In the Basement of the Ivory Tower – Magazine – The Atlantic

I reluctantly point out this article, part of a series of stunningly arrogant and mean-spirited  rants at The Atlantic about American Universities.  This one is especially worrisome to me,  but I would be interested in hearing what you think about it.

via In the Basement of the Ivory Tower – Magazine – The Atlantic.

  1. Spaf said:

    Sadly this is not so much mean-spirited as it is true. There are many smaller colleges (particularly community colleges) where this is the norm. It is alien to those of us at the Georgia Techs and Purdues of the world … unless we are teaching some of the scholarship students on the football & basketball teams.

    This is something that particularly afflicts those of us in Computing: our notion of the midpoint on the bell curve is greatly skewed by our daily interaction with our colleagues (and usually families), almost all of whom are several sigmas beyond the mean.

    Consider that the average reading level for adults in the US is (supposedly) at the 8th grade level, and something on the order of 1/3 of adults cannot identify their own state of residence on a national map.

    I have worked in factories, in contact with the public, and even some with adult education and it is disconcerting to see the level of real understanding. Why do you think the majority of US adults believes in horoscopes? Why do so many (almost 1/2) believe the Bible is literally true and that Fox presents unbiased news? I do not know how much is cultural and how much is genetics, but I am reasonably certain that most of us in advanced academic positions do not really understand what the norm for the population really is.

    I mentioned that we have a particular problem in computing — it is manifest in how we constructed interfaces to systems for many years. We laugh at “stupid user stories” but fail to realize that those are our fault and not the end user.

    As I recall, Thomas Jefferson’s original argument was that only well-educated citizens be allowed to vote. That didn’t make it into the Constitution; how different our world –and government — would be if that had happened.


  2. M Miller said:

    I think part of it has to do with the Atlantic’s position as a media outlet. Now that they’re competing with Slate and similar online ventures they need to up the contrarian ante and run more sensational and controversy seeking pieces. It’s a good page hit strategy and add revenue generator. Andrew Sullivan occasionally rolls out quasi Bell Curve defenses there and he’s their biggest name. This is in line with that kind of piece. It stirs the pot, and the academy is a juicy target.

    I think this also has something to do with higher education in the U.S. getting caught up in our society’s slide towards greater inequity, and a growing acceptance of it ( I think you could add the fact that we’re sliding in terms of college degree completion to the list above – This is a sign that we’re on a dangerous path, and to assume that we’ve hit a ceiling and that some members of our society are simply beyond educating is only going to exacerbate the slide.

    The growing inequity is also hitting the supply side of things too, at least in the case of Professor X. Professor X’s argument reveals as much about himself as it does his evening students – he refers to himself more than once as a failure for having to take on his second job as an evening instructor. My guess is that he’s part of the boom in non-tenure track/adjunct employees, and when contingent laborers like him are unhappy with their situation (as they have reason to be) I imagine it bleeds into their job performance and general outlook on life. (

    You hear this kind of talk in a lot of places now. McKinsey, Morgan Stanley and various research/advisory groups talk about a New Normal and project long term unemployment in the 9-10% range, and a potential future where we have a permanent underclass of people destined for a life of low wage, service industry labor. I think this is misguided (not all of the New Normal concept, but some it), and a convenient way for the “haves” to pass the buck and avoid having to make hard decisions about restructuring the status quo. It would be interesting I think to look at the 11 countries that have bypassed us when it comes to college degree completion, and see how their higher education and K-12 systems are structured. Lets look at their investment priorities. This is entirely anecdotal, but as a former Army officer who instructed young infantrymen on how to put together operations orders, manage assets, and issue memoranda of instruction it’s hard for me to imagine someone who’s so dense they’re beyond teaching. We saw all kinds of folks, from some pretty rough backgrounds, and my takeaway was that you can teach just about anyone just about anything provided you bring enough ingenuity and perseverance (and beatings!) to the table. The brain is just a big piece of software – it can be reprogrammed.

    Anyway, there definitely seems to be a lot of angst out there, at least when you look at the Chronicles of Higher Ed and talk to recently minted PhD’s. Something is definitely in the air! But it’s funny to me how we focus so much on incenting top performers (be they corp managers, our best students, and perhaps best teachers), but when it comes to folks like Professor X, people on the shop floor and bottom rung students we throw our hands up in the air and say nothing can be done.

    *Clarification on the inequity issue – as an outsider there seems to be an inequitable distribution of resources among Hi Ed employees, with non-tenure track/adcon profs bearing much of the teaching load without commensurate comp and benefits. It’s probably not as bad as the 300-500% pay gaps between top and bottom employees at most S&P 500 firms, but if it continues my guess is that there will be more dissent, dissatisfaction, and shoddy work (more so in Higher Ed b/c of the public nature of it, the social mission, and the fact that your disgruntled employees are pretty articulate and smart). The other part of the inequity trap is on the demand side, which I think you’re writing a book about – more and more folks are getting priced out of a quality education, and more and more universities are pricing themselves out and offering poor products to boot.

    There’s a behavioral psychologist at Emory named Franz de Waal who’s done some interesting studies on reciprocity and fairness among primates; even Capuchins are hardwired to stop working when things are perceived to be unfair – they protest too! ( I think when a complex social system develops bottlenecks in how resources are divvied up, and the rewards become disconnected from how they’re earned, the system is hardwired to break down a bit.


  3. Greg Laudeman said:

    I’m curious about why you found this article particularly worrisome. Was it the facts of the article? It’s implications?

    To me, and I’ve seen this personally, the tragedy is that the Mrs. L’s of the world want to learn but instead she is mindlessly taught because that’s what the factory does. There was apparently no assessment of her prior knowledge. She was just mechanistically shunted into the writing class.

    The larger tragedy is that higher education is apparently incapable of institutional learning, of methodically changing its behavior to be more successful. Burgeoning student populations keep us from coming to grips with our failure to learn. What happens when the baby boom echo fades? Will universities be like poor ol’ Wiley Coyote, suddenly realize he’s run off the edge and is standing on thin air?

    Anyway… very curious about what you found worrisome. And, whether you experience anything at GT like what Professor X experienced.


  4. richde said:

    I think you hit the nail on the head Greg: it’s “what the factory does.”. Professor X seems very upset that students show up to learn without knowing very much. It is a strange profession that penalizes its clients in that way (“I’m sorry sir, I can’t treat your leg fracture. Why don’t you come back when you’re in better health? That will be twelve thousand dollars, please.”)

    Professor X (who by the way is not a professor) does not seem to have thought out alternatives: (1) Maybe Mrs. L. would have been better served in another class, (2) maybe Mrs. L. has a different expected outcome than Professor X. (3) maybe the class is not very good, (4) maybe Professor X is not a very good teacher.

    There are universities that are capable of changing behavior, but not very many of them. It would require experimentation (and therefore the risk of failure) and university presidents like to steer clear of possible failure.

    What I hear reflected at GT and many other universities is much more in line with Spaf’s comments. It is one thing to decry the state of affairs and quite another — as M. Miller points out — to seriously tackle the inequities that lead to that state.


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