posted on May 30, 2018 13:19
Historian Page Smith offers a scathing and unvarnished assessment of the state of higher education in Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America. Killing the Spirit is an interesting read, considering the work was published in 1990. While many of Smith’s criticisms are not new; in fact, many of these criticisms go back to the earliest years of higher education in America.
Smith, a trained historian, appropriately looks to the past to explore the ills of the modern university system. Smith’s narrative traces the roots of higher education beginning in the 1600s to the modern era. Tension was present from the very beginning. Smith notes that at this time there was conflict between the classical and rational approach. Smith then proceeds chronologically up to the modern era. Before Smith looks to the past, however, he does lay out his themes in an opening chapter. Here, Smith laments the development of “academic fundamentalism,” a lack of emphasis on teaching, hyper specialization within academic disciplines, the alliance of universities to government and big business, and the growth of “big-time” college athletics (p. 1).
Killing the Spirit, while an interesting read, is certainly not without flaws. Notable, while sharp with his criticisms, Smith offers little in the way of solutions. There is one point, however, when Smith suggests that community colleges may offer some hope; nonetheless, he does not return to this point to expand further. Smith, too, lays out this themes in the opening chapter; however, he does not return to expand on all of his criticisms equally. In fact, he does not return to address the problem with athletics at all. Another quibble is with Smith’s tendency to contradict himself. For example, at one point Smith argues that the opening of the canon is a good thing, but then spends an entire chapter lamenting the development of Women’s Studies as a discipline. Further, Smith includes no citations or bibliography. Having access to the source material may have strengthened his arguments and enabled the curious to dig further.
While perhaps not a traditional work for the shelf of an academic advisor, the work, however, is interesting. Killing the Spirit offers a look at the past of higher education in America. This history can assist in explaining to students the purpose and hopes of a college degree. This background, too, can reinforce our knowledge of education when and if we encounter individuals that may be hostile to higher education. Smith is at his best when looking at the history.