Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education

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As I was reading through this book, I kept putting what I was reading back into a different time and historical situation.  This book, in other words, reminds me of the time before the Protestant Reformation.  I am thinking specifically of the pre-Reformers like Erasmus who called the Roman Catholic Church to account for its many errors and deviations.  Even Luther’s beloved 95 Theses were not a Protestant systematic theology.  He was arguing as a Catholic against Catholics. It is a story that can be found in many places and circumstances.  Huge entities develop huge mechanisms containing huge faulty practices.

Cracks in the Ivory Tower:  The Moral Mess of Higher Education by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness is published by Oxford University Press.

Both authors are scholars and academics.  While I think they may be of a more conservative bent than many academics, this book is a not a diatribe against ideological Leftists in the universities.  Nor is it an indictment against moral problems that so often dominate campus life.  Nor is it an attack on any specific university.

Instead, the authors examine several matters that appear in the world of universities across the land.  There are problems relating to the numbers and influences of the administrative side of university life in contrast to the number of faculty and students.  Administration, like government bureaucracy, always finds a need to expand.  Much of the cost of college is related to paying those who are far removed from the classroom.

But faculty are not exempt from the process of growing the numbers.  Required courses, general education requirements (gen ed classes), and other means are used to add course upon course and requirement upon requirement.  It hurt to read it, but the gist of these concerns related to English and composition courses in the colleges.  Of course, we always want to think that college produces well rounded people with appreciation for a wide range of learning and with much needed skills in writing.  And, we want to think that college training is pre-job training so that the graduate leaves the classroom for the workplace with scarcely a bobble.  The authors dissent from these assumptions.

Why?  Students graduate, but still have to be trained for their specific jobs.  Much of what is learned is forgotten within a few years.  And college students cheat, and they cheat a lot.  The thinking and reasoning skills of even most college educated people are still deficient.  Prior to this problem, those who write the materials promoting their particular colleges inflate the effects that college will have upon the students.

It was interesting to me to listen to my older son comment upon this book.  He read through it with hardly a pause and then pronounced it good.  So good, in fact, that he wished he had read it, he said, before he ever went to college.  It didn’t poison his attitude because he is entering graduate school this coming fall. I read through the book at a slower pace and wondered how applicable much of it was.  It has been too many years since I was a real college student. (I did take a graduate course this past spring.)

The solution is not the abolition of the university.  Reforms are always difficult and are usually rejected.  Think again of the comparison to those who tried to instigate reforms in the Roman Catholic Church.  But criticisms must be made.  This posting of some dozen or so theses on the door of the modern university will hopefully lead to some serious dialogues and, after much angst, change.

Cracks in the Ivory Tower–In the Review Queue


I am all in for higher education.  My two oldest children are currently making plans for graduate school.  One is going into philosophy and the other into occupational therapy.  This past spring, I took a graduate course at the local university and loved both the class and the idea of being back in school.  At the same time, I realize that the education business in America is a huge industry, and the cost of education is staggering.  College debt is a real burden on many (including my two children and myself), and sometimes the payoff in the work world is slow in coming through.

Being that there are so many colleges, so many courses, so many professors, and so many ideas, agendas, and philosophies “out there,” it should come as no surprise that the world of higher education is not some mythical paradise.

For years, I have been reading critiques of the American education system.  I went from teaching in a public school to being a founding member, administrator, and teacher in a private classical Christian school.  To call much that I read about education a “critique” is a bit misleading.  Most of what I have read has been downright critical–in the negative sense–of education.  I have also been such a critic.  That being said, I enjoyed my years in public school teaching.  Although far from perfect or far from ideal, the school where I taught was a good school, with many fine colleagues, and a good working environment.  But there were enough problems to force me to make the sacrifice and enter into the less secure, less lucrative, and less sustainable private school world.

As far as my own college education is concerned, I have very little to criticize.  I would do a lot of things differently if I could go back, but I did have good courses and many fine teachers.  I will pat myself on the back for refusing to go for an education degree and for insisting on getting a major in history and a minor in English.

But plucking a few ripe cherries off the tree is not the greater picture of American education.  When I teach about the causes leading up to the Protestant Reformation, I know that there were faithful parish priests who were seeking to pastor their people.  I know that the Bible was being taught.  Chaucer’s parson, in The Canterbury Tales, was a godly man.  The Brethren of the Common Life Schools, begun by Gerhard Groote, was a good source for Christian training.  But there were some major faults running through Christendom.  Both Erasmus and Luther, who became bitter opponents, railed against the worst of abuses.

Likewise, all is not right in the world of academia today.  This is all a preview regarding Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness.  This new book is published by Oxford University Press, an all time favorite source of mine for books.

As the website notes in a few bullet points about the book:

  • Provides a comprehensive account of why American academia is dysfunctional
  • Offers evidence that most academic marketing is deeply immoral
  • Examines at length what promises universities make and finds overwhelming evidence they fail to deliver

This being an Oxford University Press publication means that this is not just some cranky and quirky book by a couple of malcontents. We who are in the world of education must be our own most severe critics.  Something is rotten in the state of academia.

Stand by for me to update you as I venture over the next couple of weeks into this book.