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.