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Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class 1st Edition

4.1 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674028173
ISBN-10: 0674028171
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

The grand vision of the public university as a place where people of diverse ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds come together to learn and teach each other has been undermined by a conservative culture war, asserts English professor Newfield. He links the culture war with an economic war on the middle class that has resulted in a diminution of wages and weakening of political influence. The democratizing mission of public universities has been overrun by market forces that have chipped away at the hard-won benefits of the very people the universities were graduating. Newfield documents the influence of the market on everything from funds allocated to hot career areas of science and commerce while the humanities languish to universities outsourcing student services to tiered employment systems. He examines the historical vision of a knowledge society, represented by public universities, and the attacks of conservatives threatened by its egalitarianism, with raging debates over affirmative action and “political correctness.” Finally, he offers strategies for reclaiming the original mission of the public university. An authoritative, accessible analysis of change in higher public education. --Vanessa Bush


Newfield's argument is original, his evidence varied and rich, and his historical narrative coherent. He situates the university in its broadest social context, and shows that the 'culture wars,' far from being a sideshow, have in fact cleverly been fomented by conservatives to reshape the values of the university, the world-view of its graduates, and the economy which it significantly shapes and which shapes it.
--David L. Kirp, author of Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education

In a crowd of recent works dedicated to the changing university and its place in society, Newfield's rich, cogently argued and readable book stands out. This is that rare thing, truly critical history: a solidly researched book that is at once a fine example of the sort of scholarship that the American university still makes possible and a serious argument about the university.
--Anthony Grafton, author of The Footnote: A Curious History

It is not every day that you get a meticulous analysis of higher education budgetary mechanisms within the same covers as reflections on Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And the sheer generosity of spirit that underlies Newfield's rather depressing reflections is deeply attractive.
--Alan Ryan (Times Higher Education Supplement 2008-09-18)

It is not often that even a first-rate scholar and writer manages to delve so deeply into a core problem of his society and time as to come out with an understanding of it that is so complete, so profound--indeed revelatory--as to illuminate the public muddled mind and open the way to recovery. This is what Christopher Newfield has achieved in his book, Unmaking the Public University. The problem in focus is the decline of the American public university...Newfield's thesis is that this decline has been orchestrated by the American Right who, in the 1970s, got frightened by the democratizing influence higher public education was exerting on the American society. Conservative elites felt threatened by the post-World War II rise of a college-educated economic majority--a mass middle class--and started an assault against it. The Right did not dare to openly attack the economic position of the middle class. Instead, they waged culture wars against it.
--Emilia Ilieva (Daily Nation 2010-05-30)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 408 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (May 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674028171
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674028173
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,301,950 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a very interesting book on a very important subject: the reduced funding (over multiple decades) for public higher education. All seem to agree that what was once seen as a public good is now seen, largely, as a private good. In general, those with college degrees make more money than those without such degrees. Thus, they pay more taxes. Hence it should be simple common sense for states to support their institutions of higher education because the end result (assuming that the graduates remain within the state) will be enhanced tax revenue which will offset the cost of education. This is a no-risk, sure-thing proposition. And yet, public support for public higher education has diminished. One straightforward answer to this situation is that if, indeed, a college degree will lead to manifestly higher income there is no need for the taxpayer to subsidize this process at former levels. Individuals will be willing to pay for this private good and the states will get the enhanced tax revenue anyway. The wide availability of student loans makes this an even easier decision.

In the absence of approximately one-third of their former state support, what are public universities to do? They do whatever they can. They gin up elaborate extension programs; they establish cash-cow professional programs. At the top publics they mimic the activities of top privates. They raise tuition. They seek a greater number of (usually out-of-state) `full-payers'. They conduct major development campaigns. They build incubators to facilitate tech transfer and acquire patent income. They `commercialize' in multiple ways. They achieve budgetary flexibility by hiring part-time or long-term, non-tenure track faculty.
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Format: Hardcover
This book has already gotten good reviews by those who appear to have actually read it. (Not always the case here at Amazon, especially if a book is suspected of carrying a political message.) Nonetheless, I think by focusing mainly on what Newfield says about higher education, earlier reviewers may have unintentionally given too much weight to the title and not enough to the subtitle: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class.

Certainly the book is about the undoing of higher education, but in addition it offers a documented and informed description of the bigger picture, the gradual fragmentation and impoverishment of our nation. It is this background narrative that, for me at least, makes the book so good. I admit I've been a bit slow to realize the importance of Cultural Studies, and this treatise, along with the work of Cary Nelson, has given me an appreciation of the field's potential for generating insights and knowledge. Newfield's careful analysis of complex issues, of the competing interests, and how things have come to be the way they are, should change the way most readers see higher education and our changing universities. This is a thoroughly well-researched work, and Newfield provides plenty of graphs, charts, and statistics, as well as copious endnotes, to support his conclusions.

Business majors especially, would do well to read what Newfield, the English Professor, has to say about the rise of Financial Capitalism in the '80s, the cost of accounting, the types of knowledge-workers and their fate, market economics, and so forth.
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Format: Hardcover
Newfield's book is motivated by his "concern about the country's intellectual and imaginative decline". This is a feeling shared by me and many if not most literate people in the U.S. today. Newfield is passionately committed to his profession as a teacher of English literature in its cultural contexts, idea that I think enhances interest in literature. He bemoans the increasing preoccupations of university officials with materialistic concerns, the continuing cutbacks, political controversies swirling around academia, and attacks on cultural diversity. He is clear about whom he holds responsible for these problems: "leaders in politics, economics, and the media [who] have lost much of their capacity to understand the world in noneconomic terms, to understand cultural divergence as its own kind of enlightenment and as in any case a fact that will never submit to political or economic coercion". He makes an articulate case that public universities' problems are due to crass, benighted people - especially Republicans and conservatives.

While there may be compelling aspects to Newfield's case, my review of the history of American university policy since World War II (Manheim, Springer, 2009) suggests that the problems he cites and his own ideological polarization are not primarily due to arbitrary and irrational politically-motivated groups. They are products of a larger set of developments that have gotten submerged by the roiling arguments and causes that dominated the headlines.

Before the major change in U.S. research and educational policies in the 1950s, English literature played a larger relative role in university curricula than now.
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