Michael Shaughnessy interviews for the Martin Center a vocal defender of the much-maligned American higher education system.
Steven Brint, distinguished professor of sociology and public policy at the University of California, Riverside, has given the public a reminder of why so many students value a college degree. He is an organizational sociologist who focuses on the sociology of higher education; in his most recent book, Two Cheers for Higher Education (Princeton University Press), he defends the university system against the concerns of the current zeitgeist.
1) Professor Brint, you seem to be cautiously optimistic about American Universities. How did you arrive at this conclusion, or am I wrong?
Yes, I am optimistic. Undoubtedly, American universities are plagued by many problems. The most notable are high cost, the very uneven quality of undergraduate education, and the fraught climate for speech on campus. But the critics who focus exclusively on these problems miss the big picture. Between 1980 and 2015, American universities contributed greatly both to our economy and our society.
They produced a huge number of technological innovations and even new industries such as biotechnology and nanotechnology. They trained hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople. Enrollments nearly doubled at both the undergraduate and graduate level, providing mobility opportunities that otherwise would not have existed for many students born into low-income families. This does not sound like an institutional sector that is failing.
2) American universities have been attacked by some as promoting socialism, communism and all kinds of other isms—What is the truth here?
University faculty members tend to be on the liberal side of the political spectrum. There are many reasons why this is true. They tend to be more interested in solving puzzles, conducting research, and teaching than in making as money. Other very intelligent people who are more interested in making money tend to gravitate to business, law, medicine, and engineering instead.