In his 1986 introduction to Irving Babbitt’s classic, Literature and the American College, Russell Kirk identifies the four “ills” that beset modern American higher education. All four are more relevant today than ever. Ill #3 is ‘gigantism,’ the formation of what Kirk called “Behemoth State University”. Kirk had first-hand experience of this phenomenon, having spent several years teaching at Michigan State University. Here is Kirk’s summary: “Gigantism in scale: a mockery of Babbitt’s ‘atmosphere of leisure and reflection,’ the inhumane scale of Behemoth State University, with forty thousand students, say, collectivism rather than community, lodged in barren dormitories, with television sets and hi-fis blaring; teen-age ghettos, in which a great many students never become acquainted with a genuine professor, and utilitarian ‘output’ of graduates is the boast of educational administrators.”
This description still rings true for those of us teaching at large state “research” universities. The University of Texas at Austin, for example, has just launched a massive effort to increase its four-year graduation rate. The mass-production, assembly-line thinking behind this effort is obvious: the more students who complete 120 “units” in a certain number of years, the more “efficient” the institution. No one bothers to ask, “Units of what?” What does the modern “bachelor’s degree” represent? Here is how Babbitt put it in 1908: “If some of our educational radicals have their way, the A. B. degree will mean merely that a man has expended a certain number of units of intellectual energy on a list of elective studies that may range from boiler-making to Bulgarian… it will become, in short, a question of intellectual volts and amperes and ohms.”
In the nineteenth century, the bachelor’s degree corresponded to the completion of a well-defined curriculum, drawn entirely from the literature of the ancient world. Nowadays, there is no curriculum in that sense. What magical transformation is supposed to take place when a student has completed 120 units? Why do we care whether students have ‘graduated,” when the criteria for graduation are entirely artificial and adventitious, highly variable and transitory?
The problem is a fundamental one. Higher education is simply not the kind of thing that can be commodified and mass-produced. There has been an increase in the number of college students by many orders of magnitude in the last 70 years, but there need have been no corresponding increase in the average size of the undergraduate college.
In my next blog, I will address how to tame the Behemoth.