A group of notable U.S. academics, journalists, artists, and business people have just this week announced plans for the University of Austin, a new liberal-arts school to be founded near the Texas state capital. The school bills itself as “committed to freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse”—a response to what its founders see as an elite college system in crisis, with diminished academic freedom, a waning commitment to free speech, and a lack of viewpoint diversity. Arguments over these issues have played out in mainstream media for years, amid a growing partisan divide over the broader role colleges play in American life. Have things in U.S. higher education really gotten so bad?

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor in the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the author of Free Speech, and Why You Should Give a Damn. Zimmerman says America’s colleges and universities may be the best they’ve ever been when it comes to teaching quality and the ways they serve large, diverse populations of students. But he shares many of the concerns that the protagonists of the University of Austin are voicing about trends at elite schools, including students and faculty members feeling hesitant to express beliefs that could be seen as controversial or offensive. In Zimmerman’s view, the U.S. education system isn’t doing enough to teach students how to talk to people they disagree with—one of many ways schools are failing to foster citizenship. Meanwhile, he believes, the enormous cost of college and the perception of its political bias has hurt the reputation of American higher education, which has to be improved if schools are ever again to be considered a “public good” and enjoy high levels of public funding, as they did in the last century.

Graham Vyse: The founders of the University of Austin are moving on the belief that higher education in the United States is deeply broken. What do you make of that?

Jonathan Zimmerman: The University of Austin represents some good critiques of higher education, but to say it’s broken misses the fact that there are now 4,700 places in the U.S. to get a B.A. Although these places are under strain and stress in different ways, there are 20 million people attending these institutions. There are enormous problems with the model—but acknowledging that is different than saying it’s broken.

Vyse: Can we say there’s a traditional role that the university has played in American life, which this model has departed from—or which has otherwise changed over time?

Zimmerman: American higher education was a minority institution that only served a tiny number of people and then became a mass institution. In the 19th century, almost nobody went to college, and almost all of those who did go were white men, generally of means. In the 20th century, as the country urbanized, bureaucratized, and became more affluent, you had more and more people going to college. The first great era of growth was the 1920s, largely because women started going in great numbers. Then, in the postwar period—starting with the G.I. Bill in 1944 and going into the 1960s—you saw truly mass institutions.

K. Mitch Hodge

Back when higher education was a minority institution—and that’s a loaded term, because it was for the affluent minority—its rationale was explicitly moral. It was about character. You went to college to become a better man. There was an explicitly civic dimension, because part of being a better man was being a republican—someone concerned about and contributing to the res publica, the common will. In the 20th century, although that civic function was still there, it became attenuated in many ways. The role of the university was now preparing you for the workforce and ultimately giving you passage to a white-collar job.

It’s not a coincidence that, during these same years, the U.S. economy moved from an industrial to a post-industrial model, where formal education—including formal university education—became kind of a sine qua non for self-sustainability. When my wife and I lived in Baltimore in the late ’80s, our next-door neighbor was a guy who’d worked at Bethlehem Steel his entire life, had an eighth-grade education, and owned his home. That’s over. Except for the occasional pop-music star or pro athlete, nobody with an eighth-grade education will be a homeowner again. By every measure, our educational institutions are much better than they’ve been before, but the premium we’re putting on education is entirely different. We live in a world where formal education is absolutely necessary to sustain yourself—and to make a future for yourself.

In the 20th century, although that civic function was still there, it became attenuated in many ways. The role of the university was now preparing you for the workforce and ultimately giving you passage to a white-collar job.

Vyse: To be clear, though, did I hear you say you think colleges and universities are the best they’ve ever been?

Zimmerman: There’s some evidence for that, in terms of whom they serve and how they teach. There’s a lot of terrible college teaching, but especially in recent years, we have some evidence that it’s gotten better—if still not nearly as good as it should be.

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