Ignorance by degrees

Higher education may be heading for a reckoning. For a long time, despite the occasional charge of liberal dogma on campus or of a watered-down curriculum, people tended to think the best of the college and university they attended. Perhaps they attributed their career success or that of their friends to a diploma. Or they felt moved by a particular professor or class. Or they received treatment at a university hospital or otherwise profited from university-based scientific research. Or they just loved March Madness.

Recently, though, a new public skepticism has surfaced, with galling facts to back it up. Over the past 30 years, the average cost of college tuition and fees has risen 250% for private schools and nearly 300% for public schools (in constant dollars). The salaries of professors have also risen much faster than those of other occupations. At Stanford, to take but one example, the salaries of full professors have leapt 58% in constant dollars since the mid-1980s. College presidents do even better. From 1992 to 2008, NYU's presidential salary climbed to $1.27 million from $443,000. By 2008, a dozen presidents had passed the million-dollar mark.

Meanwhile, tenured and tenure-track professors spend ever less time with students. In 1975, 43% of college teachers were classified as "contingent"—that is, they were temporary instructors and graduate students; today that rate is 70%. Colleges boast of high faculty-to-student ratios, but in practice most courses have a part-timer at the podium.

How to deconstruct almost anything

[Academia] is rather like birds on the Galapagos islands -- an isolated population with unique selective pressures resulting in evolutionary divergence from the mainland population. There's no reason you should be able to understand what these academics are saying because, for several generations, comprehensibility to outsiders has not been one of the selective criteria to which they've been subjected. What's more, it's not particularly important that they even be terribly comprehensible to each other, since the quality of academic work, particularly in the humanities, is judged primarily on the basis of politics and cleverness.