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November 20, 2023+Steven Lysne
+Academic Careers+Campus Climate+Teaching

Highschoolification (Noun): The Tragic Demise of the Greatest System of Public Education in the World (Book Summary)

It is a quintessential case of cognitive dissonance that I found myself compelled to write a book condemning higher education in America. Indeed, I am so grateful for my education. Discovering the joy of learning has changed nearly every aspect of my life, and I cannot imagine where I would be today had it not been for the set of circumstances that guided me to a small community college in northern Illinois in the early 1990s. Yet in the relatively short span of three decades, I’ve arrived in a space where I no longer see American higher education as an unqualified public good but rather as an emerging public problem. In my new book highschoolification (noun): the tragic demise of the greatest public education system in the world, I describe how practices in K–12 education are becoming encouraged in higher education. In Idaho and elsewhere I see a loss of academic rigor, the coddling of students, and the surrender of academic freedoms to culture wars.

If you read on topics pertaining to education in America, like The HxA Blog, then you know that I am not alone in criticizing higher education. American colleges and universities are not religious enough and too elitist, or have too much government influence. However, I differ in my criticism of higher education, and I imagine that the authors of those sources will disagree with me. Such is the landscape we navigate when publishing in any field, particularly one inhabited by so many erudite individuals.

"Practices in K–12 education are becoming encouraged in higher education: loss of academic rigor, the coddling of students, and the surrender of academic freedoms to culture wars."

Specifically, my criticism is that American colleges and universities are no longer run by academics and scholars who have come up through the ranks to hold positions in administration and governance. They’re increasingly run by career administrators with a business ethos that includes something to the effect of “the customer is always right.” And they’re not necessarily run by administrators who understand the historic and prescient purpose of education. Indeed, in many parts of the country, school boards and state boards of education are elected by the public or appointed by political leaders. These are immensely powerful organizations that can control what is read and taught in schools, and by whom, yet many have no experience in higher education in any capacity. Consider the recent culture wars surrounding CRT and banned books. At least nine states have passed legislation banning or curtailing how critical race theory can be taught in K–16 classrooms, including my home state. But before this serious scholarly concept was being excoriated in state legislatures, it was being vilified by state boards of education. We have nonexperts, through policy or legislation, controlling what the experts can do, teach, or sometimes even say. This is the first problem that I argue in highschoolification: We have the wrong people in charge.

Public higher education is most certainly big business, but it is not a business enterprise. Beginning with the very first charters and state constitutions in this country, higher education has been supported by the public, for the public. It is a collective investment that we, as a society, have agreed to fund for the betterment of every citizen. It is not a business, and students are not customers. Public higher education in America is subsidized by every citizen and at all levels of government because we value education and expertise for their ability to move the country in a positive direction and improve the human condition. We’re still churning out graduates, and in record numbers, though the value of these graduates has diminished. The fact that many college graduates believe in superstitions, conspiracy theories, and political hyperbole that can be easily discredited demonstrates this. This is the next problem that I discuss: We’ve lost our historic purpose for higher education.

"We failed to stay ahead of the information literacy curve, and now we’re struggling to maintain our place in society as erudite knowledge-makers and truth-seekers."

Unfortunately, despite what disciplinary experts may think, the various governing boards of education at my institution believe that all academic fields are created equal and that you can shave off a few courses here and there if it means higher graduation rates. This has negatively impacted our curriculum, forcing college and university faculty to choose which classes or topics to cut, which tenets of our discipline are expendable. And it has disallowed higher education to keep pace with society, to the point that education itself has lost the public trust. We failed to stay ahead of the information literacy curve, and now we’re struggling to maintain our place in society as erudite knowledge-makers and truth-seekers. We’re competing against a universe of bogus information, and nobody believes us. The focus on graduation rates at the expense of curriculum leads directly to underqualified graduates and a less educated citizenry. We’re not teaching information literacy, and we’re still struggling with the concept of critical thinking, which was first advocated by Socrates 2,000 years ago. This is the final problem that I explore: We’re not teaching the right content for the wrong reasons.

In highschoolification I explain that American higher education was envisioned by our nation’s founders, and early pioneers in education, to serve America itself. Public higher education was intended to develop industrious individuals, which it certainly has done. But it was also intended to develop an individual’s intellect such that they would become capable participants in American democracy and compassionate members of an American community. Judging by recent events, this is where higher education in America has lost its way and where we’ve failed in our most important mission.

I am of the opinion that declining standards in K–16 education in America have contributed to pandemic misinformation, the breakdown of civil discourse, and the insurrection in 2021. And higher education is far from producing the capable and compassionate citizens envisioned by our founding fathers and pioneers in American education. Also, some non-zero percentage of the political extremes in America hold college degrees. Thus, higher education has failed. The Jeffersonian ideal that citizens can intelligently contribute to our republic’s cultural, economic, and political future through public discourse, employment, and voting has been compromised, and my profession is, at least in part, culpable.

I have enjoyed a productive career in higher education—teaching, mentoring students, and conducting research. However, they say that “nothing in life is constant except change,” but what they don’t say is that not all change is for the better. American higher education is changing, and the trend is in the wrong direction. I believe that if we want to save our republic, then we need to save higher education. We do this by putting the federal government in charge of K–16 education. Top to bottom.

I believe that the federal government, though a bureaucracy run by career administrators, is the only organization capable of creating the conditions to put the right people in place to save higher education. Only the government is capable of creating fairness and equity in hiring practices, making merit-based appointments, and developing and enforcing educational standards. Currently we have wildly disparate standards being imposed by locally elected, or politically appointed, state boards of education or college and university governors. Blue state or red, these people and entities are doing great damage to the academy by waging culture wars disguised as educational policy or reform. Indeed, some states, in my estimation, are incapable of operating for the public good outside of the short term and their arbitrary borders. They pander to monied interests; set up government, generally, as a strawman to be derided and vilified; and disingenuously claim allegiance and subservience to the working classes while governing for a privileged few.

Only the federal government can be relied upon and trusted enough to get the right people in place, revitalize our curriculum, and reaffirm our commitment to the ideals so presciently envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and others for the collective benefit of the nation. And it needs to happen soon.


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