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Tuesday, January 25, 2022


Guy Mizrahi asks, “Prof. Wolff, what were some of the other changes you observed in the elite American education system during your time within it? Whether that be changes to the attitudes of students, to the education offered, or to the general body politic of the institutions themselves?”


An interesting question, about which I could go on for quite some time. Some things have changed little or not at all, of course. Plato is still Plato, Shakespeare is still Shakespeare, calculus is still calculus (although these days more students learn it in high school then when I was young.) But the changes have been dramatic. Indeed, I have often observed that the half-century of my teaching career pretty much coincided with what future generations will look back on as the Golden Age of the Academy. When I was a young professor at Columbia, graduate students were being offered tenure-track jobs before they were ABD; editors at commercial publishing houses contacted us unbidden to ask whether we had any ideas for books that they might publish; tenure was secure; there were few adjunct professors; and at the good institutions the teaching load was a light two courses a semester. We all thought it was because we were so bright, not realizing that we were benefiting from a relatively brief moment during which there was a seller’s academic labor market.


In two very important ways the life of undergraduates at the elite institutions was markedly different. First of all, when I started as an undergraduate at Harvard, tuition was so low (in constant dollars roughly 1/10 of what it is now) that no one graduated with student loans to pay off and it was literally possible, if you did not waste the summer months, to work your way through college. I have long believed, without any hard evidence, that the soaring cost of higher education, which began during the Vietnam War, served the latent function of dissuading students from pursuing socially and politically progressive but un-remunerative careers after graduation.


Secondly, because it was not difficult to secure admission to the “good” schools, students were under much less pressure to get in, and hence under much less pressure to conceal their sense of their own inadequacies in the presence of what everybody assumed was a collection of elite fellow students. Consequently, the whole business of getting a college education was not so surrounded with doubts and anxieties. In 2018 and 2019 when I was flying up from Chapel Hill once a week to teach at Columbia, somebody on the Morningside Heights campus remarked in passing that half the students at Columbia were getting some sort of psychotherapy!


At the administrative level there has been a major change in the sorts of people recruited as university presidents, chancellors, or senior administrators. Sixty years ago the men (and in the rarest cases women) offered University presidencies were genuine academics, some of whom had actually achieved significant distinction in their fields of specialization. It was only later that corporate types started taking over universities and trying to run them as they would their corporations – with pretty much the disastrous consequences one would imagine.


One of the changes in higher education of which I became aware only after I transferred to an Afro-American Studies Department was in a way an unhappy consequence of a virtuous change in the white institutions. For many years there had been splendid historically black universities and colleges whose faculties were staffed by first-rate academics who had no chance of securing jobs at elite white institutions because they were Black.  After the 1960s when northern universities started recruiting some of the best Black scholars there was a brain drain that weakened the historically black institutions. 


I liked Harvard when I was there as an undergraduate (even though, to be sure, I wrote a letter to the Harvard Crimson calling on the president to resign). I do not think I would like it very much now.


s. wallerstein said...

The question, it seems to me, isn't whether you would like Harvard after all you've lived through, with all your life experience, with your ideas and worldview of a person of your generation, with all your years of learning and reading, but whether if you were 18 years old, you would like Harvard as you did when you were an 18 year old undergraduate.

I know that it's impossible to subtract the person from their life experience and biography, but if Rawls can do it (the original position) and be considered by many the greatest political philosopher in English of the 20th century, I suppose we can do it commenting informally in a blog.

I would say the same thing for myself regarding Columbia College: that I liked it as an undergraduate, now almost 60 years ago and I doubt that I would like it now, but when I imagine myself as 18 once again, I suspect that I would like it.

John Rapko said...

I was an undergraduate in philosophy at UC Berkeley in the 1980s. Like several other undergraduates I knew, I would enroll for a semester or two, take the classes I wanted, and then drop out to read in depth, to make some money, and do something more interesting like traveling or dancing. Then I was a graduate student at Berkeley 1991-1998. As a teaching assistant and grunt teacher in the 90s, it seemed like a different world, and not just because I was on the other end of the room. A frequent topic of conversation with professors and other graduate students was how and why the undergraduates seemed so different than they had been less than a decade before: what happened to all those students who came to college for open-ended intellectual exploration? Why were so many of them now so anxious and so concerned about their goddamn grades? The explanations usually involved some sub-set of the factors that the professor cites in his post. The most striking (and to my mind wholly accurate) characterization of the change came from a long-time lecturer in sociology; he said that "around 1990 the teacher-student relationship at Berkeley became something like the landlord-tenant relationship: the sides are mutually suspicious and want something from the other that the other is reluctant to give."

s. wallerstein said...

I went to graduate school at Columbia in English literature in 1969-1970.

The department proposed abolishing grades and giving fail, pass and honors. That seemed fine to me at the time, but I was surprised that my fellow graduate students protested because that "would degrade a Columbia degree and hurt their future professional career" or something like that.

This may seem like a false claim of innocence to some, but really, I was basically interested in learning or rather in reading literature and as Professor Wolff points out, the job market seemed so open that I was sure that I'd get a job somewhere, so I didn't worry about such stuff at all and I felt very alienated from most of my fellow graduate students, who appeared to be "in it for the money", which I associated with people who went to business school or maybe law school.

My point is that the landlord-tenant relation had already begun in 1970 at least for people who were more aware of what was "really" going on than I was or am.

LFC said...

The teaching load for tenured or tenure-track faculty at most research universities is still two courses a semester, or such is my impression (and in some particular cases it might be lower).

Unknown said...

So Eisenhower's tenure as president of Columbia was an aberration? Or would you class him as the forerunner of "corporate types?"

Successful leadership of large organizations is harder than it looks to those of us who have not actually done it. Similarly, I'm sure I could do a better job of being President of the USA than many of the recent ones, but I'm wrong about most.

Barney Wolff

LFC said...

I understand the pt Prof Wolff was getting at re corporatization of universities, but at the level of individual presidents I'm not sure the genuine-academics-giving-way-to-corporate-types thesis works. One cd go further back, but if one looks, say, at presidents of Harvard since Conant, they've all been academics, though the current one (Bacow, formerly pres of Tufts and before that an administrator as well as prof at MIT) had worked as an administrator for a considerable time, so he arguably blurs the lines. But Conant was a chemist, Pusey a classicist (I think, wd have to double check, he had been pres of Lawrence Univ in Wisconsin), Bok was an expert on labor law, Rudenstine a literary scholar (16th cent English lit -- I think his diss was on Philip Sidney), Summers an economist, Drew Faust a noted historian, specialist on the Civil War era and the antebellum South.

Michael said...

I was struck by the paragraph about all the students requiring therapy!

Not to be insulting, but it's easy to imagine that the lives of academic elites are often defined by privilege and snobbery - it's obviously a common stereotype, and I've been guilty of it. It might obscure the fact that an elite academic institution can also be a place of enormous stress and insecurity, psychologically. I'm sure that in such a setting I would've been a lot more prone to status anxiety, imposter syndrome, feelings of inadequacy, etc.

I'm not saying anyone doesn't have the right to a world-class academic experience, nor am I denying how fortunate those folks are - it just strikes me that I might not be noticing certain aspects of their experiences that are deeply unenviable.

LFC said...

Since a few people above are making comments about their personal experiences, I'll briefly comment along those lines. The psychological stresses etc. that I felt as an undergraduate had to do with my own personal history, so to speak, not mainly, I think, with the campus environment (note: this is the late '70s, at RPW's alma mater). As I recall, I never felt imposter syndrome, since although I was aware of my own weak points as a student, I never felt as if I were surrounded by geniuses (there were some, no doubt, but they probably tend to be more immediately obvious in math and the sciences than other fields, though of course there are exceptions to that generalization).

What I recall, among other things, are some missed opportunities. To mention one minor example, during one semester a visiting scholar from another university (not in the U.S.) was living in the house (i.e., dorm) where I lived. I knew his name and I saw him once or twice in the hallways or waiting for an elevator etc., but I hadn't run across his work in my courses, knew basically nothing about him, and I never approached him and said hello. (I have a feeling he wd have liked a student to approach him -- he was living in a dorm, after all.) There were no personal computers and no internet, and one cdn't go back to one's room and research someone in two seconds, though of course I cd have looked up his books in the library. Anyway, some years later I ran into this person's name and realized he was an eminent historical sociologist. It would have been fun to have had a conversation with him, if my ignorance and perhaps, in that particular context, shyness hadn't been in play. (It's a "youth is wasted on the young" kind of example.)

Btw, along with the catalog of how things have deteriorated in recent decades (see the OP), one might mention improvements. One is the increased tolerance for, or even positive view of "difference," whether that be racial/ethnic/sexual, etc. There are probably a couple of other improvements, as well.

LFC said...

P.s. One other thing. This will probably sound a bit conservative, for lack of a better word, but so be it. Perhaps my memory is at fault here, but I don't recall anyone in authority ever telling me what I was, ideally, supposed to be getting out of my liberal arts education. There was no single course (other than expository writing) that all students were required to take, and very little sense explicitly communicated to students that some things might be more worth reading than others, very little sense communicated that, in order to be considered educated, you really should have read x,y or z. Partly this was rooted, I suppose, in institutional history and the origins of the so-called elective system. But I think in retrospect there perhaps was too much of a tendency to assume that an eighteen-year-old is the best and final judge of what she/he should be studying, and -- even more dubiously -- that eighteen and nineteen-year-olds, confronted with a huge course catalog and a professoriate consisting of specialists on everything under the sun, have the intellectual maturity and the knowledge to put together a coherent program of study. Sometimes, of course, that will be true, but sometimes it won't be, and isn't. On the whole a bit more in the way of guidance (at least, compared to what I experienced) would, I think, have been warranted.

s. wallerstein said...


I don't believe that there's anything that everybody should read, but a young person searching through trial and error to discover what he or she should read could use some guidance.

So instead of courses where everybody is supposed to read a list of classics, many of which mean absolutely nothing to the individual student, maybe each student could have a tutor who gets to know him or her and recommends reading to that student according to their individual progress or route.

LFC said...

An individual tutor for each student is the Oxford/Cambridge system (I assume it's still that way). Very labor intensive for the tutors, clearly, and presumably quite expensive for the universities, which may be one reason U.S. univs. have never adopted it.

Now if you're in a small field or in a small college in the U.S., you can have, in some cases, close to that experience, but it's not typical. I took a couple of freshman seminars, which were small, and got to know a couple of faculty members (albeit junior faculty) that way, one of whom I still exchange an occasional email with all these years later. Not quite the same as an individual tutor, though. Nor is what U.S. univs label an 'advisor' the same thing, obvs.

s. wallerstein said...


I didn't bring up the Oxford/Cambridge system because I only have a vague idea of how it works in the real world. Maybe someone with first hand knowledge of how that system works in the real world can explain it.

In my experience, the faculty advisor was just someone arbitrarily assigned to each student, often in a field that the student had zero interest in and who just helped the student select courses which fulfilled different requirements and made sure that the student was taking the correct number of credits each semester. I don't even remember the guy's name.

LFC said...

P.s. The actual tutors -- labeled as such -- in the program that RPW helped found were, in my day, mostly (though not exclusively) graduate students who led a small group of students through certain texts (all sophomores had to read the same ones, some of the classics of social theory; juniors had more flexibility).

Nowadays the tutors in that program are all people who already have their PhDs and are mostly labeled 'lecturers' in the catalog. Whether this has improved the quality of instruction or simply deprived graduate students of some teaching opportunities, I'm not in a position to say.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

Critics of higher education politics here often use the term "Americanization of universities," and they take it as a warning. Not infrequently, these are the same people who, on the other hand, advocate what is called the "Bologna Process" here in the EU. All European universities are supposed to develop to comparable standards. The most important goal is openly stated. It is "employability."

Measurability, comparability, usability, availability, accessibility, predictability

Wilhelm von Humboldt is turning in his grave.

Is it known that some British universities only survive because they bring the children of rich Chinese citizens to England?

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.