Summary: James Howard Kunstler looks at the coming collapse of the university system in America. It’s good news. I know of nobody who better describes the decay of American society, aided by his powerful writing. See my note afterwards which provides details supporting his vision.
By James Howard Kunstler at his website. Posted with his generous permission.
Like the fabled spring zephyr came news that the Golden Golem of Greatness, (a.k.a. President Trump) signed an executive order that would withhold federal funding from colleges and universities that do not demonstrate support for free speech. It has been an amazement to behold the appalling, hypocritical suppression of the first amendment on campuses across the nation, with their ignoble speech codes, asinine safe spaces, sinister kangaroo courts, and racist anti-whiteness crusades.
Most wondrous of all has been the failure of college presidents, deans, trustees, and faculty chairs to assert their authority and do the right thing – namely, take a stand against the arrant muzzling of free expression by campus Stalinists. Their craven passivity is a symptom of what future historians will identify as the epic institutional collapse of higher education, which first made itself into an industry like any other moneygrubbing business, and then became a titanic racketeering operation. And now it is all coming to grief.
In the years ahead, you will see colleges go out of business at a shocking rate and the contagion will spread to the giant state systems around the country. In my little region alone, several colleges have published their own obituaries in the last few months: Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont; Southern Vermont College in Bennington; and Hampshire College over in Amherst, MA (which is desperately searching for a buyout). That’s just the beginning of a wave of closures that will send tens of thousands of academic hierophants flooding the unemployment offices while sleeping in their cars.
It’s not hard to see how this fiasco developed and blossomed. In the 1960s, when I was in college, Marxism offered a neat, pre-engineered template for opposing the odious Establishment that blundered into the Vietnam War. Students then at least had skin in the game: the threat of getting drafted into the army and shipped over to die in the jungle for a senseless conflict. In fact, many young men unsuited for college took refuge there to evade the military. Then, with a bull market in Boomer Generation PhDs, the faculties were soon filled with the former Sixties radicals.
Many were Boomer women, who set out to explain and correct the evolving relations of men and women in the office workplace of the day. By then the war was over. The sick economy of the 1970s put an end to the ability of men to support a family and more women were forced to enter the office environment. Meanwhile radical progressivism needed an ever-fresh supply of new aggrieved parties to justify its agitation against the old Marxist bugbears of bourgeois values and structural oppression – and incidentally fuel academic careers. Hence, the multiplication of victims into handy intersectional categories.
By the 1980s, it also became evident that 60s civil rights legislation to end Jim Crow laws had not solved the quandaries of race in America, and that disappointment refreshed the progressive crusade to heal the world of injustice and inequality. Every other effort to produce equal outcomes for different categories of people had also proved disappointing, so now progressives resort to plain coercion to force equal outcomes at all costs, and nowhere is that behavior more overt than on campus the past decade.
The delusion that everybody must have a college education finally turned Higher Ed into a racket, when the federal government decided to guarantee college loans – which only prompted colleges to ramp up tuitions way beyond the official inflation rate and undertake massive expansion programs in the competition for the expanding base of student customer-borrowers. Almost all colleges acted as facilitators to this loan racket, though with federal guarantees they had no skin in that game. Now, outstanding student loan debt is $1.5 trillion, and about 40% of it is nonperforming, in euphemistic banker jargon. The student borrowers have been fleeced, many of them financially destroyed for life, and they have only begun to express themselves politically.
The anxiety and remorse behind that dastardly financial behavior, and the prospect of coming institutional ruin, is probably a big factor behind the engineered social justice hysterias that paradoxically made college campuses the most intellectually unfree – and intellectually unsafe! – places in the land. And turned all those college presidents into cowards and cravens. Since coercion is the only behavior modification college administrators understand these days, it’s reasonable that Mr. Trump use federal grant largesse as a lever to end the structural despotism of campus culture. The stumbling economy will take care of the rest.
Fewer games of beer pong. Fewer marches and demonstrations. More studying.
Kunstler describes in his usual dramatic fashion the future of American colleges. They will be victims of their own greed, irresponsible behavior, and technological change.
For example, colleges compete by showing kids their lavish facilities (far nicer than 40 years ago, which in turn nicer than 40 years before that). The college’s salespeople do not mention that the kid might be paying for these amenities for the rest of her (or less commonly, his) life. It’s like taking an 18 year old to a Porsche dealer, selling him a car without discussing the debt payments. It is more honest to sell crack on street corners. As Matt Taibbi says, we’ve become a Grifter Nation.
The number of employees at US colleges and universities has increased 2.6X since 1978 while the population has risen only 1.4X. Worse, much of those people teach subjects of little or benefit to their student’s lives — and of less benefit to their future incomes. The latter is important, since the skyrocketing cost of tuition has been paid for by debt. In 1962 the Federal government granted $100 million in student loans and $1 billion in 1971. Outstanding student loans grew to $480 billion in 2006, and to $1.6 trillion today. About one-fifth of Federal education loans are over 30+ days delinquent.
This education house of cards eventually will fall from its own irrationality. But technology will help push it over. The current form of education was developed in medieval times – when books were too expensive for individual students, and lectures were needed to deliver information. Continuing this in the 21st century is quite mad. Podcasts and online education can deliver quality education at a fraction of the cost. Without the bongs, nightly pickups, and beer parties — supported by parents’ savings and students’ borrowing.
One decisive factor will be American’s realization that we get fantastic benefits from a small fraction of the spending on higher education – and little or nothing (or negative benefits) from the rest. We spend 2.6% of GDP on higher education, far more than other nations, but get little more for it (our health care system has similar dynamics).
The second and more decisive factor will be American’s anger, paying vast sums to have their children re-educated to despise everything they were raised to value.
We can only guess at the nature of the new system of college education that will replace our current mind-blowingly expensive and low-gain system. But it will certainly require far fewer college employees. Fewer English and gender-studies professors doing “research.” Fewer scholarships for girls’ rowing. Fewer highly paid vice presidents for diversity. If built with a little wisdom, it will provide quality education at less cost to more people than the mess we have today.
About James Kunstler: I used to consider him a doomster. Now I agree with him about many things – as described in : A new, dark picture of America’s future.
About James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler (Wikipedia) worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, before working as a staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. In 1975, he began writing books on a full-time basis. Kunstler is the author of 12 novels and has been a regular contributor to many major media, writing about environmental and economic issues. He is a leading supporter of the movement known as “New Urbanism.”
He has lectured at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth, Cornell, MIT, and many other colleges. He has written five non-fiction books. See more about the most recent one below.
- The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (1993),
- Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century (1996),
- The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition (2001),
- The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Cent (2005),
- Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (2012).
See some of his recent posts about America. They’re all well worth reading!
- Oscar Bytes – About the Oscar ceremonies.
- Marching to Gilead – About our detente with North Korea.
- Sunset Boulevard with Chimp – About Michael Jackson.
- The Blind Leading the Deaf and Dumb – about the resistance.
For More Information
Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
I recommend reading The Student Loan Mess: How Good Intentions Created a Trillion-Dollar Problem by Joel and Eric Best (U California Press, 2014).
- Should we despair, giving up on America?
- The bitter fruits of our alienation from America.
- Andrew Bacevich looks at America’s political rot and describes solutions.
- Important: The bizarre but easy next step to fixing America – more about problem recognition.
- Kunstler describes the ugly fruits of America’s social decay.
About Kunstler’s most recent book
Kunstler’s critically acclaimed and best-selling The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (2005) quickly became a grassroots hit, going into nine printings in hardcover. Kunstler’s shocking vision of our post-oil future caught the attention of environmentalists and business leaders alike, and stimulated widespread discussion about our dependence on fossil fuels and our dysfunctional financial and government institutions. Kunstler has since become a key commentator on the future, profiled in The New Yorker and invited to speak at TED and other events. In “Too Much Magic,” Kunstler evaluates what has changed in the last seven years and shows us that in a post-financial-crisis world, his ideas are more relevant than ever.
“Too Much Magic” is what Kunstler sees in the bright visions of a future world dreamed up by overly optimistic souls who believe technology will solve all our problems. Their visions remind him of the flying cars and robot maids that were the dominant images of the future in the 1950s. Kunstler’s idea of the future is much more sober: he analyzes the various technologies (vertical farms, fracking, corn ethanol) suggested as overnight solutions to the energy crisis and finds none that he thinks will work long-term to cure a society dependent on gas-guzzling cars, in love with an inefficient ideal of suburbia, and unwilling to fundamentally change its high-energy lifestyle. Kunstler also offers concrete ideas as to how we can help ourselves adjust to a society where the oil tap is running dry.
With vision, clarity of thought, and a pragmatic worldview, Kunstler argues that the time for magical thinking and hoping for miracles is over and that the time to begin preparing for the long emergency has begun.