The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education by Warren Treadgold, Encounter Books, 2018
Currently, there is a good deal of literature about the failings of the educational system. They fall into two categories. There are those who argue that progressive education is doing the job well. The cure for the nation’s educational woes that remain is to make it more equally available by providing free pre-school at the beginning and capping it off with a free college education. Then, there are those who argue that the progressive philosophy has ill-served society, the students, and the educators. Dr. Warren Treadgold in his book, The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education, defends the latter position.
The end of the book, almost the last paragraph, summarizes his major thesis.
… a coherent higher education is very nearly incompatible with the radical egalitarianism of the most influential American professors today…. If egalitarianism is the overriding principle, then preferring the best ideas, assigning the best books, admitting the best students, and hiring the best professors is elitist and discriminatory.… Egalitarians would rather argue that every idea, book, and applicant is as good as any other…. The results of such a program are the mediocre curricula, faculties, and student bodies of most American colleges and universities today.
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As a life-long academic, Dr. Treadgold knows whereof he speaks. He is a veteran of six university faculties and currently teaches in the History Department of Saint Louis University. Although the book is not an autobiography, one suspects that Dr. Treadgold has suffered at the hands of these egalitarians. The first clue is the fact that he has held positions at six universities. Generally, the preferred academic track is to graduate armed with a newly-minted PhD, land a tenure-track position at an institution of higher learning, gain tenure and then spend the rest of one’s career as a professor at that school. That career is punctuated with several sabbaticals to do research at far-flung libraries and to publish what one has learned along the way. Serving at six schools—three full time and three on a visiting basis—is not the sign of a meteoric academic career.
The second clue that Dr. Treadgold’s career has not been a smooth one is his specialty, Byzantine History. Today’s academic world appears only to prize the contributions of those who make up the modern “victim class”—women along with racial, ethnic, religious, and gender minorities. In that setting the arcana of the politics and warcraft of a thousand-year empire run by white males that passed away in the mid-fifteenth century are hardly noticed and certainly not revered.
The first two chapters of the book give us a look at the faults and foibles of a university system that is galloping to the Left. This section of the book is well stated and succinct, but certainly breaks no new ground. The current system specializes in producing left-wing parrots who can spout long and loud about the victimization of repressed groups but react violently whenever they are asked to consider an opposing point of view.
Where the book really shines is in chapter three, discussing the ideological underpinnings of this system. Dr. Treadgold discusses the basics—Marxism, socialism, inclusivity, and diversity. Then he opens up on the real villain of this piece—postmodernism. Postmodernist thinking clusters people into two sets of groups—the oppressors and the oppressed. Only the oppressed are really worth considering. They are the victims of history, and the tales of that victimization—often spun out of whole cloth with no basis of proof other than the speaker’s fertile imagination—are the only “truths” worth discussing. Pointing out facts that are at variance with, or making an argument that shows an inherent fallacy within these tales of woe will cause one to be seen as a mouthpiece of the oppressors—an apologist for the evils of the past. At this point, all discourse stops because there is no longer a set of values that govern the thoughts of both participants.
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Put simply, a student who is trained in postmodernism is ignorant. If there are not absolute facts, there is nothing to know—so one in fact knows nothing.
The book then goes on to muse about the current state of teaching and research.
Dr. Treadgold’s thoughts on teaching are primarily focused on the college world, but his overall conclusions would apply to most classrooms. He decries the emphasis on making classes “interesting” at the expense of transmitting knowledge.
Many people think that a professor’s teaching skills are more important than his knowing the subject he teaches because they remember their favorite teachers from elementary school…. But imagine an elementary school teacher (and I suspect some exist) who was not able to read, write, or do arithmetic adequately. How much would it matter if his students loved him, enjoyed his teaching techniques, found his classes wonderful, much preferred them to the classes taught by literate teachers, and organized protests with their parents if he was fired?… What they [the students] need to know is the subject of their courses, as only someone who knows it well can teach it to them.
The professor sees five primary criteria for research—that it should be new, important, accurate, rigorous, and intelligible. Again, he draws the contrast between this legitimate research and that of the postmodernist, who displays, “excessive tolerance of errors, fallacies, and obscurities, as long as they are postmodernist, ‘innovative,’ and ‘interesting.’”
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It is in the realm of solutions that this book falls short. Dr. Treadgold sees that a contributing factor in the decline of the collegiate world is the excessive number of PhD’s being generated by the nation’s universities each year. These are far in excess of the number demanded by the universities for professorships. This creates a situation in which colleges can rely on adjunct instructors, who are presumably less able than tenure-track faculty. Since such adjuncts can be largely dismissed at will, this places a great deal of power in the hands of administrators who tend to place too much emphasis on student evaluations—which tend to focus on being interesting, rather than the instructor’s scholarship.
The proffered solution is to set up a national board which will then have to pass on dissertations before their writers are awarded their PhD’s. Given that Dr. Treadgold rails against the influence of administrators, how can a new group of very powerful administrators possibly be the solution? The good professor appears to assume that this board would rate the research according to his criteria. What never seems to be considered is the possibility that this board could come to be dominated by the sort of postmodernist thinking that the book loudly decries. This would make the situation even worse than it is at present. At least under the current system there is the possibility that a right-thinking student, aided by a right-thinking professor could eventually gain a professorship of his own. Should postmodernists come to control Dr. Treadgold’s national board, that possibility would disappear.
The second solution would be to create a new university in which the old verities would be respected. Indeed, one suspects that there are few teachers—at least few dissatisfied teachers—on any level who have not allowed themselves to imagine an institution in which their skills and principles would be dominant and desired. This is what Dr. Treadgold has done. He appears to imagine that there are many big money people in society who see the deficiencies of the current system. Presumably, they would be happy to provide the funds necessary to set up a first-class research university ruled by knowledge and not the imagined wrongs suffered by the victim class. Whether this ideal university can materialized is not immediately clear.
Overall, the book promises more than it delivers. As stated above, the definition of postmodernism and the ground from which it sprang is very well done—and may be worth the price of admission for those unfamiliar with this set of ideas. Other than that, the book reveals the longings of a man at the end of his career for the world in which he developed his love of learning. There is value in that. Certainly both higher (and lower) education has gone seriously off-track in the last half-century. However, for the book to live up to its subtitle of reforming higher education, other solutions need to be explored.