The Ivory Tower teeters

The world of higher education as we have known it has entered the twilight zone. Their contours still recognizable, America’s colleges and universities are becoming shades of their past selves, The Huffington Post reports. That is especially true of the liberal arts – the spiritual heart of this constellation of institutions.

Yes, all elements of the academy are suffering as public monies dry up and students are bearing the heaviest burdens of a sea change in attitudes toward education that downgrades in practice what Americans exalt in the abstract. There are important variations, though, from one sector to another. The hard sciences and engineering retain their distinguishing characteristics and strengths – for the most part.

Professional schools such as business and law are the main inheritors of the liberal arts’ mantle – along with its cachet, money and claims to intellectual authority.

These segments of the university are exposed to the same hazardous conditions as the Liberal Arts but have far more robust immune systems. As the country reverts from the century old model of enlightened humanism, so it is natural that Liberal Arts should be toppled from their position of preeminence. The still open questions are: the terms of their survival as a vestige of their honored past; and the implications for learning.

Slashed budgets are the key to what is happening – whether we think of rising tuition, student indebtedness, bigger classes, lagging faculty salaries, abuse of the star system, or infringement on the autonomy of universities previously run by academics. The last is crucial as schools increasingly fall under the sway of boards dominated by corporate interests, professional administrators dedicated to “utility maximization,” reactionary politicians, or – not least – self-declared “reformers” seeking to parley “innovation” into profit and/or prestige.

The money crunch’s insidious effects on the contemporary university are accompanied by a moral crisis and a crisis of morale.

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