Publication Date

October 1, 1999

Editor's Note: This is the first of an occasional series of reviews of books that discuss issues and themes relating to graduate education and career paths.

What's College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education. By Zachary Karabell. New York: Basic Books, 1998.

Universities in the United States face an uncertain future. Challenges to the tenure system, economic crises facing both institutions and new PhDs, and the "democratization" of American campuses require a reconsideration of long-accepted assumptions about higher education and the role of its faculty. This is the central argument in Zachary Karabell's intriguing book, What's College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education. A PhD who taught history at Harvard and Dartmouth before leaving academia to become a full-time journalist and author, Karabell has conducted an extensive series of interviews at a variety of institutions around the country, ranging from prestigious research universities to small community colleges. Along the way, he examined recent notable issues in academia, such as graduate student unionization at Yale, tenure controversies in Texas and Minnesota, and the debate over the National History Standards.

Karabell contends that many of the problems facing American campuses can be traced to a fundamental conflict between responsibilities imposed on the faculty by the profession, which he considers analogous to a closed medieval guild, and the real-life needs of the students. To receive tenure and move up the salary scale, professors must conduct original research and publish their findings. Yet, their main task on campus is teaching undergraduates, a responsibility for which they are inadequately prepared and insufficiently recognized. This "myopic culture"—which Karabell suggests originates and is perpetuated in the elite graduate schools where most faculty receive their training—upholds an ideal of scholarship in which students are a secondary (or even tertiary) consideration. As a result, millions of students enrolled in America's colleges and universities lack the kinds of instruction they want and need.

The tension between the requirements of research and teaching is even more glaring among the nation's adjunct faculty, "academia's dirty little secret." The exponential increase in the number of adjuncts teaching at all levels of instruction stands as one of the most serious problems confronting higher education. Karabell cites statistics indicating that if current trends continue the majority of teaching will be done by adjuncts within a decade. Often these transient teachers are recent PhDs or advanced graduate students seeking to burnish their vitae and thereby secure a tenure-track position in a lethargic job market. Unfortunately, the combination of low salaries, no benefits, and high teaching loads make it virtually impossible for adjuncts to advance their own research, which damages their hopes for permanent employment even further.

As serious as the adjunct problem is, the most pressing issue in higher education, according to the author, is "the widening chasm between professors and the larger society" (xii). Karabell sharply criticizes academia's insularity and lack of public involvement. One problem facing graduate students and new PhDs, Karabell believes, is the lack of resonance between their work and the needs of society. Often, graduate students and professors possess knowledge appropriate to a question of public policy, but their writing and research is likely to have little relevance to those public debates because the intellectual framework and language used in academia is largely unintelligible to the broader public. Further, the "guild" frowns upon such public participation, especially for younger scholars, according to Karabell's conversations with UCLA historians Joyce Appleby and Gary Nash (156, 188). Karabell insists that historians in particular can and should be more active in the nation's editorial pages or in community affairs and should strive to make their work more accessible to the general public. This sentiment clearly parallels Karabell's own transition from academic to contributor to the Washington Post, The Nation, and other national publications.

While Karabell identifies a number of problems with higher education, he hesitates to recommend any specific solutions. Instead, he suggests that universities and colleges be flexible and experiment with a variety of methods designed to meet the needs—both educational and economic—of each particular institution. He argues that "no one model of academic employment and no one definition of academic work"—such as the tenure system—will serve the needs of all students, all scholars, and all colleges and universities. "The mold of the research scholars," he concludes, "is far too narrow to encompass the many tasks that professors are now called on to perform" (233). Only by discarding the current academic mentality and assumptions will the needs of the diverse student population of America's postsecondary institutions be met.

Not everyone will agree with the author's indictment of the academic status quo. His attack on the tenure system, for example, will raise the ire of proponents of academic freedom. Karabell fails to recognize that tenure is not always tied exclusively to the publication of original research and exaggerates the extent to which the research scholar is the singular model in academia. These reservations notwithstanding, Karabell’s provocative book should be read by anyone considering a career in academia, particularly in the humanities. If he does not have all of the answers, the questions he raises will confront present and future faculty at all levels of higher education well into the next century.

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