Book Review: Andrew Hacker’s and Claudia Dreifus’ Higher Education?

A few months ago I saw (and responded to) an interview by Cenk Ugyr with Mrs. Claudia Drayfus where, among other things, she commented on the inadequacy of higher education due to adjunct faculty and teaching assistants with little or no training and the excess of tenured faculty. My main concern with her interview was her seemingly condescending attitude towards what she refered to as an untrained, underpaid faculty composed of TAs. I argued that, many times, TAs give better classes than tenured faculty, but concluded with the resolution of reading the book and commenting on it as a whole, and so I have. Having read the whole piece I must say that the authors do touch on several important issues. Their discussion of the growth of academia for its own sake, their treatment of researchers as a “guild” looking for self-aggrandizement, and their comments on professors who are paid to teach but don’t help the reader form a different perspective towards academia from the commonplace “university is a place of learning” dogma. However, while many, if not all, the issues that the authors raise are certainly concerns that should be in the mind of every academic, administrator, and advisor (not to mention politician making education policy), many of their proposed fixes seem counterproductive.

 Allow me to comment on some of the issues that “stuck” the most.


The authors argue that many Ivy League schools (Harvard, Yale, Colombia, and their ilk) survive only on their reputation. These schools, some of the most expensive in America, have extremely strict entrance requirements that, theoretically, allow only the best and brightest of America to get what is, in theory, the very best education that America has to offer. However, Hacker and Dreyfus argue that while they do have high costs and high entrance standards, the education offered is not all as hyped up as it is. To demonstrate this, the authors comment on how the top professors of these institutions only teach 2 – 3 courses per year and spend most of their time doing “research” that does nothing to further the discipline’s knowledge. Most of the classes in these institutions, then, are taught by teaching assistants (TAs) – graduate, often doctoral, students who “work” as teachers in exchange for a stipend and reduced tuition. This, the authors argue, is where the students get “cheated”; and were it not for the authors’ extremist beliefs of these student-teachers, I would agree.

In institutions like Harvard students do get cheated in the sense that they expected, perhaps, to take courses with Dr. Henry Louis Gates J.R. – the well known scholar who wrote Signifying Monkey, a cornerstone of ethnic studies in literature – but might end up taking a course with Chris Barrett – a brilliant young A.B.D. lecturer known for chairing the department’s Renaissance Colloquium – instead. Indeed, this bait and switch is a form of cheating undergraduate students into thinking that they are getting the best of the best and instead getting just “pretty darn good”, but to argue, as it sometimes comes across in Higher Education?, that these TAs have no idea what they are doing is simply ludicrous. Perhaps because of the condescending and sometimes sarcastic tone used by the author, it may come across as if they thought that the knowledge of an A.B.D. – a person who has dedicated at least 10 years of study to their field (A.B.D. stands for “all but dissertation) is the and likely has had some teaching experience – is the equivalent of someone holding a bachelor’s degree. Certainly, I can’t agree that someone who only holds a B.A. or B.Sc. should be able to teach a university course without any training, but neither can I agree that advanced graduate students, doctoral students, or people who are not doctors in the area should not be able to teach. I think that the solution to this problem is to have tenured faculty teach more than just one course per term. In most institutions that I am familiar with (UMET, American University, Interamerican University, Sacred Heart University, UPR system, UT system, U-Wisconsin system) tenured faculty teach 2 – 3 courses per term, and some of the smaller colleges (John Dewey College, CEM, TCC) offer professors tenured positions teaching 4 – 5 courses per term. I think that there are two ways to go: 1) all faculty teachers 3 – 4 courses with the combination of teaching and research being a consideration for rank (dept. chairs, salary, etc). or 2) have a research-intensive track (teach 2 per term, do research) and a teaching-intensive track (teach 5, research optional). This is certainly a better answer than the one proposed by the authors: 5 year teaching contracts.

Another problem that the authors tackles is the rising cost of education. They remark that Ivy League schools offer a relatively mediocre learning experience for undergraduate students, but that some of the better schools (Pomona, Amherst, and some others I can’t remember) are still too expensive for what they offer – I would agree. Personally, I think that $40,000 a year for tuition is a ridiculous amount, but more importantly it is often the case that graduate studies cost less than undergraduate studies. With very few exceptions (medical school, law school, pharmacy school, and those professional “doctoral” degrees), in most public American institutions a year of undergraduate education will cost $10,000 to $15,000 a year, while a year of graduate education might cost anywhere from 33% to 50% less. Furthermore, while the admission requirements for an undergraduate program involve getting a 3.5 GPA or higher and a score of 1,300 or higher on the SAT during a time when one is socially conflicted and dealing with personality and individuality issues, those for many graduate programs require an adequate score in the GRE, a GPA of 3.2, and letters of recommendation. Once you have your B.A. it’s fairly easy to make it into a graduate school – that is, assuming you didn’t waste your time in your undergraduate years. It seems to me that if we are going to have a fruitful society where every individual is able to lead dignified lives in whatever profession they choose, then undergraduate education – the one that puts you to work – should be accessible to everyone. Graduate education, on the other hand, should be more difficult to obtain and that those accepted into graduate programs should be embraced because of their skill and potential rather than because of some cut-off number where the top X % of applicants are allowed.

Making undergraduate education more accessible and graduate education more selective would also fix another of the problems addressed by Dreifus and Hacker in their text – the overproduction of Ph.D.s. Certainly, the market is saturated with doctors in various fields. However, I seriously must wonder: is this because universities put out too many Ph.D.s a year, or because people who received their doctoral degrees in the 1930s refuse to retire? I recall my second year at the university when I took a basic biology course. My professor was an elderly 94 year old senile woman who mostly talked about her experiences as a kid. She spent a lot of the time coughing and shaking, and she passed all the students with an A because “no one in the department dared touch her”. This kind of attitude goes back to the problem of “tenured faculty who don’t care about the students”, but it has been my experience with tenured faculty that they are, generally speaking, the brightest instructors who say the most engaging things. This is not because they are smarter than contingent faculty, but because contingent faculty often “plays it safe” so that the university keeps them. The exception was this one professor, which makes me think that the issue should not be “tenure versus non-tenure”, but one of “dedication to education in instructors”.

Another major problem that the authors tackle is that of how full professors “do research” and are paid over $200,000 a year to not teach, while adjunct faculty teaches and is paid $30,000 a year. Personally, I can’t agree with a professor being paid $30,000 a year. I don’t think that these scholars and professionals should go through the trouble of earning a higher degree, become known in their field, and earn a position in a university to not be compensated economically; and while $200,000 might seem excessive, it is worth noting that only the most prominent scholars – Noam Chomsky, Henry Louis Gates J.R., Andrew Hacker, and those of their stature – are the ones who are paid at this level. From what I am aware (and please do keep in mind that my exposure to academia has been mostly in public institutions while this book was written based on the Ivy League) institutions have pay tables where professors are paid based on rank, going from $50,000 a year to $105,000 a year for the most distinguished and experienced academics.

The authors discuss all these problems and more in a far more eloquent and researched manner than I ever could in this short post. However, as I previously said, despite some of the more reasonable proposals (make research subordinate to teaching), some the answers they offer (remove tenure, pay less) seem counterproductive.

But you know, reader, there is one thing that bothers me deeply about this book. It does certainly make the reader aware of the shortcomings of academia, especially in the Ivy League, and offer some suggestions on how to start fixing the problem. However, it does seem to me pretty convenient that a highly paid retired professor emeritus from the Ivy League is making the case against tenure and highly paid professors from the Ivy League after he himself lived his life as a highly-paid tenured professor. It almost seems as if the author had a condescending attitude not towards “the flaws in academia”, but towards young academics as a whole. It seems at times as if the author simply thinks that young scholars aren’t worthy of tenure and high pay, and so he makes the case against what he himself is. But then, maybe I’m just over-reading and letting myself be led around by the tone of the book, no?

Either way, the book is a must read if you’re interested or involved in education or education policy. It will certainly give you a new perspective of things.

So, how about that Shrodinger’s cat?


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on January 13, 2011, in Book Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Dear Dr. Quijano:

    Yes, I’m afraid you are “over-reading.”

    Some facts: Andrew Hacker gave up his tenured full-professorship so that the Queens College political science department could hire two young assistant professors with his six figure salary. He has, for the past decade, taught as an adjunct.

    When the President of Queens College feted him last winter to celebrate 110th consecutive semester of teaching, there were many younger professors present–as well as former students from both Cornell and Queens. A scholarship fund was established that evening in Andrew’s name for a Queens College political science student who is the first in his/her family to attend college.

    I am fascinated by how often people in academe have a hard time accepting an altruistic motive. Could it be that Andrew argues against tenure for the reason he clearly states–mainly that it is creating a caste system on campus that has more to do with status than with academic freedom? He recently said to me that he wishes he’d given up his tenure earlier because he never needed it. The people who are good, he thinks, don’t need it at all.

    Now, about my supposed “condescending” attitude towards adjuncts and contingents, that was a whopper of a mis-read. I have been a contingent all my academic life and as the author of that particular chapter, it’s aimed to be a passionate attack on their exploitation.

    We appreciate that unlike some bloggers, you did at least read “Higher Education?” But you read it so strangely. For instance, we are exceptionally sympathetic to ABD scholars–we say that publish or perish is a sham and that the world would be better off with a few less than 3,000 papers on Faulkner. We say that the many of the community colleges and third tier state schools are full of wonderful people who didn’t make it at the Research I schools and who are fabulous teachers. We suggest that people send their kids to those places, rather than take on vicious levels on debt. So where do you get your stuff from, sir? It’s odd. CD

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