The Death of College: We’ve Been Here Before

Ask anyone with a PhD in history, English, or philosophy. They’ll tell you: It’s not just a tough career path, there IS NO career path. Most universities rely on non-tenure-track teachers these days. In the new Atlantic Adam Harris reviews the bleak future of higher education. As my current research is showing me, we’ve been here before.

As Harris writes, Bryan Alexander’s predictions seem to be coming true. There just aren’t as many college students as there used to be. Enrollments are down and they will continue to slide. As Harris explains,

Why is the dip in enrollment such a big deal? Well, quite plainly, the business model for a lot of colleges is dependent on enrollment. If enrollments decline, revenues decline, and colleges have less money for facilities, faculty, and programs. That creates a sort of death spiral in which colleges are getting rid of programs, which in turn makes it harder to attract students, and so on.

No one ever asks the historians, but in this case we do have a strong precedent. Two hundred years ago, the systems we think of as K-12 education began to evolve into something close to their current form. It was a jagged and slow process, spread out over thirty or more years.

composition class John C Mee Oct 5 1835 Phila

Someone always has to read all the essays…

Our current system of mostly public education didn’t simply grow in an empty field. It pushed out several existing educational systems. The biggest losers in this evolution were the so-called “school masters” of the old system. As public schools took on their current form (more or less), the masters slowly lost their positions as the snobbish titans of education. Their experiences in the antebellum years could serve as a preview to the current state of tenure-track university faculty.

It’s not that the masters didn’t know what was happening. Their anxiety is palpable in every page of the letters and reports I’m reading these days in Joseph Lancaster’s papers.

For example, as one of Lancaster’s former pupils advised Lancaster in 1822, it would be better to get some students in the door immediately at Lancaster’s new school in Philadelphia. Enrollment was key to paying all the bills. As this pupil told Lancaster,

I think it would be well to admit a number of pupils at an easier rate than you have done, for you will be able to manage a greater number well organized in your own excellent mode, than a few on the imperfect plan hitherto pursued in the Institute. I think further, on this ground, could you fill your classes but respectably and get early and frequent exhibitions a short time would raise you in great and exalted honor high very high above your present inconvenient situation and engagement.

In the old system, school “Masters” experienced the dizzying shifts that today’s tenure-track faculty are experiencing. When their schools filled their enrollments, they were happy. When their schools faltered, masters suffered. Always, always, they lived in a state of continual uncertainty about the future. Would enough students come to full the school? Would they need to move to a different school, or maybe strike out on their own?

Sound familiar?

By the 1840s, the masters’ schools were tottering. As Bill Reese has described so compellingly, common-school reformers like Horace Mann toppled the Master system in Massachusetts with a set of new standardized tests.

What does this history tell us about today’s higher-ed situation? We don’t want to be too glib in our predictions, but the obvious guess would be this: We are facing a generation-long transition to a different sort of higher education. Instead of relying on effete experts for instructors, colleges will increasingly rely on a professionalized teaching force with little or no expectation of research and publication. Students will be expected more and more to prove their success with adequate performance on new sets of standardized tests.

The death of college is a death long foretold.


Why Schools Will Always Be Segregated

How is this possible? Most of us want integrated public schools, but it’s not going to happen. Why not? As Nikole Hannah-Jones insisted in a recent interview, school segregation isn’t the result only of racist or white-supremacist feelings, but rather of a basic, ugly truth about what schools are really for.

It’s not something we like to talk about. We like to think of our public schools in Horace Mann’s terms. In his famous 1848 report, Mann called schools the “great equalizer.” For Massachusetts and America—Mann argued just as the spectre of communism stalked Europe—common schooling would temper the growing class divide. Instead of a revolution, Mann dreamed, common schools would help America gently rise up, all together. Ever since Mann’s day, politicians insist and assume that public schools can save America. Everyone from Barack Obama to Betsy DeVos harps on the notion that schools can make America more equal, more fair.

There is truth in that dream. We can all recite cases of extraordinary students and families who have used unequal schools to overcome difficult economic circumstances. Public schools really can offer opportunities to talented, hard-working people.


70% of us want more integrated schools, but 99.9% of us want something else more.

As Hannah-Jones points out, though, there is another, more powerful purpose for schooling in these United States. Like it or not, this second vision will always trump Mann’s vision of school as the great equalizer. It’s not that white parents don’t want their children to go to integrated schools. They do. As recent poll results suggest, large majorities of parents want integrated schools.

The problem is something different. Hannah-Jones agrees that many white parents in her Brooklyn neighborhood, for example, love the idea of “curated diversity.” They want a smattering of non-white children to share their children’s high-quality schools. And they love the notion that their children will go to school with the children of affluent African Americans.

But they recoil from the prospect of having their children go to schools dominated by low-income non-white children. Why?

Because, as Hannah-Jones puts it,

Even in a community where the schools pretty much suck, if there’s a school with black kids, it’s going to suck worse.

In other words, many white progressives want their children to go to diverse schools. What they won’t abide, however, is that their children will be subjected to the terrible public schools that are the common fate of low-income families.

It comes down to an often unstated but fundamental purpose of American public education: For many parents, For most parents, the primary purpose of education is not actually to make children smarter or better in general. Those might be worthy goals, most people assume, but in fact the primary purpose of education—the way most Americans see it—is to give their children an advantage in the fight for good jobs and sweet lives. As Hannah-Jones says,

if one were to believe—which I believe—that having people who are different from you makes you smarter, that you engage in a higher level of thinking—and there’s been research that shows that—that you solve problems better, there are all these higher-level ways that integration is good for white folks. . . . those are all hard soft-arguments to make to people who fundamentally view education as, how my kid will rise to the top above every other kid and get into Harvard. They don’t actually give a damn about their kid being a better person.

It may sound excessively gloomy, but Hannah-Jones is depressingly right. When we stack up the politically active parents who want to use their children to help make society more equal against the parents who want to help their children squeeze every affordable advantage out of schooling, the equalizers will always lose.

Private Schools Are Only for Bad People

Send your kids to your local public school.  Even if the school sucks.  Even if it won’t teach your child anything but how to get drunk.  Even if you have better options.

That is the provocative manifesto offered recently by Slate editor Allison Benedikt.

If you follow the latest, you’ve probably seen it by now.  Since I can’t keep up, I didn’t hear about it until this morning, and then only from the heated reaction it sparked among conservative commentators such as Ross Douthat, Erick Erickson, and Rod Dreher.

Benedikt’s diatribe was meant to poke the conservative bear.  She opens with the bear-poking line, “You are a bad person if you send your children to private school.”

Her argument, in a nutshell, is this: only if all parents send their kids to their local public schools will those schools improve.  If you send your kid to a private school, you are hurting everyone for the sake of your own perceived benefit.  Ipso facto, you are a bad person.

She proudly proclaims that she went to crappy schools and turned out okay.  She didn’t learn anything about history, literature, science, or math, but she did get drunk behind the bleachers with kids from different social backgrounds.

In fact, she promises that your children will do fine in bad public schools, if you are the sort of person who cares enough to pull your kids out of public schools.

Predictably, conservatives couldn’t resist such low-hanging ideological fruit.

Rod Dreher proclaimed, “This is one of those things that only a left-wing ideologue can possibly believe.”

Ross Douthat tweeted, “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Erick Erickson twisted the knife, declaring that Benedikt only holds this outlandish position because her husband told her to.

But Benedikt’s position, minus the blogosphere-riling rhetoric, is nothing new or strange.  Indeed, for anyone who has studied the history of American education, even at a public school, Benedikt’s call for full enrollment in public education sounds traditional, even boring.

It was Horace Mann, after all, in the years before the Civil War, who midwived our system of public education.  In those years, our notions of “public” and “private” had not yet taken hold.  Parents or sponsors paid out of pocket for most formal education.  Those schools that required no tuition were commonly known as “charity” schools, fit only for the lowest class.

Mann realized that tax-funded education could only work if it received the endorsement, and the children, of the emerging affluent business classes.  This is why he made a powerful two-pronged appeal.  First, Mann argued that tax funds must be used to pay for tuition-free education, an education available to all.  Second, he argued that everyone should send their children to these schools.  These would not be “charity” schools, Mann argued.  They would not be “church” schools, or “dame” schools.  In today’s lingo, he would have insisted that these would not be “government” schools.  Rather, the name Mann promoted was the name Benedikt and other commentators would use for generations, even centuries: Public Schools.

Benedikt’s essay is intentionally provocative.  But its central idea is as old as American public education itself.  Our public schools can only function if they have the full-throated support of the public.  That support, as Mann argued and as Benedikt repeats, will come most easily if everyone sends their children.



Whenever an argument for the progressivist transformation of schools comes up, we can be sure the traditionalist rejoinder won’t be far behind: “Why should we transform our schools?  Traditional schools have worked fine for generations, they will work now.”  Behind these traditionalist arguments is a sentiment that America in the past had a certain moral backbone that it lacks today.  The sense—sometimes vague, sometimes explicit—is that today’s schools with their mollycoddling progressivism have created a generation of self-centered, lazy, even criminal youth.  Only traditional schools, in this oft-repeated line of thinking, can help put America back on course.

In fact, just the opposite is true.  It may be true that American society has some troubling fractures.  But those fractures will not be healed with sterner authoritarian classrooms.  Instead, the only way to bring America together—whether or not this returns anyone to any kind of golden age—will be to encourage schools and classrooms in which every student feels himself or herself to be an important member of American society, not merely an inmate in a social and educational processing regime.

Consider the depressing reality.  In America today, whenever there is the slightest crack in the regime of control, people go nuts.  The second there is a power outage in a major city, or a natural disaster, or even a major sporting event, Americans riot.  My hometown of Binghamton, New York, for example, recently experienced a major flood.  Whole neighborhoods were engulfed by the rising Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers.  Police and emergency crews couldn’t keep up with the situation.  To be fair, lots of people—I like to think most people—put aside their selfish interests and tried to help those folks who had been flooded out of their homes.  But there were the predictable number of people who took to looting.  They knew police could not patrol the downtown streets, so they helped themselves to anything left dry in downtown stores.

And sunny Binghamton is much friendlier in its rioting than bigger cities.  I remember back when the Chicago Bulls won their first of three national championships, back in the 1990s, we hurried downtown to see the predictable riots.  Drunk people spilled out of sports bars in the Rush/Division neighborhood to celebrate the victory.  Before you knew it, taxis had been flipped over and lit on fire, and horse-mounted police were doing their damnedest to clear the streets.  The crowd by then had expanded.  Not just the white-collar/loosened tie/after-work sports fans were yelling and pushing back against the cops. The crowd had been bolstered by no-collar/no tie/no-work enthusiasts from the vast public-housing complex just down the street, Cabrini Green.

It was obvious that the police couldn’t handle the situation.  That slight loosening of the regime was all it took.  Soon the riot script played out to its predictable end.  People smashed store windows, threw bottles and rocks at the line of police, and waited for the inevitable tear gas to chase them away from the area.

And why?  Because Michael Jordan, Scotty Pippin, and the rest had defeated another basketball team.  It doesn’t matter the reason.  As soon as people feel the slightest crack in the regime, as soon as it becomes clear that the government cannot enforce its will, people will riot.

What does all this have to do with progressive education?  Everything.  Traditionalist educators may point to riots and social upheaval as evidence that young people today are no longer being taught respect and obedience.  They may insist that schools need to return to traditional disciplinary schemes.  Maybe even get back to some good old-fashioned corporal punishment.  But just the opposite is true.

Riots like this are not the result of new-fangled progressive notions of including every young person as the most important decision-maker in schools and education.  Riots like this have appeared in every society, whenever authorities try and fail to maintain total domination of a population.

Consider an example from the roots of United States history.  In Boston, in 1770, tensions had been building up between the British regime and the young colonists.  (In this case, the youth of both sides played a crucial role.  The soldiers were mostly teenagers, and they were taunted and provoked by a crowd led by teenagers.)  In March, a group of soldiers found themselves surrounded by a crowd of angry colonists, taunted to fire their muskets, pelted with rocks and snowballs.  Finally they fired, killing five of the crowd and pushing the rest of the colonies further on the path to open revolution.

Here’s the question for traditionalists: were those angry colonists the product of touchy-feely, ‘progressive’ schools?  Or had they received whatever education they received in thoroughly traditional ways?

The point is that coercive regimes—as the British were perceived to be in Boston, in March, 1770—are only able to hold on to power by brute force.  And traditional schools in the United States are nothing if not coercive regimes.  When students and their families agree with the regime, the coercion is hidden.  But when they do not, the coercion emerges in its ugliest forms.  This is why schools in poor neighborhoods look and feel so much like prisons, with armed guards, metal detectors, and very limited student freedom.

There are two possible solutions.  First, and most common, we can bolster the effectiveness of traditional regimes by strengthening the coercive arm.  Schools can hire more truant officers to round up absentees.  They can implement stricter rules for student dress and behavior.  They can mandate “zero-tolerance” rules to crack down on student resistance.  These are traditional responses, and they can be effective in the short term.

However, the costs of this kind of stepped-up coercion are obvious.  In order to compel compliance with the school regime, school administrators must alienate each student.  When people—even young people—are forced to act in certain ways, it eliminates the likelihood that those people will embrace those actions.  When they are forced to go to school, forced to be in classrooms, and forced to submit to the authority of teachers and school administrators, they are unlikely to see those schools as places in which they can improve themselves.  They will not embrace the process of education in the ways they must if they are to actually learn something.  Some might.  But those few are the exception, rather than the rule.

And, predictably, whenever there is the smallest crack in the efficiency of the coercion, students will take advantage of it.  They may not flip over taxi cabs and battle with mounted police each time, but they will disrupt the function of the school in any way they can.

The second solution is the only sensible solution.  In order to have schools in which students learn, the primary goal must be to encourage students to embrace the process of schooling as something they want to do.  As argued in other posts, students must see schooling as more like working with a personal trainer, and less like breaking rocks.

The earliest roots of tax-funded public schooling included this notion of schooling as the best defense against anarchy.  Horace Mann, the nineteenth-century leader of the public school movement, warned that mobs were nothing more than “wild beasts, that prove their right to devour by showing their teeth.”  In order to tame those mobs, Mann argued, the public must fund schools to teach young people that they played an important role in American society as empowered citizens, not merely as subjects and ‘wild beasts.’  In 1877 the US Commissioner of Education warned of ‘the enormities possible in our communities if the systematic vagrancy of the ignorant, vicious, and criminal classes should continue to increase.” In his opinion, “Capital, therefore, should weigh the cost of the tomb and the tramp against the cost of universal and sufficient education.”

These days, the only schools that can effectively defeat the tendency of people to riot against their coercive regimes are schools that do not resort to the tactics of such regimes.  Students must see themselves as part of the schooling process.  They must be given authentic power within the school regime.  Otherwise, it will be seen as a coercive imposition and resisted accordingly.  Traditionalists may gripe that this kind of empowerment will lead to a breakdown in social order, as every person acts in his or her immediate self interest.

Not so.  The mentality of the looter does not come from a breakdown in traditional values in schools.  Instead, it comes from a consistent application of traditional schooling.  When schooling is a coercive experience, young people are trained to see school and society as a heavy hand, an imposition of external power.  When the pressure of that hand is relaxed in the slightest, as must happen occasionally, young people who have not embraced their role as a valuable part of that school and society will act aggressively.  They will take what they want.  They will loot, ignite, riot.

In contrast, a progressive educational system, not just in every individual classroom but in the schooling system as a whole, trains young people to be invested in both school and society.  They embrace their role as empowered members of that society.  When the power goes out, or if the Bulls win the playoffs, people—even young people—who are invested in their society will help hand out candles.  Young people who spent their youth incarcerated in traditional authoritarian schools seize upon the temporary weakness of the regime in order to lash out.


FURTHER READING: Horace Mann, Life and Works, IV; Report of the Honorable John Eaton, US Commissioner of Education, for the year 1877, on Crime and Education.