Are American Universities Overrated?

Periodic surveys of higher education around the world usually find American universities dominating the top of the lists. But I wonder whether they deserve this high esteem—especially after the last two weeks.

European and Chinese universities tend to feature more large, rote-learning lecture classes, sometime with as many as 800 students in the lecture hall. That’s not teaching; that’s just a large TED talk. Seminars and interactive discussion are much more rare than on American universities, and the small, private liberal arts teaching college typical of America is mostly unknown in Europe. (The notable overseas exceptions to this are Oxford and Cambridge, which combine large lectures and one-on-one tutorials.) And worth noting that most European higher education systems, while free, admit far fewer high school graduates into their ranks. If we actually copied the European higher education system faithfully, liberals and the kurrent Korps of Kampus Krazies (the KKK for short—go ahead and use it) would howl with indignation.

European universities are probably more uniformly left-wing than American universities, if you can believe it. While most American colleges have at least one or two conservatives lurking on their faculty, many European universities have literally none. On the other hand, I doubt European universities have the toxic identity politics and equivalent of Black Lives Matter on their campuses. Not hard to deduce why.

These reflections came to mind while reading Paul Berman’s eulogy to Andre Glucksmann at Tablet. Paul Berman belongs in that small category of honest, tough-minded liberals; think of him as Christopher Hitchens without the flamboyance. No nonsense about Islam from him: see his book Terror and Liberalism from about 10 years ago, or his more recent The Flight of the Intellectuals: The Controversy Over Islamism and the Press.

Andre Gluckmann was one of the “new philosophes” of France in the 1970s—a leftist who broke decisively against the Soviet Union after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago. Glucksmann was a major public intellectual in France, but as Berman notes, mostly unknown in America, which seemed to prefer the obscurantist work of Foucault instead:

I think that not more than one or two university departments in the United States ever invited him to deliver a lecture. In the American universities, no one has bothered to translate his major writings. The fashion for French philosophers in the American universities has always been a fashion for the wrong philosophers. Then again, the universities in America may not be as central to the intellectual world as they imagine themselves to be.

Amen to that. At least, if they keep going the way they have lately they will cease being central to the intellectual world, having debased themselves to the mob.

Berman’s whole article is worth reading, but especially for its poignant closing. The story was posted up at Tablet last Friday afternoon as Glucksmann’s funeral in Paris was under way:

Today, Nov. 13, is the day of his funeral at the Père Lachaise cemetery. Paris is ahead of New York on the clock, and the funeral may have gotten underway even as I am typing.