Cancel the Toga Party: Prof. Sperber Has Spoken!

When the egregious Bob Knight finally was dismissed from his job as head basketball coach at Indiana University last month, idle students were inspired to come out from behind their beer kegs and show their outrage. One of these passionate campus rebels poured out his heart to a reporter. “All the freshmen, we came here to see Bobby,” he said. “Now we can’t see him. It’s ridiculous.”

If nothing else, it is good to see that today’s students are learning some of life’s tough lessons at an early age. Tragically, young scholars heading for something other than Ivy League settings apparently can no longer make their higher-education choices based on a school’s celebrity coaches. Capricious college presidents are liable to decide that a particularly famous or successful coach is too boorish, or worse. And then what?

With any luck, there is on the Indiana campus a freshman or two who has gone to college to see and hear actual educators, rather than cheer on the embarrassing antics of a buffoon. If so, they will be fortunate indeed to sign up for one of Professor Murray Sperber’s classes. They may not learn a great deal about a backdoor pass or a pick-and-roll-although Mr. Sperber is pretty fluent on those topics-but they’ll come away with an appreciation for the writers Mr. Sperber teaches in his undergraduate English classes.

Mr. Sperber is something of a campus curiosity. He is a distinguished academic and a sports fan. He was among Mr. Knight’s severest critics at Indiana, a position that did nothing for his popularity with the institution’s delusional administrators. He wrote a book called College Sports Inc ., which was a passionate argument against the Bob Knights of the country, the programs they run and the presidents they bully. And he is so committed to the idea of public-university education that he continues to offer undergraduate instruction-in fact, unlike most tenured professors, he refuses to direct dissertations or teach graduate classes. “It’s a lot easier to teach graduate students,” he said. “They’re motivated, they’re willing and you can teach your own research.” Teaching undergraduates the fine points of John Dos Passos, George Orwell and H.G. Wells, however, is a good deal more draining-but it’s why Mr. Sperber decided to become an educator in the late 1960’s.

Mr. Sperber is out with another book about college life, called Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education . If your dearly beloved offspring have been bred for Harvard or Princeton, chances are you will regard Mr. Sperber as a prophet from another planet. If, however, you have broader concerns, such as the national intelligence quotient and just how far it may drop in the coming years, or if-heaven forbid-you have resigned yourself to being the parent of a publicly educated college graduate, Mr. Sperber may have you considering the virtues of home-school university.

(Before proceeding, I should note here that Mr. Sperber graciously mentions me in his acknowledgments for a small bit of advice I gave him when he was finishing Beer and Circus . We’ve never met, but we share a friend and agent in the multi-talented John W. Wright.)

Mr. Sperber argues that the nation’s large public universities-“Bigtime U.,” he labels them collectively-see undergraduates merely as their meal ticket, the fee-payers who make all else possible (i.e., academic research, leisurely working conditions and so on). To attract these fee-payers, to keep them fat-headed and happy, Bigtime U. offers them, yes, beer (as in a “campus lifestyle” taken from the script of Animal House ) and circus (as in big-time football and basketball). What’s astonishing is just how blatant these universities are. In trying to lure new “customers,” as some admissions offices have dubbed students, schools emphasize not the quality of their instruction, but the opportunities for an active social life. Mr. Sperber quotes a Carnegie Foundation study of college recruitment that found that “prospective students and their parents [when given campus tours] learned about festive occasions, but not who teaches undergraduate classes. They visited the student union … but not the library. The winning football record was discussed, but no mention was made of academic honors.”

Mr. Sperber finds this appalling, and points his finger at ineffective administrators and apathetic faculty. “At most research universities, faculty attendance at graduation and other school ceremonies is appallingly low and dropping, mainly because research professors feel little attachment to their institutions and even less to the average undergraduate within them,” he writes.

This is not just an argument against the corruption of college sports, which Mr. Sperber wrote about in College Sports Inc ., and which sportswriters like Phil Mushnick of the New York Post -but few others-regularly lament. Mr. Sperber’s complaint is with the quality of instruction, or lack thereof, offered to the hundreds of thousands of students who pay Bigtime U.’s increasingly hefty fees. The beer and circus may mute students’ discontent, but not Mr. Sperber’s.

Cancel the Toga Party: Prof. Sperber Has Spoken!