Review: Why You Won't Get the College Education You Paid For

Post Author:
Naomi Schaeffer Riley. Press photo, of sorts.

Hello, everyone. How’s it going? Among the recent arrivals of non-music related books to be reviewed, I received a copy of this political tome with a matter-of-fact title. It’s not very subtle and it’s not very humorous, either the book or the title, and while I’m predisposed to approach the subject as a skeptic, it’s a decent ride through the mind of a conservative writer. She has some skills but can she pay the bills? I took my time getting to the finish, but the weightiness of the issue deserves adequate explication. Enjoy. Thanks.

The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For, by Naomi Schaefer Riley (Ivan R. Dee) 195 pages $22.95

Former Wall Street Journal Editor Naomi Schaefer Riley has an ax to grind. From the title of her new book it’s clear she doesn’t go in for a lot of faculty lounging, and she’s got some other reasons she’d like to expound on as to why college students are being ripped off. Ms. Schaefer Riley is also a Fox News darling these days, as I saw her hawking this book on the network recently, where she was given an entire segment to lay out her case without a single tough question. In the interest of full disclosure and fairness, I acknowledge upfront that I come to the task of reviewing this book as an admitted opponent of Ms. Schaefer Riley’s mission and thesis. Having said that, I have enough integrity to pull the nuggets of knowledge out of her dry prose and look at them fairly.

The first chapter launches right into the subject of faculty tenure. She begins with a cartoon from the New Yorker depicting a bearded prof standing in front of his students and tossing off his ragged trousers as he proclaims, “Today, class, I’m proud to announce my tenure.” From which we are to assume he will, hereafter, be teaching in his underwear. This image falls right in line with the current trend of conservative scapegoating of teachers and unions, and the assertion that their salaries and benefits are the primary cause of deficits, and are thusly bankrupting the country.

Her disdain for the concept and image of the “liberal professor” is a roadblock in analyzing her fundamental premise that tenure chokes the system by de-emphasizing the quality of teaching, and by squeezing out those who don’t do research and publish. She also extends her point to the case of adjunct professors, who definitely are often trapped in a netherworld in the higher education system. But it’s evident she has a greater agenda at work in her despising of the “lib prof” segment of the population, and she does nothing to shade it. (There’s a 25-page chapter on unions, so you know from that what’s in store throughout this treatise.)

There are many dimensions to the model she describes. There are numerous intangibles above and below the (money) line that color this issue of tenure, but she skips the opportunity to go there when it arises. Things like the philosophy of education or the Socratic approach to the ideological battle are nowhere to be found. She adheres to the standard “conservative” position that we hear regularly from the Republican machine in the mainstream press. If you watch Fox News coverage or bump into Hannity or O’Reilly, or land on TBN or CBN and see Paul Crouch or Pat Robertson, or stumble over Limbaugh on the radio, or observe a copy of a book by Bernard Goldberg you’ve come in contact with the same script Ms. Schaefer Riley is reading from, and they’ve got it down cold.

This is the worldview that screams our universities are overrun with “socialist professors” in a voice very much like the “red under every bed” song we heard from McCarthy-ite paranoids in the 1950s. These people hate liberal professors, as they define them, and they use them as punching bags for everything they also hate about liberal arts, the liberal welfare state or the so-called liberal media. The reality on the ground is that there is very little “left-wing” media coverage of any kind in mainstream America, maybe watered-down and quasi-progressive at best. But if the other side continually screams that there is a liberal bias in education and the media it starts to take hold in people’s minds and it has, and it has deep roots now.

Ms. Schaefer Riley seems to think the solutions to all our higher education woes are found in one locale. If we could wipe away the liberal bias and remove the liberal profs we don’t have to actually deal with the hundreds of other things that have an effect on education.Conservatives often get the equation wrong between the symptom and the disease. They think attacking the symptom of “tenure for too many liberals in the faculty” will alleviate nearly everything else that’s wrong? That’s not exactly what she’s saying, but she tends to make one wonder, what do they really believe? It undermines the real substance of her argument. And she does have some real substance. She’s done her homework, and she can write, but she’s not cutting with a razor, she’s hacking with a machete.

Take an example from Chapter One: “The tenure process, which to a greater extent than ever rests on a professor’s research rather than his teaching qualifications, is what is eroding American higher education from the inside out.” So, that’s it? The only thing “eroding” higher education in our nation is “faculty tenure”? Who could take this seriously if they weren’t already drinking the Kool-aid? There are so many things eroding our education system it’s overwhelming to know where to begin a discussion. Ms. Schaefer Riley really appears to have sold herself to the greater cause than a concern about education.

She insults the profession of teaching with a snide remark or glib observation: “The problems that occur once professors are tenured are not limited to laziness or incompetence.” That’s a bold fucking statement, in a number of ways. Not only does she slander thousands of great professors from all walks of life and every imaginable nationality by declaring them lazy, she also suggests that after the competent teachers get tenure they suddenly become incompetent. Does any reasonable person really believe that? On its face, that’s just ridiculous, and not even worthy of a response. Reading between the lines one gets the impression this is purely ideological. She hammers home the idea that tenured professors have “pulled colleges away from their core curricula to suit their own intellectual pursuits.” Evidently, the lazy professors aren’t so lazy after all, since they’re pulling the entire college away from its core. That whole idea is self-contradictory.

Chapters Two and Three go deeper and by Chapter Six she hits on the politics of the university. The funny, or not so funny, thing is that she doesn’t offer much in the way of criticism toward any conservative policies. Her arguments echo what we hear on cable television every night. She has a few chances to turn the telescope around and point it the other way to show she has some perspective, but she fails to come through in those moments. Too bad, because it would have been a more engaging read. She offers up the same old tray of hors d’oeuvres instead of giving us a full meal: “Maybe conservatives prefer being evaluated on the merit of what they contribute each year to their employer.” What? How arrogant is that? Only conservatives? Maybe lots of people work jobs involving incompetent management, low pay, no benefits, lousy hours, short turnaround times and no say in anything, anywhere. Does she know we’re becoming a service economy? She must have had a professor or two that she really despised, and she’s using this work as a cudgel to pound on them.

One can’t help but wonder, tracking the desperation in these pages, what are they so afraid of? Why so paranoid about the radical professor at Berkeley or NYU “preaching the gospel” of critical theory? Of course, in their version, nearly every school is overrun with them and it’s all one big factory system of indoctrination, but if they’re so confident (arrogant) in their worldview, why do they fear the other like they do? There’s a simple answer: they don’t genuinely believe in their worldview.

She insults the entire student population in America by suggesting they are sheep, easily manipulated into adopting the doctrine of “leftism.” In a free and open society the conservative, anti-academia types must accept reality. There are reasons why people whose youthful politics lean left end up working in higher education, social services and human services, for example. And there are reasons why they connect to others. Why shouldn’t universities be “radical” think-tanks where revolutionary ideas are debated and examined? Even if those ideas rub up against the status quo. A university is, on one level, the sum of the parts making up the faculty. It’s their unique personalities, accomplishments, credentials, interests and expertise, or lack thereof, and their politics, that give a school its educational identity. If we champion diversity in academia we can, maybe, better understand it in the world.Conservatives can have the Heritage Foundation, we’ll take the university/universe.

The last chapter is entitled Follow the Money, ironically, because she loses the trail leading to the money almost immediately. What are the root causes of skyrocketing tuition and costs? I still don’t know. What about the disgraceful scam that is the textbook industry? How do they get away with that? She doesn’t pay much attention to the attacks on public education in favor of private education. If she wants to write a political treatise she could get out of the box. Many of us realize you get out of your higher education experience, largely, what you put into it. Whether it’s the Ivy League or the School of Hard Knocks, it’s a proportional relationship. She could discuss the student population/culture as something other than just the victims of a nationwide fraud perpetrated by teachers unions.

Where are the new insights? She just quits at the end. No innovative solutions or proposals, other than to fire everyone and replace them with personality-free automatons, I suppose. Ultimately, she points to the administrators, smears them and lays it at their feet: “If you’re looking to reduce costs, trimming the administration would be a good place to start. Especially since most senior administrators are powerless to fix the things that are really broken.” That’s her end point, the faculty is all communist and the administration is too disabled to do anything about it. It’s amazing they manage to turn the lights on in the morning. I came away feeling kind of ho-hum about another nagging complaint from an uptight, conservative-hater. Moderately funny, but it’s getting old.