Students Must Choose

A flurry of back to school stories about student data marks a renewed emphasis on the core problem of  student choice. Like many on campus, we wonder how to help students make good choices.

We suspect the prevailing–and mutually contradictory–tendencies to help by either a) providing students more information than they can possibly absorb or b) invisibly constraining choices to guide students along pathways that serve institutional objectives. Option “a” emphasizes the rational actor; option “b” the biopolitical subject. Neither seems particularly good at imagining a student who likes the courses they take.

Many agree that students make choices that are highly consequential but have dubious foundation. Consequential because their choices drive enrollments, thus budgets and everything that flows from them. Dubious because students have a limited purview and don’t always seem to decide in ways that appear rational to more mature observers.

Consider the recent study by Alex Ruder & Michelle Van Noy, which shows that Rutgers students are unswayed by information about future earnings when they choose their major. This counterintuitive finding does not keep the study authors from doubling down on the now default solution for irrational market behavior: more data.

The brains behind the Department of Education’s College Scorecard promise to answer such calls by providing ever more granular information to potential students, projecting earnings upon graduation not only from specific schools but also from specific degree programs.

Student services experts want more data too, although of a different kind. They crave better indicators of behaviors that might impair student reason, in accordance with their charge to attend the emotional and medical needs of undergraduate populations ever more stressed out by college.

Concern with student choice is a foundational problem for the US system of higher ed, which took shape in the late nineteenth century by substituting electives for defined courses of study based in classical languages. Unlike the students of the Colonial college, university students would be free to pursue their own interests, within parameters set differently by faculty at various institutions.

The Carnegie unit provided the elective system with a necessary constant. This measure of time and effort allowed radically different courses of study to seem equivalent. Thus was the problem of student choice forever linked to statistical abstraction.

Credit hours measure both student progress to degree and the popularity of individual professors’ courses. Credit hours do not capture the intensity of any student’s or professor’s commitment, nor do they capture outcomes beyond course completion–two persistent lacunae that have begun to attract serious attention.

The 1960s married student choice to demography. National statistics had tracked completions by sex from the late nineteenth-century, but 60s enumerators added new categories and linked them with policy goals. The statistical media of biopolitics—tables and charts measuring the health and well-being of multifarious student populations—are the oft-ignored counterparts to the student activists who loom so large in our picture of the 1960s university.

Student choice was rendered autonomous and political, while subject to more intense investigation and new types of intervention. Those wishing to inform student choice acknowledged that students were not equally free to choose and sought to level the demographic playing field. They were as likely to create extracurricular programs addressing the concerns of specific groups as they were to expand course offerings, a dynamic that Roderick Ferguson describes as the institutionalization of diversity in higher education.

One final shift separates the late-nineteenth century elector of courses from today’s undergraduate: the  tremendous expansion of student loan financing from the late 1970s forward. The more debt-ridden the student population, the weightier choices of school and degree program will seem.

This burden of financial risk is not easily lifted by pointing out that factors outside the student’s control–the demographic accidents of zip code, race, and gender–better predict income than does degree program choice. Students still must choose. Data predicting earnings for degree programs does a disservice, however, whenever it neglects these demographic factors

How, then, should university faculty and professional staff inform student choices?

Clearly, we will not reach the “whole student.” Recruiters, loan officers, professors, and student services professionals each address, appraise, and advise students differently and at different points in their lives. (And students have reasons to keep aspects of their lives hidden from the bureaucracies that aspire to guide them.)

Nor will we avoid enumeration. While some equate enumeration with alienation and suspect its intensification, there is also a good case to be made for more quantification.

Kevin Carey, Director of Education Policy at New America makes that case in The Washington Monthly. Pointing out that that numbers can be analyzed…acted upon and changed,” he argues that “[t]he real tragedy of modern higher education is when students aren’t even seen as numbers—when, in other words, they aren’t seen at all.” Although students belonging to demographic categories might be visible socially or politically, they won’t “count” institutionally unless they are actually counted and thus made visible in the matrixes through which institutions tabulate investments and progress. Extending the biopolitical argument, Carey advocates predictive analytics that will make it possible to intervene before students make bad choices, to manage students by helping them to manage themselves.

We do better to greet the ever more granular enumeration of the student body as an opportunity to rethink the problem of student choice as a whole. The scorecard positions students as rational investors and consumers. They aren’t. The biopolitical option, meanwhile, tends to constrain choices rather than educating them.

Another option might be to identify the options that students like so much that they feel compelled to excel at them.

Universities differ from high schools in the often bewildering array of courses available. Although typically conceived as a problem (of return on investment, student advising, or what have you) this ever-expanding field of choice is also an advantage. It allows students to find options that might uniquely inspire them.

Universities could do much better, we think, in making the range of their offerings visible and available to students. They could borrow an insight from Netflix, for example, and attempt to predict what different students might love. Such an emphasis would run counter to the scorecard information that students ignore, in that it would not prioritize guesses about return on investment. It would also shift the emphasis of biopolitical interventions, by conceiving the student not as a risk to be managed but as a source of inspiration. It would acknowledge the desire to know.

The Faculty: What’s in a Name?

We were just about to publish this post when Chris Newfield issued his summer round up, “Faculty Need Do Better than This.” We’ve been reading similar things this summer, it seems. Newfield’s reading has prompted him to be “increasingly focused on how better methods can help get us out of the blocked debates we’re suffering now.” We are too. One issue is how we understand “the faculty.”

Relentless calls for university faculty to fix what ails higher education are wishful thinking. We can’t seem to do anything in concert. It’s important to understand why.

“The faculty” exists in name only. When academic reformers or university administrators address this entity, they are in fact talking to highly segmented and stratified audiences. No single message can be expected to inform–that is, address and give shape to–this audience. “The faculty” are connected by complex, interlinking, and multimodal communications that bind them loosely, if at all. Unless the diverse dispositions and interests of these audiences and modes of address are taken into account, calls to unified action are bound to fail.

Any effort to address “the faculty” as if it were a collective agent needs to begin by remembering that tenure-stream professors are a minority of instructors. This minority has found it notoriously difficult to represent the interests of their non-tenure stream colleagues. Despite advice to the contrary from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and other professional organizations, tenure-track professors often construe contract lecturers as a threat (while assenting to staffing models that require them). Similarly, departments that rely on graduate student instructors have often preferred to think of them as “students” rather than as employees who might, for example, join unions.

The tenure track faculty audience is itself internally fragmented, perhaps necessarily so. Professing is a solitary profession, a “long lonely job” in John Ziker’s memorable phrasing.

Our work is not well understood. The helpful FAQ “What Do Faculty Do?” provided by the AAUP has not demystified faculty work. University of Wisconsin professors have been reminded of this fact in their running argument with state government about how they spend their time. (The argument has been expressed as a database.) What individual faculty do with their days can be mysterious to their peers as well. Colleagues on any reasonably large campus probably know less about each other’s work than they think they do.

And yet, a cherished story keeps alive the hope that “the faculty” will come together to run the university. Often there’s a good bit of nostalgia involved: once upon a time, the faculty had a greater role in decision-making, but now all orders come from above.

Newfield’s Ivy and Industry (2003) offers a salutary corrective to that nostalgia by treating limitation of faculty power as the American research university’s foundational bargain. At the turn of the last century, professors ceded budget control to administration in exchange for “freedom of intellectual inquiry.” Newfield believes “the faculty” must renegotiate this deal. Over the years, he’s done his best to cajole us into budget meetings.

We favor a more active role for “the faculty” in setting budgets, but the sorry state of affairs described in Making Sense of the College Curriculum (2018) suggests that day will be a long time coming. Nearly 200 interviews conducted by the authors yield a portrait of faculty who cannot even manage to revise the majors they teach. The answer to the question “Why has there been so little curricular change?” over the last fifty years turns out to be that professors don’t want anyone (even their faculty colleagues) telling them what to do. Professors interviewed “defined as essential the academic independence that encourages the pursuit of knowledge and expression of thought without constraint,” observe Robert Zemsky, Gregory R. Wegner, and Ann J. Duffield. Professors respond to change as individuals, they conclude, rather than as a group. We eagerly embrace new pedagogies (flipped classrooms!) because these are under our individual control and thus reinforce a “faculty member’s sense of personal space and independence, of self and personal success.”

Cathy Davidson’s The New Education (2018) offers corroborating evidence that individual professors can be very good at change when we want to. She regales her readers with stories of faculty members who collaborate with administrators and donors to set up centers and launch innovative courses that they then run. These experiments, however, can be precarious, insofar as they depend on the leadership of the professor who launched them in the first place. Innovation often appears as individual accomplishment rather than programmatic change supported by “the faculty.”

Indeed, faculty resistance to curricular planning is a recurrent theme in university history. In the middle of the twentieth century, for instance, a committee of Harvard faculty members developed the grand plan published as “General Education in a Free Society” (1945). The ambition and reach of the proposal was quickly recognized by President Truman’s administration in Washington, which borrowed key policy ideas from it. However, even as the effort was attracting national attention, Harvard’s faculty could only succeed in implementing a diluted version of it, and on a trial basis. Paul Buck, historian, Provost, Dean of Arts and Sciences, and chair of the committee that authored the plan, reported “the Faculty was particularly troubled about the implications of General Education proposals as they affected the freedom of the undergraduate in electing courses, and as they affected the Tutorial plan.” Faculty could agree, that is, to leave the curriculum mostly up to the students.

We want to believe. We’d like to imagine that “the faculty” exists in itself but not yet for itself, that there really is a community of interest that might, in precarious times, rally to a common cause.

It certainly is harder to imagine our colleagues as members of highly segmented and differentiated audiences than as a class that could rise up as one. But it is also more accurate to understand them as so divided. In our collaborative scholarly work, we have learned that to reach any readers among the faculty we have to forgo the desire to reach them all.

It turns out that some of the most complicated of the university’s many audiences reside within. It would be best to think of “the faculty” not as a mass actor, amenable to persuasion, but rather as a puzzle or a challenge requiring greater attention to the diversity of communications used to inform it.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Education will never end racism by changing people’s minds. That’s not how mediation works. The distribution of information affects the distribution of power and vice versa. This relationship requires neither agreement nor enlightenment.

For instance, our fractious mediasphere pits audiences against each other not only by stoking antagonisms, but also by creating parallel universes with sharply divergent assumptions and rules for debate. What one camp calls “affirmative action,” another calls “discrimination.” These terms don’t just name different opinions, they designate different realities.

Milton Friedman’s highly influential argument in support of school vouchers addresses a universe parallel to ours. It has set an agenda for every Republican administration since Reagan’s. In Media U, we ignored it, although we took pains to include other conservative voices. Overlooking Friedman now strikes us as a mistake. The economist failed to grapple with the problem of mediation that is at the core of our book, and in this he tellingly resembles many other influential thinkers we chronicled.

To make a case for school vouchers in 1955, Friedman acknowledged that education has “neighborhood effects.” Like the influential authors of Harvard’s General Education in a Free Society (1949), he assumed that schooling should provide a common benefit in the form of training students for citizenship (see Media U for discussion of this key document). “A stable and democratic society is impossible without widespread acceptance of some common set of values and without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens,” Friedman argues. “Education contributes to both.” For this reason, it benefits not only the individual who attends a given school but also “contributes to other people’s welfare.”

This benefit warrants state financial support but not, he maintains, state control over how resources are expended. The cause of liberty demands that parents and students retain decision-making authority: thus, vouchers.

Segregation provides Friedman a limit case. In a lengthy footnote, he acknowledges that “public financing of the private operation of education–has recently been suggested in several southern states as a means of evading the Supreme Court ruling against segregation.” Although Friedman himself “deplore[s] segregation and racial prejudice,” he argues that the state’s authority does not extend to “my–or anyone else’s–views, whether about racial prejudice or the party to vote for, so long as the action of any one individual affects mostly himself.” In contrast, he affirms the state’s authority to “prevent the use of violence and physical coercion by one group on another.”

Like violence, we would say, education powerfully affects those it addresses. When classes affirm poems as insightful or theorems as correct they do not necessarily create consensus or compel deep and abiding belief. They do establish what counts as knowledge within certain domains. They also reinforce standards for ranking and certification, with all that entails for individual advancement. It hurts to be wrong in class. What pupil has not known that sting?

We are not saying that a course on the Constitution that leaves out the three-fifths compromise or welcomes only white students is the same thing as being beaten by the police. In each case, however, those in authority inflict harm. Moreover, when students choose their classes, they do not decide what they learn in the same way as a voter chooses a party or a candidate. Not knowing what you’re getting into is the essence of the pedagogical situation.

Friedman reasons the other way around. He likens educational choices to airing one’s opinion in order to propose vouchers as a bottom-up solution to America’s race problem. Private actors would be free to “develop exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools.” Parents would be free to choose. Opponents of segregation would “try to persuade others of their views; if and as they succeed, the mixed schools will grow at the expense of the nonmixed, and a gradual transition will take place.” In this appeal to persuasion, Friedman mistakes the violence of mediation for freedom of speech.

In so doing, he marks the edge of the school’s “neighborhood effects” and affirms that training for American citizenship can accommodate institutionalized racism. Because it is a matter of contending viewpoints, he reasons, citizens should be free to use neighborhood money to exclude other citizens.

As if to acknowledge the contradiction between advocating education for citizenship on the one hand and defending public funding for segregated schools on the other, in latter decades Friedman abandoned the “neighborhood effect.” Writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, the Libertarian blogger and lawyer George Leef draws attention to a 1979 publication in which Friedman recounts his struggle “to induce the people who make” neighborhood effects arguments like the one he once made “to be specific about the alleged benefits. The answer is almost always simply bad economics.”

As homo economicus rises, the citizen falls. In 1955, Friedman perceived vouchers as a way to reconcile education’s public benefit with individual liberty. Revisiting the idea in a 1997 polemic, “Public Schools: Make them Private,” Friedman proposes vouchers as merely a transitional step on the way to a fully private system of primary and secondary education.

And yet, a whiff of the neighborhood effect remains. Observing the growing stratification of US society into haves and have-nots, he predicts that “[w]e shall not be willing to see a group of our population move into Third World conditions at the same time that another group of our population becomes increasingly well off. Such stratification is a recipe for social disaster.”

Friedman does not name racialized inequity as explicitly in 1997 as he did in 1955, but he doesn’t need to. This legacy is encoded in the spectre of “Third World conditions” and the “deterioration of our central cities.”

Enter education, again, as villain and champion. “So far,” Friedman asserts, “our educational system has been adding to the tendency to stratification.” Nonetheless, “it is the only major force in sight capable of offsetting that tendency.”

We could propose any number of more directly redistributive mechanisms (reparations, anyone?). Friedman’s appeal to education preempts them, and it does so in a manner that extends the category error that conflates violent mediation with individual choice.

The 1955 article asserted that the state had no warrant to constrain educational choices, even if it had a reason to fund them. The 1997 argument against “government schools” is not that they constrain liberty, but that they do a bad job. Friedman particularly feels that our schools are technologically “backward.” They fail to use computers in “an imaginative and innovative way.” Private enterprise will know how to shake this up, he believes, just like it revolutionized the telephone industry after deregulation.

Young Friedman fancied that neighbours would compete to convince one another about segregation and the best-argued approach would win. Older Friedman proposed that the market will force “innovations in the ‘luxury’ product” that will inevitably “spread to the basic product,” thereby saving our society from dissolution. “Good” education seems self-evident, and it follows the money. “We all know,” he asserts, that there are “some relatively good government schools in high-income suburbs” while inner city schools are failing. Meanwhile, private schools for “elites” are “superior.”

How will we recognize educational innovations as improvements? Because the luxury market adopts them or because they thwart our descent into “Third World” conditions? Friedman believes a sufficiently competitive market will guarantee that educational innovations entail social improvements. This faith we cannot share.

Nonetheless, Friedman’s contention that education should help to reduce social stratification remains enticing, not least because here is one point where parallel universes miraculously intersect. His evolving case for vouchers rightly centers the question of who should determine what a “good” school is and who should pay for it. He correctly reasons that each of us has a stake in the educational decisions others make.

Friedman wrongly imagines, however, that determinations about educational quality can take place absent considerations of the classroom’s potential to harm students. Absent, that is, acknowledgment that schools mediate choices and contribute to a distribution of power. Education’s effects are insufficiently described in terms of “persuasion” or “innovation.” They have to do with thicker, more difficult matters like what can count as history, or whether affirmative action and racial discrimination are at all the same thing.

Envisioned as a means to reconcile shared interests with individual liberty, vouchers fail to grapple with the school’s mediating function. But traditional arguments in favor of public, or government, schools have not fared much better. They too tend to emphasize “improving” minds, as opposed to mediating social relations, and then proceed to argue over questions of funding and administration. One consequence, we have observed, has been a loss of faith in our educational system’s ability to distinguish merit from inherited privilege. Schools must make that distinction, we think Friedman would agree, if they are to counter the violence of social stratification.

Of Majors and Publics

Those recommending that US universities might be improved by simplifying student choices fail to understand both the American academy and its students. Suggestions that colleges ought to limit their menu to a select number of offerings fail to recognize that curricula are structured more like video on demand. What’s most important is who they reach.

Our first post insisted that the universities serve not one public but several. Before asking whether higher education represents a public good, we need to ask: Which public?

Nothing more emphatically confirms the fragmentation of higher ed’s audience than the proliferation of degree programs since the 1960s. This process has affected higher education in all its parts and is generally misunderstood.

California’s Governor Brown recently provided a case in point by proposing Chipotle’s menu as a model for university course catalogs. University of California campuses “have so damn many courses,” he barked. Shifting responsibility for low graduation rates away from budget cuts, he insinuated that fancy pants professors would not deign to offer the classes students actually needed, preferring their “pet projects” instead. Solution: a “good basic education” modeled on Chipotle’s limited menu.

While we too enjoy burritos, Brown’s analogy dangerously misapprehends the causes of course proliferation. Professorial “pet projects” are really not the problem. Institutions create new courses and degrees to compete for students. And while some schools do attract undergraduates with a rice and beans approach–St. John’s comes to mind as an exemplary “limited menu” college–most have found variety important.

Curricular marketing schemes effectively called the American research university into being. The late nineteenth-century elective system put every course and professor in the position of competing with every other for student attention. Ever since, general education has constrained choices by defining “the basics” without disturbing a commitment to student selection. College is different from high school precisely because undergraduates chart their own paths.

Television analogizes these audience dynamics far better than the restaurant trade.

Like television programs, courses are not “used up” when consumed. The best burrito in the world loses its worth once eaten but even a so-so course can have durable value to the student.

Like TV producers, academic administrators invest in talent that they hope will produce attractive content, but they cannot be experts in every field–not even all the supposedly “basic” ones. Deans and department chairs do not evaluate course content like Chipotle managers assess whether a line cook has produced savory beans. They only learn if professors are effective after the fact, once their teaching record has been interpreted.

Like TV writers and directors, professors know popularity is a major criterion of success, but other factors also count: critical acclaim, experimentation, and staying power (reputation over the long term). It’s a complex evaluative situation.

Academic majors offer a way to manage the risk of new courses that may or may not meet changing student interests. Majors make demand more predictable by bundling a set of requirements with a set of electives. Majors anchor marketing, moreover–these days by offering specific career pathways. In the TV analogy, majors are series, courses are episodes. Majors are not meals, wherein chips and a drink complete the bundle.

A restaurant can measure popularity in units sold, but advertiser-supported television requires different means to measure the success of its programs. Third parties, especially the Nielsen company, develop and sell metrics of ratings, reach, and share.

Ratings measure the percentage of total potential viewers who might have watched a particular show in a particular time slot, whether or not their TVs were on. Share measures the percentage of viewers watching TV who watched a particular show at a particular time. Reach measures the availability of a particular show (at a particular time) to viewers in a particular market.

Measures of popularity in higher education have focused almost exclusively on the share of students completing particular majors. Humanists who teach in old, established fields like history and English are particularly obsessed with their recently declining share. (Ben Schmidt offers some up-to-the-minute visualizations.)

Consideration of share alone, however, presents a skewed picture. A ratings-like measure, for instance, might weigh the percentage of all adults who had earned particular degrees. Individual majors would be seen to compete not only with one another, but also with everything else potential learners might do with their time. Back in 2013Schmidt proposed that such a measure would provide a far more realistic perspective on the “crisis” in the humanities than share does.

“Reach,” offers another perspective-altering metric. In our book, Media U, we develop a reach measure for university degrees and reveal that higher ed changed historically roughly in parallel to TV. University curricula transitioned from a “broadcast” era in which majors were fewer to a “narrowcast” era of the sort often associated with cable TV’s proliferation of channels. Among other features, this shift sundered the relationship between discipline and department. Majors increased faster than the number of departments to manage them.

Although Governor Brown has reason to imagine taxpayers might find the resulting array of courses bewildering, his Chipotle analogy is full of beans. A comparison to Netflix would have been equally easy to understand and better capable of accurately capturing the allure and marketing of degree options.

There is no such thing as private higher education

There is no such thing as private higher education. Every college and university responds to public demands. All higher education shapes the affairs of others. It could not be otherwise. In the United States, colleges and universities must engage various publics to thrive.

To engage various publics requires that schools address conflicting demands. Some constituents strive to better themselves while also reveling in campus social life. Others want to solve grand challenges without, however, upsetting the status quo. In Media U: How the Need to Win Audiences Has Shaped Higher Education, we show how such contradictory audience interaction has set expectations for the American research university.

In particular, US citizens have had a lot riding on the expectation that college will sort and certify students based on their merits. For much of the twentieth century, this function anchored the belief that individual talent and hard work could overcome inherited privilege. European industrial democracies tended to address economic inequalities through a redistributive welfare state. In typical fashion, Americans preferred to imagine that the right kind of individual attainment would serve the commonweal. We expected our universities to reconcile the competing imperatives of individual (private) and collective (public) benefits. We expected them to do so whether they were tax-exempt corporations supported primarily by students and alumni or state agencies supported by taxpayers.

It is noteworthy, then, that arguments against “privatizating” higher education seem willing to abandon the claim that certifying individual merit guarantees a public benefit. Prominent recent books by Christopher Newfield and Cathy Davidson provide cases in point.

In Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, “privatization” names a decades-long process with multiple stages that include regular tuition hikes, state cuts to public funding, and increased student debt. He argues that this process has destroyed public universities. They no longer provide educations comparable to those of “elite private” schools. Nor do they guarantee social mobility for their debt-burdened graduates. State systems were built to have transformative effects at a massive scale. Privates were not. Thus, Newfield argues, ruined public higher education all but guarantees rising social inequality.

Similar observations animate Davidson’s The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. There too “elite privates” appear as engines of inequality, and the withdrawal of taxpayer support imperils public higher education. Despite difficult budgets, however, Davidson sees public schools as incubators for new approaches. She grants their classrooms almost magical powers to remake the social order. In community colleges and public research universities alike, her exemplars jettison the exams, grades, and lectures that characterize an archaic “industrial” education. In their place, these educators cultivate collaborative, problem-solving, student-centered approaches. These approaches not only nurture skills more suitable for today’s knowledge economy but also, she maintains, equip students to chart a more egalitarian course for the future.

If Davidson’s faith in the classroom leads her to greater optimism than Newfield, both authors treat “merit” as a dirty word. Lani Guinier’s The Tyranny of the Meritocracy persuades them. Guinier shows how testing mechanisms meant to identify and promote academic merit as a counterweight to inherited privilege have the opposite effect.

Where Guinier calls for a more “democratic,” less “testocratic” merit system, however, Davidson and Newfield seem inclined to tar “merit” and “private” with the same brush. Newfield thinks that the “elite privates” do better because they have the resources. Davidson sees them as clubs that confer benefits primarily through social networking. Both relish the conservative connotations of “private”–old, establishment, reluctant to change–and imply that private school students benefit at the expense of others.

If pressed, we suspect both authors would acknowledge that “elite private” institutions can produce public servants (Newfield has a BA from Reed College, for instance, while Davidson’s is from Elmhurst). Yet they persistently align the terms “private,” “selective,” and “elite.” This strikes us as a symptom.

The “elite privates” are not private. They are the standard bearers of a broken merit system. Neither revolutionary pedagogies nor a reversal of the state university’s decline will reweave the garland of merit. If we want university education to be something other than a way for elites to reproduce themselves, we need to reexamine every ranking mechanism. We need more convincing ways to identify and pay for talent. We need better ways to explain how publics benefit from it and what it is worth.

It may be the case, of course, that Americans no longer expect their universities to harmonize individual and collective goods. (Surveys suggests most of us do, although it’s complicated.) It may also be the case that the wishes of citizens no longer affect how our leaders and institutions conduct themselves. (The public university’s demise could indicate the last gasp of liberal democracy, Joshua Clover argues in his review of Newfield’s book.) Either scenario would make it vital to reclaim merit. If the future seems likely to be very different from the present, it will need all the help we can give it.