The rhetoric of crisis seems to have become endemic to writing about the American university. Some twenty-five years ago, Harvard Dean Henry Rosovsky declared American universities to be “the world’s best.” There was a good deal of dissent from this judgment during the 1980s and 1990s, beginning with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and continuing with more juvenile attacks such as Charles Sykes’s Profscam (1988) and Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990). But these were salvos in a culture war about the definition and mission of the university, and political dissents from what was seen as a predominantly leftist intellectual and artistic elite.The new crisis accuses the American university of failing to educate (variously, failing to train the mind and to prepare for the workplace), of losing its place in international competition, of being an institution top-heavy with administrators and pandering to a faculty that does very little, as well as to students who care more about expensive cars and state-of-the-art fitness rooms than about Socrates. Above all, the university has become unjustifiably expensive, inaccessible, and unaccountable. The subtitle given by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus to Higher Education? sums it up: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It.
Debating education has always been an American pastime, and choosing the “best colleges” a lucrative business, as U.S. News and World Report has well understood. The debate has long been studded with reformist notions, utopian or practical, but it was sustained by the belief that American universities were something of high quality—indeed, something precious—that were worth the attention they got, and worth striving to enter. . . .