Steven Brint Reviews New Books on Higher Education

Steven Brint is a sociologist at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of a book, In an Age of Experts, I once reviewed in the Columbia Law Review, along with books by Anthony Kronman and Christopher Lasch (mine was a long review essay on the New Class and lawyers and the legal profession).  He has a terrific review essay on four new books on higher education (h/t Insta):

The American education gospel is built around four core beliefs. First, it teaches that access to higher levels of education should be available to everyone, regardless of their background or previous academic performance. Every educational sinner should have a path to redemption (most of these paths now run through the community colleges). Second, the gospel teaches that opportunity for a better life is the goal of everyone and that education is the primary — and perhaps the only — road to opportunity. Third, it teaches that the country can solve its social problems — drugs, crime, poverty, and the rest — by providing more education to the poor. Education instills the knowledge, discipline, and the habits of life that lead to personal renewal and social mobility. And, finally, it teaches that higher levels of education for all will reduce social inequalities, as they will put everyone on a more equal footing. No wonder President Obama and Bill Gates want the country to double its college graduation rate over the next 10 years.

The advance of the education gospel has been shadowed from the beginning by critics who claim that education, despite our best efforts, remains a bastion of privilege. For these critics, it is not that the educational gospel is wrong (a truly democratic, meritocratic school system would, in principle, be a good thing); it is that the benefits of education have not yet spread evenly to every corner of American society, and that the trend toward educational equality may be heading in the wrong direction. They decry the fact that schools in poor communities have become dropout factories and that only the wealthy can afford the private preparatory schools that are the primary feeders to prestigious private colleges. The Higher Education Establishment recognizes critics like these as family. They accept the core beliefs of the education gospel and are impatient only with its slow and incomplete adoption.

Other heresies are more radical, and thus more disturbing to settled beliefs about the power of education. One currently growing in popularity we might call “the new restrictionism.” According to the new restrictionists, such as the economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, co-authors of the 2008 paper “Leisure College USA: The Decline in Student Study Time,” access to higher education may have gone too far. Our colleges and universities are full to the brim with students who do not really belong there, who are unprepared for college and uninterested in breaking a mental sweat.

The essay is a lengthy one – and well worth reading.  Brint is a deeply attentive sociologist, and he is able to unite social theory and empirical studies to good effect.  (It also,  I should add, appears in a new online book review, the Los Angeles Review of Books – an effort, which I applaud, to reintroduce the traditional long form review essay and traditional standalone book review.)

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