Charles J. Sykes's latest indictment of higher education, Fail U., in stores Tuesday, comes at what's widely considered a low point for the American college. "Brainwashed Bernie fanatics," and a "crisis-level plague of indecency" have gripped campuses, reflected Rick Santorum in the minutes leading up to his Young Americans for Freedom address at George Washington University in late July. Sykes echoes the former Pennsylvania senator: "Despite the cant about 'college for all,' the reality is that too many students are already going to college."
Fail U. re-ups the author's earlier ProfScam—a junior college version of The Closing of the American Mind—to the tune of "I told you so." Not that there's anything wrong with that: Sykes, now a Milwaukee radio host, then a print journalist, did in fact tell them so. In 1988, he blamed the professoriate for "a modern university distinguished by costs that are zooming out of control, curriculums that look like they were designed by a game show host; lectures of droning mind-numbing dullness often to 1,000 or more semi-anonymous undergraduates." The learned men and women cloistered within the scam just didn't listen. (It may not help convince the skeptical that Fail U. reads like radio copy. Anyone not already predisposed to tune in for a well-reasoned but suitably sensational anti-college argument can just adjust the dial.)
Sykes revisits and re-litigates sources of outrage and unsettled scores. From academics' flight from the classroom to the hyper-obscurity of their research, and from rising tuition funding "Taj Mahal" campuses to underserved student athletes and their coddled "snowflake" counterparts, the whole college cartel is only more corrupt than it was twenty-eight years ago, he argues. In a section entitled "Shut Up, They Explained," he sizes up the sins of puritanical progressivism—more commonplace and egregious than ever before. Sykes, having already written this book, puts the most representative cases in startling context.
Fail U. rides the same undercurrent as its '88 precursor: Namely that, in a deeply decadent culture, the willed meliorism that whistleblowers like Sykes prescribe doesn't stand a chance. Zeroing in on the excesses of undisciplined institutions and the "tsunami of public funds enabling them," Sykes casts colleges as poorly run businesses. He slips into the interventionist mode of the money-minded anti-college bloc. "'In no other industry would overhead costs be allowed to grow at this rate,'" Sykes says, citing Mitt Romney's old haunt Bain & Company. And he echoes the warnings of Mark Cuban and Peter Thiel, two right-leaning billionaires who advise—even pay—gifted young people not to dive head-first into higher education. It's a bubble and potentially a bad investment, they—college graduates both—warn.
Sykes's rarer and more diagnostically astute comparison predicts colleges will meet the same fate as the old mainline Protestant churches, outmoded in a secularizing century of increasingly mainstream atheism and pumped-up megachurches. Bad business models, bursting bubbles and bailouts aside, a studious look at the death of the mainline reveals where higher learning might actually be headed: A college education is still as deep-seated a social necessity in many circles as Protestantism used to be, but before long we may find the imperative withering even among the elite while, Sykes predicts, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) will serve the masses.
In the end, too close to the end for my taste, Sykes comes around to real solutions. MOOCs, he's certain, are all the more promising because they've been slow to take on and because professors (still scam artists, remember) have dismissed them out of hand.
Sykes cites the minimal real value of pricy seat-time in lectures too often taught by teaching assistants, and he implores poor, misguided parents and students: Why spend so much, why incur so much debt for a degree with opaque meaning? But meanwhile his prediction that a growing library of available MOOCs will fell the bankrupt complex ignores the necessary social capital of a degree from a Good College and the ensuing, hopefully, Good Job.
Affordability and convenience favor the MOOC-heavy programs of Sykes's proposed futurescape, but if innovation will lead the way, it's unlikely the MOOC will be first next frontier. As far as course content and structure are concerned, a traditional college education is no less practical than a collection of MOOCs. The innovative technologies that most successfully meet human needs meet them where they are. Colleges and legislators will simply have to accept MOOC credits. "The process of accreditation will be crucial," Sykes claims. But as more and more employers' needs outpace the skills a B.A. shows up for work with, even Sykes's model—three- or two-year hyper-focused credentialing programs in smaller, fewer, increasingly online miniversities—may be too stagnant.
Slightly at odds with his own model of utiltarian MOOCs for the masses, Sykes still loves learning for learning's sake. Exposing the corruption he saw within the college cartel was an act of tough love when Sykes wrote ProfScam. Now, as then, he's motivated by faith that the liberal arts might someday flourish again but with the cancerous conceit that "college is for everyone" necessarily excised once and for all.
Higher education's anticipated collision with technological innovation will be messy and imperfect. (Or should I say, disruptive.) Innovation's chipping away at the college cartel would leave only the best endowed, most expensive colleges and universities, those least dependent on depleting donations, guaranteed to weather the storm. And if, in some form, the segment of society that elite schools have historically served persists in whatever brave new world awaits us—and if the wealthiest colleges continue to resist full-on wealth redistribution—the liberal arts will live on to fire up the sons and daughters of our future CEOs. Eventually, this next generation of poets and college professors can re-inherit the canon so that their students' students might protest the white-male hegemony and maybe even demand free college for all. However long until it all comes back around, one thing's for sure: There will be another new Charlie Sykes book for us smirking skeptics to enjoy on the sidelines.