Last week I was invited to go on Chicago Public Radio with Northwestern University president Morton Schapiro. Schapiro had recently penned an op ed in the Los Angeles Times arguing that higher education was worth what was being charged for it, that "doomsayers" who argue that the higher education model is broken are getting hysterical for no reason. I spent about a half an hour on the phone with the producer of the show, explaining my views on the subject (to which we will return in a minute) and she told me they would call me back at the appointed hour and Schapiro and I could have a discussion with the host that would last approximately 15-30 minutes.
A couple of hours later, I received an email rescinding the invitation. Apparently she just noticed that the firestorm that erupted a couple of months ago regarding my blogpost in the Chronicle of Higher Education was related to the black studies program at Northwestern:
I'm very sorry that I was unprepared when we spoke -- I did not realize that your column specifically critiqued a Northwestern graduate program. And so I uncomfortable pairing you and the president on a conversation about the value of education when there is still tension and disagreement on this other issue. I sincerely apologize but I'm afraid we won't be able to include you at this time. I so appreciate your time and please know that your perspective and writings on the value of higher education are valid, interesting and intriguing.
I actually suspect that Schapiro was the one who objected upon finding out whom he was going to be debating. (Just wait til the black studies faculty got a load of that show!) But let's take this at face value. We can't have Naomi on to debate the value of higher education as long as "there is still tension and disagreement" on the issue of the value of black studies? So when all that is cleared up they will have me back on? My perspective is "valid, interesting and intriguing," but it doesn't belong on their radio program.
At any rate, since I went to the trouble of reading Schapiro's op ed, I'll share a couple of thoughts. First, the tone is perfectly obnoxious. When Schapiro and his co-author hear concerns about high rates of student debt, a lack of jobs out there for graduates, and predictions about the increasing presence of online and for profit universities, here is their response:
We find ourselves suppressing the urge to yawn, and not because we lose sleep over them. Rather, we are reminded of Marcel Proust's splendid observation in Remembrance of Things Past: "The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been 'great changes.'"
Now, I happen to agree that there will always be a place for the Northwesterns and other top private universities of the world. I also happen to agree that the liberal arts will have an enduring value and that there will be jobs for people who graduate with liberal arts degrees. But I don't "yawn" when I hear that the current model of higher education is broken. (And I rarely cite Proust on the subject -- but I'm probably one of those know-nothing Republicans anyway).
First, students are going into debt for many degrees that are useless or that won't get them jobs and they will have a great deal of trouble repaying those loans. Second, the loans only measure an average of $25,000 per student (which Schapiro says is not all that much considering the salaries of graduates), but the only reason that number is low is because parents are selling everything to help their kids -- taking out second mortgages, emptying retirement accounts, etc. So that number is not the real cost in terms of debt. Finally, liberal arts ain't what they used to be. If the graduates of Northwestern and other top universities were actually getting a strong, broad education and learning how to read, write and do math really well, I would say, fine! Charge an exorbitant amount. But when Wharton has to offer a remedial writing class to the top students in the country, then I worry the education is not worth the money.
Whether public radio is worth the money is the subject for another day. . . .