The Top Ten Myths of Higher Education?

I find this list, by Jay Schalin at the John William Pope Center, to be somewhat suspect.  Let’s look at the very first thing we read (which, in all fairness, might not be written by Schalin):

Here’s a list of ten commonly-held beliefs in academia that don’t square with what the rest of the country thinks.

Immediately we realize that this isn’t about whether these “myths” are wrong — just that they aren’t what the “rest of the country thinks”.  We are thus warned to proceed with caution.  Here’s the list itself — though you should go read the article to find out why some of these are thought to be myths:

1. There is no liberal bias in academia.

2. Everybody should go to college.

3. Academia is more noble than the business community.

4. Diversity makes everything better.

5. All faculty research is necessary and/or important.

6.  Academic freedom means anything goes.

7. Higher Education drives the economy.

8.  Natural aptitude doesn’t matter.

9. Morality is relative.

10. All cultures are equally good.

Numbers 2, 6, 8, and 9 aren’t really things that “academics think” — so to the extent that they aren’t true, they’re just myths, not “Myths of the Ivory Tower.”  Number 2 in particular is something that most professors, I think, seriously disagree with.

Frankly, while some academics may think number 1 is true, I’m not sure it’s anything close to a majority.  I think most people recognize the liberal bias, enjoy it, and see it as something weighing in liberalism’s favor.

I doubt that number 10 is something that anyone thinks, academic or not.

Number 5 is trivially false, in the sense that Newton’s work on Alchemy wasn’t “necessary and/or important”.  So I guess it can be called a “Myth”.  But that’s a pretty facile interpretation of the idea.  To the extent that something resembling  “All faculty research is necessary and/or important” is actually thought by academics, I think it’s true.  All research is important — because it’s part of a larger project.  Obviously one could look back at a theory that has been debunked (say… that Knowledge=justified true belief, or Newton’s aforementioned Alchemy) and say “Well, that wasn’t necessary.”  But we don’t know that until someone debunks it.  Schalin likens academic writing to “an infinite number of monkeys typing randomly”.   He means to be pejorative, but (1) that’s sort of how scientific discovery works, and (2) the monkeys that we as a society choose to fund at our typewriters tend to be very, very smart people.  So we’ve got some decidedly above-average monkeys.

Sometimes articles need to be pointed out because they are good articles that raise important points.  Sometimes an article needs to be pointed out because it is really a substandard, slapdash attempt at scoring cheap rhetorical points.  Unfortunately, I think this is one of the latter.


  1. You make some outstanding points, Michael. I wish all bloggers and commenters were as analytical and even handed as you are in this post. Your line about “scoring cheap rhetorical points” is especially apt. It sometimes seems as if the majority of discussion and debate today (both online and in real life) is thrown out there just to score cheap points, devoid of any real substance or thought.

  2. Miller Smith says:

    Number 10 is false.

  3. Diana Senechal says:

    This is an excellent observation:

    Immediately we realize that this isn’t about whether these “myths” are wrong — just that they aren’t what the “rest of the country thinks”.

    You are right–that renders his argument a bit suspect. Is he more concerned with the viability of a belief or with its popularity?

    If the latter, he is essentially implying that beliefs have no right or wrong (or that the right or wrong is less important than the popular take on them). In essence he shows traces of agreement with myth #9.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    It is not uncommon to line up several things–which are true–and call them “myths”. It’s a propaganda technique.
    But I disagree that people think all coultures are equal.
    Western, especially US, cultures are horrid.

  5. Well Said Joanne… However I tend to disagree with point 2, because going to college does shape you into a better social being.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    What exactly is a “better social being” ?

  7. “going to college does shape you into a better social being”…perhaps true (although I too am not sure exactly what you mean be “better social being”)…but if a person *doesn’t* go to college he will be doing something else…

    Doesn’t serving in the military shape you into a better social being?

    Doesn’t starting a small business shape you into a better social being?

    (Also, sometimes college shapes you into a *worse* social being. People who attend graduate school, whether for a PhD in English or an MBA, often develop a strong sense of entitlement and of callous disregard for their fellow citizens)

  8. Alf Tupper says:

    “All research is important — because it’s part of a larger project.”

    Sorry, Joanne, but I must disagree most strenuously with this. When my wife was in graduate school, I got to read quite a few “scholarly” papers and dissertations, and many (if not most) of them were ultimately trivial examinations of minutiae that could not possibly have contributed anything of value to the field of study. They were just going through the motions in service to the “publish or perish” doctrine. Malcolm Bradbury parodied this wonderfully in his classic novel, “The History Man.”

  9. Diana Senechal says:

    Online Math Tutor, Alf,

    This post is by Michael E. Lopez, not by Joanne. You can tell by the name at the top, in the fine print under the title.

    She has two guest-bloggers while she’s away in Australia, but she’s posting as well.

  10. Alf Tupper says:

    Thank you, Diana. I realized this after I had posted and couldn’t see any way to fix my post. The name is hard to read, so I missed it.

  11. wahoofive says:

    Maybe by “what academics believe” the author meant “what’s the official line of the education community.” The public pronouncements of Education-Industrial Complex certain include the assumptions that all diversity is good, that academia isn’t biased, that college is good for everyone, that every kid has an equal potential for learning calculus, etc.

    The main mistake of the author was to confuse P.R. with actually-held beliefs.

  12. because going to college does shape you into a better social being.

    It’s hard to believe anyone would actually say that. Are people who don’t have the opportunity to go to college worse social beings – whatever that is?


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