David Gelernter's America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered In the Obamacrats) had the potential to offer a distinguished Yale professor of long standing a chance to critically reflect on the mutation of higher education, particularly at the top of the U.S. News pecking order, from a finishing school for scions of the Great Four Hundred who you might not want to entrust with a steel company or a bank, to a certification agency for a meritocracy that really isn't. That's serious work, and, given what I understand about Professor Gelernter, a task that might have offered a differing perspective from that recently offered by the much younger Christopher Hayes in Twilight of the Elites.
Book Review No. 23 suggests that the intellectual potential of America-Lite is diminished by a polemical style suggestive either of score-settling with colleagues, or with editing to appeal to higher education's detractors.
There is much in America-Lite to appeal to readers of all stripes. Consider Professor Gelernter's evaluation of the effects the prestige hierarchy has on striving students, this at page 57.
It's not clear that the exodus of smart students from New York's public colleges into fancy private schools did anyone much good in the end. Intellectually distinguished public colleges where tuition is low or free are an obvious public good. If more superior students had stayed at CUNY, it might have become one of the world's great universities.
Yes, if we limit the discussion of the evolution of CUNY to the abolition of quotas limiting the enrollment of Jews at the Ivies, the story the author is telling. Left untold, however, is the combination of subsidized tuitions and open enrollments, such that CUNY, and arguably Wayne State, and Temple, and San Francisco State, became institutions in which superior students have to thrive on their own, while the administrators, with the complicity of much of the faculty, devoted their efforts to access-assessment-remediation-retention.
American society will always need and depend on noncollege boys, assuming that people will still drive trucks and buses, build and fix things, put out fires and police the streets. The idea that everyone needs a college education was always silly. That nearly everyone should then proceed from college to graduate school is even siller.
Yes, universal college as a potential way to build the middle class runs afoul of Reynolds' Law. Where degree completion becomes the Prime Directive, access-assessment-remediation-retention crowds out learning. Thus the "Lite" part of America, and the Emergence of the Airheads.
David Gelernter identifies the right target in his recent book America Lite, in which he laments not so much the ideology of the campus as its “airhead” condition. We should follow his example, for it hits tendentious professors where they are most vulnerable. Academics don’t mind being called leftists, even the moderates, but they pride themselves on their knowledge and intelligence. If they have to sit down and debate a core reading list and they complain because it is too Eurocentric, the smart thing to do isn’t to highlight their multiculturalist axioms. Rather, from now on, conservatives should start asking questions that probe how much academics really know about the tradition they have rejected.
That's Mark Bauerlein by way of George Leef. Put another way, it's David Gelernter preaching to the converted. Perhaps the piling of adjective upon adjective, or the settling of old scores, is cathartic. It's less likely to change many minds, particularly among participants or clients of higher education who might be troubled by the way college now does the work of high school and graduate programs do what college used to do, or by the increasingly costly peddling of fluff, but who are not necessarily ready to concur with the entire conservative explanation of higher education's failure.
(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)