savings.

It’s often even the case that our administrators would rather they not teach more. At some places, at least, the situation seems to be that administrators are buying off tenured faculty with low teaching loads and various research perks. That incentivizes them to become compliant with the transfer of instruction to adjuncts and other temporary faculty. It also helps them accept the emptying out of the content of general education, those courses required of all students.  Requirements focused on the content and methods of the academic disciplines such as history, literature, and philosophy are being replaced by those based on abstract and empty or content-free competencies such as critical thinking and effective communication.

Make Way for Competencies

Unfortunately, it is often not so hard to convince career specialists to surrender their concern for merely general education or at least to convince them that the imperatives of the marketplace and the increasingly intrusive accreditation process demand that the value of their disciplinary contributions be reconfigured in terms of competencies.

That way they are led to believe they will be able to hang on to their curricular turf. The study of history or philosophy or whatever can be justified after all as deploying the skills and competencies of critical thinking, effective communication or whatever.

One problem, though: the faculty members end up seeing or experiencing is that those skills or competencies can be acquired more easily other ways, ways that are aren’t saddled with all that irksome historical or philosophical content. And when the disciplines of liberal education are displaced by competencies, institutions tend to surrender the content-based distinctiveness that formed most of their educational mission.

So the biggest outrage in higher education right now is not this or that report of students or administrators whining about micro-aggressions or being insufficiently trigger-warned. Notre Dame might be about to surrender the requirement of courses in philosophy and theology for all students in favor of competency-based goals.  If you want to worry about an outrage, worry about that.

Keeping the Classy Brand

As institutions surrender their liberal arts substance while sometimes retaining their classy liberal arts brand, they become identical in terms of their educational goals. Lists of competencies always seem to me kind of vague and random but somehow they turn out to be the same everywhere.

So what the idea of a competency denies is that the dignity of thinking and communication must have something to do with what is being thought and what is being communicated. The how of thinking about who or what a man or woman is way different from figuring out how to rotate your tires or even maximize your productivity. Communicating information is very different from winning friends and influencing people or persuasion or manipulation and is way, way different from communicating the truth through irony or humor or verse such as through the poetry or parables of Revelation or the dialogues of Plato.

Like Panera Bread or Amazon

So as the low but seemingly solid goal of competency becomes about the same everywhere the delivery of education can become less personal or quirky or unreliable or brilliant and standardized according to the quantitatively validated best practices. Courses can become more scripted and then delivery can be increasingly open to the use of the computer screen. So the intellectual labor of college administrators— the number of whom is bloated and the perks of whom are coming to resemble those of corporate CEOs — is directed in much the same way as it is in other sectors of the economy.

So what is going on in colleges and universities is not so different from what is going on at Panera Bread or the Amazon warehouse.

The Amenities Arms Race

As colleges become identical in their competency-based curricula, the question that continues to obsess a college president is how to make his or her institution distinctively attractive in the intensely competitive marketplace for the increasingly scarce resource of the student. So there is increased sensitivity to the student as consumer.

One result is the amenities arms race. Few institutions dare opt out. So there is a proliferation of hotel-style dorms, health club gyms, gourmet food in the cafeteria, more and more non-revenue generating Division III athletic teams and student affairs staff that function like concierges saving students from that dread disease of boredom.

It goes without saying faculty have nothing to do with these innovations at all. The excellent scholar Glenn Reynolds is so disgusted by such developments that his modest proposal is for campuses to be honest and market themselves as luxury cruises.

That means spend and spend more on amenities. And cut and cut more the cost of actual education by reducing the ranks of the career faculty and replacing them with various forms of online instruction and MOOC. No college or university is going quite that far but some are pretty far down the road. And even the small colleges that talk up the presence of real faculty because they can’t get rid of them have begun to describe them as agents and advocates for students. In a way, just another amenity offered to the discerning consumer.

And add to the amenities arms race all the increasingly intrusive and usually stupidly counterproductive compliance requirements of the federal government and accreditation agencies and all those administrative politically correct initiatives that have little to nothing to do with real education and it is easy to see where most of the so-called bubble in college cost is coming from.

It is not faculty compensation or the cost of instruction that is going up much more rapidly than the rate of inflation when my salary is not going up even at the rate of inflation; the cost of instruction is often going down and in ways that is making it worse. Now there are ways to cut the cost of instruction in higher education in general that would cause the quality actually to get better but that would require a renewed focus on the real point of higher education.

Institutionalizing PC

Well, you might say putting the focus on competencies at least has the advantage of banishing at least some politically correct blathering from the classroom. Exactly the opposite is true. It institutionalizes political correctness. Some competencies are always attitudinal about appreciation of diversity and all that so students learn that sensitivity is displayed not only by having correct opinions but having the right kind of enthusiasm, or as they say, “engagement” about them.

In the discipline of philosophy, the question of what justice is allows a genuine diversity of thoughtful and plausible answers. In the era of the competency, the question of justice has been answered and all that is left to do is to be engaged in the right way in promulgating the final solution. So the world of the competency mixes techno vocationalism with dogmatic social liberalism.

Don’t forget that political correctness has morphed from being a radical challenge by socialists as such to American capitalism promulgated by tenured radicals to a kind of cloying sensitivity to the consumer demand that every nook and cranny of a student’s life on campus in thought and deed be a safe and comfortable space. The effect, it often seems, is to make the campus a virtual reality above all, as some say. It is too much like the bubble. The virtual reality is that young people spend too much time losing themselves in in front of a screen.

A Noble Goal

So those conservative reformers who really mean it when they say that they want the classrooms of our career liberal arts professors to be filled with as many students as possible have a noble goal. I’ve explained why that goal doesn’t really have much to do with saving money necessarily. But if their reform intention is seriously personal, or as we say these days, “reform conservatism,” then they should oppose every effort of our administrators to displace respected professors with proletarianized adjuncts as well as to reduce as far as possible the place of the competency and the screen in figuring out what kind of general education, what kind of content-driven literacy is at the core of generally higher education.

Respected professors, it turns out, are a part of the indispensable content of higher education.  For now, we dissident professors are all about resisting standardization and surveillance of all kinds if it comes from the government. We resist it when it comes from the Obama administration and from the Republican Senate. And we, of course, resist all the intrusiveness and stupidity of accreditation associations. We want to protect the genuine moral and intellectual diversity that is the saving grace of American education.

The Accreditation Problem

One great thing about our country is that there are islands of liberal education, sometimes in unexpected places. Not only that, anyone in our country who wants a genuinely higher education can find one, and here is something we don’t emphasize at all, often at a surprisingly affordable price. So we dissident professors applaud those institutions aiming to wean themselves from government funding. And I hope that weaning is a prelude to dispensing with what is the worse and useless process of accreditation.

Because it is impossible to dispense with branding altogether in our world here is my idea. Let’s replace the idea with competency with the idea of literacy, and we want to do so with the real job market in mind. It turns out that the main complaint of employers today is not that college graduates lack this or that fairly minimalist techno competency that could after all be readily learned on the job. Their real complaint is that our students, our graduates don’t have the level of literacy, the good habits, the sense of personal responsibility and the fine manners that we used to count on most college graduates and, to tell the truth, most high-school graduates having.

The main problem with focusing on competency in higher education is that it allows our colleges and universities to be content with producing graduates who are functionally illiterate.

Sure, they can read for information and entertainment and they are quite adept at texting with their friends and playing games on screen. But their reading is too literal or non-ironic, and they can’t enjoy the way authors deploy words to play with ideas and take the light and the wonderfully imperfect and endlessly revealing ways words correspond to the way men and women really are. So our graduates can’t read attentively and they can’t think well as beings born to know, love, and die.