I remember sitting in an airport bar with a few bemused travelers listening to the ads on TV. “America’s ignored crisis,” Tom Brokaw blared at us. “Children in poverty. Most people below the poverty line are children.” First one of us and then the rest broke into gufFaws. “What this country needs is a national allowance policy,” one voice suggested.

The ersatz crisis plays the role in the institutional life of official America that drugs play in its private life. It needs them for the highs and spurts of energy that keep it going. The official Journal of Approved Crises, alias The New York Times, has discovered two crises in education and blazoned them on its front page. On June 6, 1989, we were told that people take longer to finish doctorates in the humanities than in the physical sciences (the averages are 8.4 years in the humanities as opposed to 6 years in the sciences) and longer than people did in the 1960’s, when the average was 5.4 years. “Thousands of Americans spend year after year mired in dissertations, demoralized and unable to start their careers. Campuses brim with legends about scholars who spent years toiling in libraries and at typewriters creating a definitive masterpiece, or worse, simply going through bouts of angst while resisting libraries and typewriters.” This is the rhetoric that 60 Minutes uses about the homeless: “mired in,” “demoralized,” etc. On page 21 of the same issue, we hear the Voice of Reason, disguised as Ellen Benkin, director of graduate research at UCLA: “People who are in doctoral programs have been in institutions of higher education for 10 or 12 years, and that is a very comfortable environment.” Dr. Virginia Fromkin of UCLA even gives the reason for the time differentials. There used to be many more jobs waiting for Ph.D.’s in the 60’s. Without that incentive, people take longer.

Then comes the good news, for anyone but a confirmed crisis mongerer, that is. In the next decade retirements will open up half a million jobs in colleges and universities. Graduate students will have a reason to finish their degrees and many fine scholars who could not find positions in the 70’s and 80’s will now have a chance for them. This is good news, right? Not according to the Council of Graduate Schools, made up of 385 deans of the nation’s graduate schools. They have formed a special group to examine alternatives to the dissertation. That is, they are looking for ways to eliminate the dissertation as a requirement for teaching at institutions of higher learning.

A “crisis” in institutional America is an excuse to attack standards. The positions opening up in the next decade will mean a real opportunity for those with earned doctorates who have continued to publish. For whom is this situation a crisis?

“Educators note,” the Times continues, “that more than 70 percent of college teachers never publish another piece of scholarship after their dissertation.” These are the people for whom the coming wave of retirements represents a crisis. They have used the “up or out” system of tenure as a mechanism to keep creative people out of university positions. Now they are faced with a situation in which it will be virtually impossible to avoid giving positions to the best of those who have received doctorates during the past two decades. Their response is simple. Give Ph.D.’s to the nation’s ABD’s, that large horde of ex-graduate students who passed their graduate classes and examinations but never finished their dissertations. (ABD is jargon for “all but dissertation.”) It is no accident that what amounts to a war against minimal standards in our educational institutions is headed by the deans of the nation’s graduate schools, not by the heads of our teachers’ unions.

The same distaste for standards may be sniffed in another Times front-page story from May 10. Despite successful fund-raising programs, the nation’s universities are discretely cutting back on some programs. “Washington University at St. Louis provoked protests from faculty members and students when it announced last month that it was gradually shutting down its sociology department, which was widely considered 20 years ago to be among the nation’s best.” As Oscar Wilde said of the death of Little Nell, the man must have a heart of stone who can read that sentence without laughing. “Johns Hopkins has just begun a five-year plan to reduce costs and eliminate some programs in its arts and sciences school, which last year ran a $7 million deficit. That came even though the university had embarked on a capital campaign that had then raised nearly $500 million.”

The vicissitudes of university budgets are many and various, but nobody is claiming that a major research department is being eliminated. The universities discussed in the article, including Columbia, are shutting down departments that have long since given up striving for excellence. Even $500 million is a limited sum of money. If it is divided up equally among all programs, none of them will amount to much. Washington University and Johns Hopkins should be cheered for making courageous but unpopular decisions.

The Times points out that students will not be able to study some subjects at those schools. Put another way, at issue is “some schools’ ability to maintain top-quality programs across a wide spectrum of academic disciplines.” Very few schools, e.g., Berkeley, Wisconsin, and Harvard, have top-quality programs in many areas. For most schools the real issue is having any top-quality programs at all. A school that squanders its limited resources on maintaining a life-support system for a program that saw its best days decades before will not have the money for any first-rate programs. I recently read of a state university salvaging a Ph.D. program that had not granted a degree in five years because “every great university should have a department of X.” Great universities should have great departments. Every university should have some great departments. The resources, human and financial, do not exist for all universities to support great departments in all areas. The resources do exist to support mediocrity in nearly every field. Professional organizations put no pressure on schools to maintain standards of excellence and creativity. They do raise a ruckus when a department that has given up is eliminated. It is a bitter insight into the hatred of excellence which has become the hallmark of American education.