Higher Education and the American Dream: Success and its Discontents

In abandoning their students and missions, US universities lost public trust, Jon Nixon discovers

September 16, 2010

How, asks Marvin Lazerson, can a higher education system that depended so heavily on the dreams of so many millions of Americans have lost its way so completely? His readable and quietly authoritative response to this value-laden question has relevance far beyond the US.

His starting point is the spectacular expansion of higher education within the US in the past 50 years. By his reckoning, the number of degree-granting institutions more than doubled between 1950 and 2000, with total enrolment increasing more than fivefold in the same period. The cost of this expansion was staggering - US annual expenditure on higher education rose from $2.2 billion in 1950 to $134.6 billion in 1990.

This investment in higher education, argues Lazerson, was possible because the American people believed that "along with purchasing a house and buying a new automobile, (higher education) was a pillar of the American dream". For a long time, moreover, they were right, with the result that higher education became increasingly vocational, institutionally diverse and bureaucratically controlled.

This unconditional belief in the saving grace of higher education - what Lazerson calls "the Education Gospel" - encouraged widespread denial of the negative consequences of expansion and the policies developed to facilitate it. For example, institutional governance became more bureaucratic and remote from the concerns of academic staff, while institutional diversity reinforced many of the inequalities that it was intended to remedy.

Even more disturbing is Lazerson's claim that "vocationalism undermines learning itself". He is not here arguing against vocationally oriented higher education per se, but merely highlighting what he sees as one of its unforeseen consequences. He is concerned with what vocationalism does to the identity of the learner: "students become highly credentialist in the sense that they view the grades and credits they accumulate as the most essential aspect of education". Higher education, he argues, has failed to place student learning at the centre of its concerns. It has betrayed its prime constituency.

Lazerson suggests a number of explanations. Academic professionalism has come to be increasingly associated with disciplinary expertise and research activity. Academics gain promotion and more lucrative posts not by prioritising teaching and undergraduate student learning, but by attracting research funds and postgraduate research students. Moreover - and Lazerson is quietly insistent on this point - academics have repeatedly dragged in notions of academic freedom to ensure that their teaching spaces remain "private" domains.

This skewed system of reward and preferment reinforced by an increasingly inward-looking academic culture has led, he says, to chronic "institutional drift": the process whereby institutions aspire to become like "the reputed better, more affluent, higher status institution down the road, around the corner, in a different part of the state, or in some other section of the country". The result is that institutions are putting too much thought and effort into becoming something they are not, and too little into becoming really good at what they are.

Lazerson offers no grand redemptive narrative, and few words of advice. He does, however, suggest that academics stop shouting and learn to listen; that institutions focus on the experience of student learning and on intellectually revitalising vocational education; and that the government stop exaggerating the pace of change, the proportion of jobs requiring more education, and the contribution of education to economic growth. If there is a message, it is that higher education will regain public trust only when it has rediscovered its own trust in learning.

Higher Education and the American Dream: Success and its Discontents

By Marvin Lazerson

Central European University Press

232pp, £.00

ISBN 9789639776791

Published 1 September 2010

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