Do Higher Education’s Leaders Know What Education Is?

As American universities lay off professors and close departments and programs—disproportionately targeting the sciences and humanities, usually on the basis of make-believe profit calculations that reflect no comprehension of how a university actually works—it’s been difficult to maintain faith in those institutions’ leaders. I doubt I’ve been alone as a college teacher wrestling with a sense of betrayal.

An empty and darkened college classroom

Contrary to what most of us would like to believe, the betrayal we feel is fully bipartisan.

More than once in recent years, for example, I’ve seen established academics—including the dean of a professional school at a university I worked for—explicitly defend the notion that humanities education should be stripped out of college degree requirements as a “social justice” measure. It’s wrong, they argued, to make less affluent students pay for “unnecessary” humanities courses.

This lie represents class contempt masquerading as justice. It also reflects real fiscal problems, but fundamentally, it’s a left-coded expression of the same attitude driving the most right-wing attempts to dismantle our supposedly frivolous higher education system.

Given free rein, this attitude will destroy whatever remaining respect the American public has for college education as a personally liberating institution—liberating, that is, for conservative and liberal students alike—while also devaluing the very careers students are supposedly going to college to get the “skills” for. That is, this attitude will only help capitalists continue to redefine middle-class careers as subservient commodified and temporary jobs, as opposed to creative public leadership roles.

During the most active phase of the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020—and under pressure from Black students and alumni to address the institution’s own racism—the then-president of one of my employers issued a campus-wide email that included this statement:

As a university, we are uniquely positioned to offer the common good of education through our platform, while advancing the critical agenda of social justice and social transformation. We have those among us who, either due to their acquired expertise or their lived experience, or both, can teach us all about the impact of 400 years of anti-black, systemic, and institutional racism in this country.

This wasn’t incorrect, but it was cynical. Because I knew that this college president had spent their entire tenure presiding over the dismantling of most of our general education requirements in history, the hollowing out the history faculty, and the deliberate laying-off of adjunct instructors of all disciplines who specialize in introductory education. Last semester, some of my first-year students pointed out—correctly—that the main building used for humanities, political science, and sociology classes is “always empty” now. It wasn’t empty when I started teaching there.

Again and again, it’s been like this: Higher education leaders appeal to the common good and shared values when it’s convenient, but they run their institutions as mere training arms for their regions’ largest employers (with students, not employers, bearing the exorbitant cost of financing that training). They latch onto specific moral campaigns when they’re popular—that is, before each inevitable backlash gathers enough force—without doing anything to secure mentally transformative education for future generations.

Let me put it this way: How many of the colleges and universities that piously recommended Between the World and Me to their students since 2015 have subsequently cut their support for study abroad opportunities, laid off their foreign language departments, closed their women’s studies programs, and slashed their library budgets, in the name of concentrating resources in a few professional majors? If you’ve actually read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, you probably see what I’m getting at.

But hey, it’s not just top-level administrators and accountants. The betrayal comes from many tenure-track faculty members as well.

Last month, when the University of Alabama’s administration proposed cutting its core curriculum by one third, 60% of the faculty voted in favor—including more than 40% of the College of Arts and Sciences, for which this change will be devastating within just a few years. And I wasn’t surprised by their complicity. It’s the self-defeating result of putting specializations in competition with each other, prioritizing narrow professional paths (and the tallying of majors) over education as such. Most of the scholarly disciplines on campus are likely to suffer as a result; certainly, the health of public life in Alabama will.

For that matter, how many times have I, while planning my next lesson and wondering whether I’d have a job the next semester, listened to long-tenured professors whine about having to teach at all? How often have I heard them vent contempt for their students and for members of the surrounding community?

I’m not saying this is the usual attitude among professors. It’s not. But the structure of academia is such that those professors tend to be rewarded for their attitude, even at many colleges and universities that advertise their dedication to undergraduate teaching.

And in many fields, those professors have disproportionate power over graduate training programs. I’ve seen many of my friends have to consciously deprogram themselves in order to thrive in less prestigious—that is, more teaching-focused—colleges and universities after enduring that kind of Ph.D. training. For some, it’s practically a full career change.

Meanwhile, I’ve watched supposed experts and consultants trumpet “disruptive” solutions that amount to a further rejection of first principles—solutions that seem to be based on a conviction that learning is fundamentally unpleasant and teaching is a basically cruel thing to do to someone, rather than on the conviction that education as such is profoundly enriching and freeing, if we can just manage to do it reasonably well.

Please forgive my rant. There are countless people and institutions it doesn’t apply to at all—literally hundreds of thousands of Americans, including administrators, who spend every day fighting for college education.

I’m just tired of suspecting that U.S. higher education’s overall future is in the care of people who don’t even know what a college education is, let alone have any inclination to make the case for it before the American public.


Image: Modified from a photograph of a Dickinson College classroom in 2012 (public domain).

I edited this post for greater clarity and added the paragraph about the University of Alabama on Dec. 30, 2022.

5 thoughts on “Do Higher Education’s Leaders Know What Education Is?”

  1. Discouraging. I went to school at such a different time. The university honors program required all of us to take semester long symposiums taught by two professors from different disciplines—theater and biology, chemistry and history. It helped us learn a broader perspective. Everyone benefited—including the professors!

    Sent from the all new AOL app for iOS


  2. I think university honors programs still generally operate like that. (Not necessarily exactly like that, but according to the same ideal of multidisciplinary humane education, with similar kinds of requirements.) General education requirements across an entire institution, though, may be a different story.


  3. […] Jonathan Wilson has a post that asks whether higher education administrators actually understand education. He closes with a relatable sentiment: “I’m just tired of suspecting that U.S. higher education’s overall future is in the care of people who don’t even know what a college education is, let alone have any inclination to make the case for it before the American public.” […]


Comments are closed.