THR Web Features   /   June 2, 2022

When a Jeremiad Falls Short

Tracing the historical roots of the American university’s decline.

Ethan Schrum

( Parker Gibbons via

Reviewed here

The Attack on Higher Education: The Dissolution of the American University
By Ronald G. Musto
Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2022.

There is no shortage of jeremiads about the American university. Does Ronald G. Musto’s The Attack on Higher Education add anything significant to this large literature? Worried that American universities might be on the cusp of a sudden collapse akin to that which befell the English monasteries half a millennium ago, Musto, a historian of late medieval Italy and scholarly press publisher, compares current trends in American higher education to the dissolution of those monasteries by Henry VIII in the 1530s. The book opens with a whirlwind eighty-page tour of the history of the university, drawn mostly from standard sources such as John Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education and American Higher Education: A Documentary History, edited by Richard Hofstadter and Wilson Smith. Following that is a survey, spanning more than two hundred pages, of recent journalistic sources covering topics such as academic scandals, governance, budgets, and the decline of the liberal arts.

Musto promises an evaluation of the health of the American university. His assessment is based largely on how well it has upheld what he calls an “institutional triad” of authority, separateness, and innovation. Musto believes all three to be important to the thriving of any institution. Authority includes all three of the meanings described by Max Weber—traditional, legal, and charismatic. Separateness means the degree of separation that the university maintains from the surrounding society. This ideal is often exemplified in architecture—think quadrangles of manicured grass surrounded by imposing walls. Universities emphasize separateness when they portray themselves as places where students can be insulated from immediate political and economic pressures in order to contemplate great truths and develop theoretical knowledge about fundamental issues of human existence. Innovation means the capacity to advance new ideas and their tangible offshoots. So far so good. Musto implies that academia can make do by upholding two of the three elements of the triad, but if it only upholds one, “the possibilities of its destruction grow larger.” Focusing on these qualities in the postwar period is not new. For instance, Robert Nisbet analyzed how universities had lost authority and separateness in The Degradation of the Academic Dogma (1971).

With this triad in mind, Musto tells a story of institutional decline in higher education. One turning point in this declension narrative is World War II, when universities embraced large-scale federally funded project research. In doing so, “the university traded some of its separateness for an increase in authority and innovation.” But the main shift occurred with the events of 1968 and their aftermath. University responses to the student unrest of 1968, especially that of Columbia University, which allowed the New York Police Department to remove protesters from campus buildings, diminished university authority and “emphasized the end of university separateness.” By 1970, “American higher education had entered a period of crisis that…was to remain constant into the 2020s.” According to Musto, a narrative about university scandals that developed during the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s simply continued this crisis, further undermining the university’s authority and separateness. He interprets defenders of a traditional canon during that era, such as Allan Bloom and Bill Bennett, as willing to give up innovation in order to bolster the university’s authority and separateness.

Here, Musto makes a good point that could have been made even better. He says many people have come to see the university “less as a focus of authority than as a marketplace in which all sectors have their say,” thus making it just another theater of American cultural conflict rather than something protected from such conflict by being set apart. This assessment is basically an update for the culture wars era of what one-time University of California president Clark Kerr, the most influential American higher education leader since World War II, said in The Uses of the University (1963): The American land-grant conception made the university “a heavily traveled crossroads…traversed by farmers, businessmen, politicians,” thus eradicating “the cloister and the ivory tower.” With the decline in authority and separateness, today’s universities are too often left grasping to define themselves by innovation. Musto does provide a nice rundown of the trend of universities creating centers or even whole campuses organized around the concept of innovation, such as Harvard’s “innovation cluster” or the University of Pennsylvania’s Pennovation Center.

By trying to be about too many things, The Attack on Higher Education dilutes its focus and its overall impact. The trouble starts with the preface, in which Musto lays out his aims for the book. On the one hand, he wants to offer a sweeping account of how universities have changed since the twelfth century. What he suggests is a fairly obvious point: that the raison d’être of the liberal arts and sciences has changed over time, and therefore that they might not endure as the focal point of American higher education. On the other hand, he says the book is about elucidating a narrative that has developed in roughly the last half century, which portrays higher education in a negative light and poses “unprecedented” threats.

Although he refers repeatedly to right-wing attacks on higher education, Musto only occasionally cites specific plans from Republican politicians. He claims that “the 1 percent” have taken over governing boards to a new extent and “manipulate the language and narrative of higher education.” He also cites polls that show “overwhelming hostility to higher education among voting Republicans.” On the whole, though, the material he presents does not constitute evidence of a unified or coordinated “attack” on higher education. A fuller portrait of the crisis facing higher education might explain why both the political left and right accuse one another of having taken over the university and ruined it, with the right blaming humanities professors, the left accusing business schools and neoliberal university leaders, and both ascribing guilt to ballooning administrations. What Musto does show is that developments across a number of sectors—many of them within the university itself—have eroded public confidence in the university.

One of the more important chapters, and one of the more flawed, is titled “Exchanging Beliefs: The Anti-Enlightenment. From the Humanities to Technologies.” Musto opens the chapter by returning to his analogy of the English monasteries, which appears only sporadically in much of the book. Here, he uses it as evidence of how a society, in a single generation, removed its approval from an older way of thinking and associated institutions. Next, he implies that something similar has happened in the past three decades, as the focus of public discourse about higher education has shifted from the transmission of traditions and civic preparation to endeavors with quick practical payoffs. The chapter is structured ineffectively, making it difficult to discern the contours of his argument, but he seems to suggest that declining belief in Enlightenment humanism, connected with the rise of theoretical perspectives associated with the likes of Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault, is at least partially responsible for this shift. Among the consequences, in his view, is the replacement of the liberal arts by programs in applied science and technology, business, and health care.

The reality, however, is that much of what Musto decries as a product of recent decades was already well underway in what he thinks of as the heyday of the liberal arts, the 1950s and 1960s. As he indicates, the humanities’ share of all bachelor’s degrees awarded annually reached a postwar peak in 1967, but by then, the main narrative about the purpose of universities had already turned in another direction. A number of books he does not cite, including Margaret O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge, Elizabeth Popp Berman’s Creating the Market University, and my The Instrumental University, establish this point. During the 1950s, university leaders highlighted the urgent national need for engineers, technicians, and “brainpower.” By the early 1960s, state governments and the US Department of Commerce were working to harness American universities to meet technological needs, with one Pennsylvania report from the era calling universities “generators of economic growth.”

Musto finds another sign of the shift to anti-Enlightenment thinking in the rise of the “comfort college.” His analysis of this concept illustrates the unfulfilled potential of The Attack on Higher Education. This line of analysis is valuable because it shows that the attack is coming from the left as well as the right. In a couple of essays for Bloomberg Opinion in 2019, philosopher Steven Gerrard suggested that elite colleges, following ideas popular on the left, have become comfort colleges because they have made diversity and inclusion their primary goal. Gerrard said these are “noble aspirations, [but] what happens when they eclipse critical inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge?” Gerrard raised an important question. But rather than pursue it, Musto leaves it hanging, and moves on rather jarringly to a history of the humanities. This sort of thing recurs throughout the book, leaving the impression that it is a choppy series of brief observations rather than a developed argument.

As he concludes his tour of how the humanities have declined in the wake of anti-Enlightenment trends, Musto examines the declining popularity of the humanities and social sciences even at liberal arts colleges. He does not provide the depth of analysis of this phenomenon found in other sources, such as Victor Ferrall’s Liberal Arts at the Brink (2011), which provides extensive statistics about degrees awarded in various majors at more than two hundred independent liberal arts colleges over a twenty-year period. As I wrote in these pages a decade ago, Ferrall highlighted the dramatic jump in the percentage of vocational degrees awarded by liberal arts colleges between 1986–87 and 2007–08, from 10.6 percent to 28.7 percent. He argued that colleges promoted more profitable vocational majors as a way of funding the liberal arts core, increasingly admitting less qualified students to make ends meet.

The Attack on Higher Education contains numerous errors, which is particularly disturbing for a work that purports to defend scholarly values associated with the humanities. The name of the noted sociologist Josipa Roksa is rendered as “Jarip Roksa.” Musto confuses Cornell University’s first president, Andrew D. White, with its founder, Ezra Cornell. The problem with referring to “Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Affairs Committee” is obvious on its face. John Wesley becomes “John Wellesley,” while American evangelicalism becomes “American Evangelism.” There are multiple block quotations with no citations. This cascade of problems undermines the credibility of the book.

Ultimately, then, The Attack on Higher Education is an unsatisfying book. It offers moments of potential, but most of them are insufficiently developed. Readers conversant with the major issues surrounding the American academy will not find much new insight here. To be sure, the book provides competent summaries of many past and present developments in American higher education. In that way, it can be useful for general readers who have limited acquaintance with these issues. It also serves as a handy compendium of journalism on university issues that have gained public attention over the past decade. In the bigger picture, though, The Attack on Higher Education is just one more jeremiad rather than a go-to analysis of the challenges facing the American university.