By Alston Chase
A disturbing fact about environmental science is that it is almost entirely controlled by government. The states and feds are responsible for wildlife and therefore can say who can do what kind of research. The National Park Service patrols scholarly inquiry in its domain with an iron hand. Ozone measurements require satellites, expensive computers and big bucks that only deficit spenders can afford.
This gives bureaucrats great influence over public opinion. But in May, these powers were extended further. The Clinton administration, arguably the most hubristic regime in history, established a new regulatory apparatus designed to control virtually every aspect of college life. Authorizing the Department of Education to oversee accreditation, it will soon be enforcing myriad regulations governing everything from course catalogues to student achievement.
This puts those of us who worry about both the environment and academic freedom in a bind. On one hand, maintaining vestiges of unfettered science remains important. On the other hand, the issue seems purely academic. American education isn’t sick, it’s dead, and it’s hard to worry about the health of a corpse.
Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have declined almost steadily for a generation. Virtually every survey ranks our students at or near the bottom among industrial countries in mathematics and science. Almost half the country is functionally illiterate. A recent Carnegie Foundation study found that 60 percent of U. S. professors think the public is losing respect for their discipline. Yet the biggest “reform” to date was the College Board’s recent decision to raise everyone’s scores of the Scholastic Aptitude test.
The implications of this catastrophe for environmental policy are unsettling. To paraphrase writer Rex Stout, if students don’t study chemistry, how will they learn that the air we breathe is composed of oxygen, nitrogen and odium? And if this galloping ignorance continues, where will Utah State University – which just received a $500,000 federal grant to study effects of bovine flatulence on global warming – find experts who know the difference between greenhouse gasses and mere hot air?
This is the climate in which Clinton’s plan appears. Concerned about flyby-night schools ripping off the federal student-loan program, the administration is taking control of college accreditation, a function previously performed by independent regional associations. Under the new system, a “triad” of federal, state and private agencies will monitor colleges and universities to ensure conformance with federally mandated standards.
This has university officials shredding their thesauruses in anger. Administering federal financial aid alone, they observe, already requires complying with 7,000 regulations. This change would add thousands more, virtually destroying academic freedom. And while they concede a few flimflam schools do defraud taxpayers and cheat students, they insist Clinton’s cure is worse than the disease. “It’s like burning down the cathedral to fry an egg,” one college official told me.
This, indeed, may the last nail in the coffin of educational autonomy. But the professorate has only itself to blame. Long ago, it sold its birthright of independence to the federal government for a mess of soft-money pottage. It began relinquishing freedom more than 80 years ago when it formed accrediting associations that worried more about square footage of faculty offices than whether students actually learned something or not.
It signed away its liberty entirely when – beginning with taking defense contracts during World War II – it started sucking at the federal teat. By 1980, this sellout was complete. As I noted in my own book on education, “Group Memory, at the time, “No aspect of campus life is unaffected by government.” After that, the higher learning invented political correctness, thereby creating a climate so hostile to free expression that, not surprisingly, according to the Carnegie Foundation, nearly one in three professors feel there are political or ideological constraints on what they publish.
America higher education is hoisted on its own petard. For years, it paid little attention to “value added” studies that measure what students actually learn. To escape accountability to tuition-paying parents, it sought refuge in federal subsidies. Now, as costs skyrocket, both the public and the piper are demanding payment.
The community of scholars, therefore, wants freedom and money but no accountability-the feds accountability but no freedom. A “free” system of higher education had produced biologists who don’t know a hypothesis from a hippopotamus. A federally accountable regime will punish scholars who don’t genuflect to Washington. One sacrifices quality, the other deep-sixes freedom as well.
The rest of us are left to mutter darkly, “A pox on both your houses of weak intellect.” We wait, wondering when higher learning will be born again. After all, there is always hope. As H.L. Mencken advised, “Let us not burn the universities – yet.”
Editor’s Comment: And you thought all they wanted was to take over health care!
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