Women in my life

So, my granddaughter – 12 – says I am “sexist.” She is not completely sure what it means but she knows it’s pretty bad. So, I drop the two boogey boards I am carrying across the beach for her. I think she gets it.

I don’t know how many of you noticed but the more rights women conquer, and the more recognition of women in all areas of life receive, the more angry the average woman seems to be. I know, I know, that correlation is not causation but it’s a good reason to wonder about causation. And how about the surging number of bad and aggressive female drivers? Is it just me making things up in my mind?

My wife Krishna says women are vaguely unhappy because, even if unconsciously, they miss the animals, the catcalls and the wolf-whistles, and a broad variety of bird sounds.

When hard work doesn’t equal productive work

In March 2020, David Rubenstein gave an interview in which he lamented the vanishing of a system in which “hard work” guarantees success. While the source of nostalgia is understandable, there is an epistemological problem with the conjoined assumptions underlying the concept of hard work and also what a “system” promises, i.e. if one works hard, then one become successful. The issue appears to be one of qualifying and quantifying “hard work.”

My previous article “An aspirational paradox” mentions Abigail Fisher and her failed lawsuit against University of Texas – Austin over her non-acceptance to the institution. The case was a painful example of the disillusionment which must follow when believers in the exceptionality of the commonplace are finally made aware of its mediocrity. The Fisher saga represents the modern tragedy of familial ambition: a child’s parents place her on a systemic path, promised by wise public-school teachers and caring guidance counselors to lead to success, only to discover that the end is the furnace of Moloch. Caveat emptor.

The strange, disembodied entity called “the system” doesn’t fail; what fails is individual and collective concepts of what the system is and what it requires. Mankind has a capacity for filling a void of ignorance with figments of its imagination. In general, such practice is harmless. But when a person believes his own creation and builds his future upon it, that is when the ‘systemic failure’ narrative begins.

Drawing again from my own encounters, for many years I knew a music teacher who believed that one must never listen to repertoire. Yes, you read that correctly: a teacher of an aural art form believes that listening to music is detrimental. The person had many long, pseudo-pedagogical explanations for this peculiar belief. His idea was atypical. Professors at the world’s top conservatories and musicians from major ensembles all emphasize listening as a crucial part of study. Listening as a formal component of music study dates to the invention and mass distribution of the phonograph in the early 20th century. Even further back, students attended live concerts.

This teacher had a pedagogical system built around his beliefs, which included that students should neither learn basic keyboard skills nor how to play with accompaniment. Unsurprisingly, students who adhered to his system didn’t progress very well. Problems ranged from poor intonation and lack of ensemble skills to arriving for college auditions with no grasp of appropriate repertoire. Feedback from competitions was kind but completely honest. The more students failed, the more obstinately he insisted that political maneuverings or class biases were to blame. “The system,” by which he meant auditions, was “broken,” designed to not give people a “fair chance.”

Sadly, this man affected a large number of students, many of whom worked hard – practicing long hours, racking up credits, participating in multiple ensembles – only to discover that their “system” was a fraud. All of their hard work was for naught.

There was one particularly heartbreaking case of a young woman who applied to a fairly prominent private university. By her own account, her audition was catastrophic. In the lead up to the audition, she did her best to ensure success; she had two lessons a week, increased her daily practice time by an hour, and played along to background recordings. The amount of work she did, measured in terms of effort and time spent, was brutal. But she didn’t pass the audition and was understandably devastated.

A system she had followed religiously since fourth grade had failed her; moreover, her hard work was guaranteed to fail. There was no way for her to succeed based upon her training. In some ways, this girl’s story parallels Abigail Fisher’s history. For years both put in hours of effort only to discover that they had misjudged and misplaced their energies. Bluntly, these young women worked hard but not strategically.

The failure of these girls was unrelated to the broader “system,” whether that system was auditions or college applications. To argue that “the system” is broken on the basis that hard work is not rewarded is irrational, albeit understandable on an emotional basis. Before rushing off to denounce “the system” for not rewarding hard work, one should critically examine the foundational premise and ask: Was this hard work or was it productive work?

Slate Star Codex and the rationalists

Rick first alerted me to the end of the popular rationalist blog Slate State Codex. Then it was all over my internet. I have never been a huge fan of the rationalist community, mostly because they don’t do history very well, but this is a big deal.

It has also produced some great conversation on both sides of the American cultural divide. Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote an excellent meta-piece on the whole affair. Lewis-Kraus uses “Silicon Valley” as shorthand for the intellectual right. This is more correct than wrong, even though the region votes Democrat, because Silicon Valley is more of a mindset than a geographic place.

Lewis-Kraus’s Silicon Valley is a new, decentralized informational ecology. He contrasts Silicon Valley with the old media: big corporations trying to maintain a stranglehold on “the narrative.” (Lewis-Kraus readily admits he’s part of the old media.) For Lewis-Kraus, Silicon Valley is trying to build an alternative mediascape. Big corporations such as the NY Times are fighting back.

It’s an interesting cultural war to follow, if you’re in to that kind of stuff. I can’t seem to shake my uneasiness about the rationalist community, though. As I mentioned, they don’t do history, or they don’t do it well. They are also into communes, which I distrust immensely. Utopian and communitarian experiments are bad for all of your healths (physical, emotional, etc.). I don’t know how the rationalists ended up on the side of Silicon Valley. My guess is that the big corporations didn’t like what the rationalists had to say, or how they lived, so the rationalists found solace in the decentralized ecology of Silicon Valley.

I think the verdict is still out on who the victor of this cultural war will be. The big corporations have government backing, and they own the narrative bought by most of the American public, but the old media has shown its true colors in how it covers Donald Trump. I didn’t vote for the guy but it’s obvious his administration is not being reported on by the old media; it’s being slandered and attacked, with lies or with small untruths, rather than objectively reported on. The rationalists and their decentralized allies in the Silicon Valley informational ecology at least have truth on their side. Not the truth, but a commitment to the truth by way of discussion, the sharing of information, and fighting to protect the freedom of everybody’s conscience, rather than just their own team’s conscience.

We live in interesting times, and this makes blogging – a decentralized activity if there ever was one – all the more important.

The importance of gardening, isonomia, federation, and free banking

I’ve recently taken up gardening, in a very amateurish way. Right now I’ve got two plants growing out of a bucket filled with dirt. I water them every day. I talk to them. I rotate them so that different sides face the sun at different times of the day. I spray them with water, too. I have no idea what they are. I suspected they might be peppers, but I’m not sure now because there are tiny white flowers that bloom and then quickly wilt away.

I plan on building a few garden beds when I finally buy a house.

I have become convinced that if Charlie Citrine had simply taken up gardening he would not have gotten into all that trouble.


As a libertarian I think three topics are going to be huge over the next few decades: 1) inequality, 2) foreign policy/IR, and 3) financial markets. Libertarians have great potential for all three arguments, but they also have some not-so-great alternatives, too.

1) Libertarians are terrible on inequality. We try to ignore it. Jacques’ debt-based approach to reparations for slavery is as good as any for addressing inequality in the US. In addition to reparations for slavery, I think Hayek’s concept of isonomia is a great avenue for thinking through inequality at the international level. (I even thought about renaming this consortium “Isonomia” at one point in time.) Isonomia argues for political equality rather than any of the other equalities out there.

2) I think federation as a foreign policy is a great avenue for libertarians to pursue. It’s much better than non-interventionism or the status quo. It’s more libertarian, too. Federation addresses the questions of entrance and exit. It allows for political equality and market competition and open borders. It also takes into account bad international state actors like Russia and China. Dismantling the American overseas empire is needed, but large minorities want the US to stay in their countries. Leaving billions of people at the mercy of illiberal states like Russia and China is morally repugnant and short-sighted (i.e. stupid). It’d be better to dismantle the American empire via federation.

3) Free banking is a wonderful way forward for libertarians to address financial markets. Finance is a boogieman for the Left and can be used as a scapegoat on the Right. They’re not wrong. Financial markets need to be reexamined, and libertarians easily have the best alternative to the status quo out there.

A paradox

You know those little floaters on the surface of your eyes? They drift into view, catch your attention, then when you try to focus directly on one it disappears from view. They’re only really there if you don’t look straight at them.

Goodhart’s Law tells us that “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” The same basic logic applies to two of my favorite things: the Internet and college.

The Internet is still a magical thing, but we’ve killed some of the magic by trying to take the Internet seriously. The Internet ceases to provide output worth taking seriously when people actually take the Internet seriously. When you only keep it in your periphery, it’s actually worth taking seriously

Ditto for college. The basic problem with the current system is that we’re all taking it too seriously. That leads to all sorts of specific bad behavior. But it all comes from this root problem. College is only worth taking seriously if we don’t. When college is back in the ivory tower, separated from the “real” world, it’s a place where people can be creative and make non-obvious connections. But once we recognize “hey, that’s a pretty neat thing, let’s make it a one-size-fits-all solution to all of our problems” we kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

My advice for getting the most out of the Internet: don’t take it too seriously. It was only ever meant to be a place for weirdos to do weird stuff.

My advice for getting the most out of college: don’t take it too seriously. It was only ever meant to be a place for weirdos to do the sort of stuff that the rest of the world doesn’t have time for.

Hazony’s nation-state versus Christensen’s federation

Yoram Hazony’s 2018 book praising the nation-state has garnered so much attention that I thought it wasn’t worth reading. Arnold Kling changed my mind. I’ve been reading through it, and I don’t think there’s much in the book that I can originally criticize.

The one thing I’ll say that others have not is that Hazony’s book is not the best defense of the status quo and the Westphalian state system out there. It’s certainly the most popular, but definitely not the best. The best defense of the status quo still goes to fellow Notewriter Edwin’s 2011 article in the Independent Review: “Hayekian Spontaneous Order and the International Balance of Power.”

Hazony’s book is a defense of Israel more than it is a defense of the abstract nation-state. Hazony’s best argument (“Israel”) has already been identified numerous times elsewhere. It goes like this: the Holocaust happened because the Jews in mid-20th century Europe had nowhere to go in a world defined by nationalism. Two competing arguments arose from this realization. The Israelis took one route (“nation-state”), and the Europeans took another (“confederation”). Many Jews believe that the Israelis are correct and the Europeans are wrong.

My logic follows from this fact as thus: the EU has plenty of problems but nothing on the scale of the Gaza Strip or the constant threat of annihilation by hostile neighbors (and rival nation-states).

The European Union and Israel are thus case studies for two different arguments, much like North and South Korea or East and West Germany. The EU has been bad, so bad in fact that the British have voted to leave, but not so bad that there has been any genocide or mass violence or, indeed, interstate wars within its jurisdiction. Israel has been good, so good in fact that it now has one of the highest standards of living in the world, but not so good that it avoided creating something as awful as the Gaza Strip or making enemies out of every single one of its neighbors.

To me this is a no-brainer. The Europeans were correct and the Israelis are wrong. To me, Israelis (Jewish and Arab) would be much better off living under the jurisdiction of the United States or even the European Union rather than Israel’s. They’d all be safer, too.

What I learned in my bachelor’s degree

I took my bachelor’s degree in History between 2001 and 2005. All the people I asked told me that the course I took was the best in the country. I suppose they were right, but today I understand that they were predominantly talking about the graduate program at the same school. A department with a good master’s and doctoral degree does not necessarily translate into a good undergraduate degree, in the same way that good researchers and writers are not necessarily good teachers. Most of my professors were very bad teachers. I hope to be saying this without bitterness or arrogance, just realizing that although they were good academics, they were mostly not good at imparting knowledge.

Perhaps one of my professors’ difficulties in transmitting knowledge was precisely the constant questioning about the validity of transmitting knowledge. Brazilian pedagogy is strongly influenced by a form of social-constructivism created by educator Paulo Freire. Freire strongly insisted that teachers could not be transmitters of knowledge, but that students created knowledge on their own, and that teachers were, if at all, facilitators of this process. At least that’s what I understood or is what I remember from my pedagogy classes. Paulo Freire’s pedagogy is admittedly a translation of Marxism into the teaching field: students are the oppressed class, teachers are oppressors. Freire wanted pedagogy to reflect a classless society. The result, in my view, was that teachers were terrified of being seen as “the owners of the truth”.

My bachelor’s degree had the bold goal of training teachers and researchers at the same time. In my view, this created a difficulty: students needed to learn to cook and be food critics at the same time. It was not an easy task for people of 18, 20 years of age. Most classes ended up being quite weak. Another problem is that my post-Marxist professors wanted us to have a critical attitude: we needed to be critical of everything that was understood as “traditional”. This ended up creating distrust in the students’ minds: if everything is to be criticized, what should I believe? Of course, contradictorily what professors said should not be criticized, especially the proposition that everything should be criticized. In general, the program tended to generate people of 18, 20 years boisterous or confused. Or both.

Another experience of my bachelor’s degree was the encounter with party politics. In my high school, I had little contact with highly politicized people or student unions. The same cannot be said of my undergraduate studies! I met many people who were already involved to some degree with political parties, always on the left. Some people say that Christians are the main reason churches are empty. I can say something similar about my undergraduate colleagues. It is largely thanks to them that I became conservative. The hypocrisy, the aggressiveness, the arrogance of many of them made me suspect that there was something very wrong with the left. It took a few years, but eventually, I discovered classic liberal or libertarian authors and found my intellectual home.

But there were positive things about my undergraduate studies as well. Undergraduate was my first great opportunity to leave home a little more. I met some people with whom I am still friends today. And I had some good classes too. Some professors were more conservative, and largely ignored the department’s directives. Their classes were more traditional, more expository, more dedicated to informing us about things that happened in history, without much questioning. I remember a quote from my professor of Contemporary History I (roughly equivalent to 19th century): “when writing your paper, don’t say “I think … ”. You don’t think anything. When you are in the master’s or doctorate, you will think something. Today, simply write “the so-and-so author says …”. Be able to understand what the authors are talking about. That is enough for you today ”. There were also professors who were able to introduce a more critical perspective but in a less radical way.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment with undergraduate is that I almost didn’t get to teach History. The education system in Brazil is essentially socialist. The government assumes that everyone has the right to free, good quality education. And you know: when the government says you have a right to something, you’re not gonna get it, it will be expensive and of poor quality. The life of a teacher in Brazil is quite harsh. I have several friends in the teaching profession, and I am very sorry for them. Maybe I should have listened to my mom and study engineering.

But I don’t want to end it bitterly! I studied History because I really wanted to be a teacher. I still think that being a teacher is a beautiful vocation. Unfortunately, in Brazil, this vocation ends up being spoiled by the undue state intervention. I also studied History simply because I liked History, and I still do. If I had the mind I have today, possibly I would have studied something else. But I didn’t, and I am grateful for the way my life happened.

What I learned in the Master’s

In my master’s degree, I studied international relations. As far as I can judge, the program was very good. Excellent even. It was a very good two years, in which I was challenged like never before. The master’s degree was very difficult for me. I was very curious about international affairs, but I knew almost nothing about international relations theory. The professors assumed that students were at least familiar with the content. I was not. So, I went through the experience of learning to cook and learning to be a culinary critic at the same time. I had to chase a lot. But it was good. The master’s taught me like no previous experience to study on my own.

Looking back, I understand that the program was strongly influenced by a light form of postmodernism. That was very difficult for me. There was a strong rejection of more traditional theories of international relations, such as realism and liberalism. It was all very new to me, but I knew that being a classic realist was not an option well regarded by the professors. I ended up finding a kind of lifeboat in constructivism. I didn’t want to be ashamed of being a realist, but my intuition told me that there was something wrong with postmodernism. It was only after the master’s degree, teaching the theory of international relations and studying several other things, that I understood that postmodernism is really crazy, something deeply twisted.

Constructivism is largely weird also. The most sensible thing I read in international relations was John Mearsheimer’s offensive realism. Stephen Walt is an author who also made sense to me in my post-master’s life. In short, I admire my master’s program for its academic excellence, but I find the theories espoused by several of the professors completely flawed.

It was very difficult for me to write my dissertation. I did not have a clear theoretical basis, just the instinct that I did not want to follow a postmodern line and the certainty that a more traditional theory would not be well accepted. I wrote the dissertation without having a very solid theoretical basis. But my research, modesty aside, was still very well done. I researched the arrival of the first Protestant missionaries to Brazil in the 19th century.

It was a topic of personal interest. I was a recently converted Protestant, and I wanted to know more about my history. As they say in Brazil, I joined hunger with the desire to eat. My question, which I was not able to ask so clearly at the time, was whether the presence of missionaries in Brazil, the majority coming from the USA, had affected Brazil-United States relations in any way. Even today, I find it very difficult to analyze causality in such cases, as someone would do in the hard sciences, but I believe that with the information I gathered I can defend that yes, American Protestant missionaries affected Brazil-US relations in many ways. Brazil and the USA were predominantly disinterested in each other in the early 19th century.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this situation changed dramatically, especially on the part of Brazil. The USA started to play a central role in Brazilian foreign policy. It does not seem to me to be the case that the missionaries caused this change, but I believe that their presence in Brazil cooperated, along with other factors, to make this happen. Would Brazil change its foreign policy at the end of the 19th century in one way or another? This is a type of question that, honestly, I’m not interested in answering. But I believe it is clear that the missionaries helped the two countries to become a little more aware of each other.

I faced some opposition from colleagues for choosing this topic. One of the things I heard was that, being a Protestant, I would not have the necessary distance to do a good research. I also heard that missionaries would be little more than tourists, and that they would, therefore, have no chance of affecting relations between the two countries. These were harsh criticisms, which still make me sad when I remember them. I see in these criticisms a certain prejudice against evangelicals that is still present in Brazil, inside and outside academia. Ironically, I did not find the same thing on the part of the professors. On the contrary! Every one of them was always very supportive of my research, and in fact, they found the topic interesting and pertinent.

I would very much like to be able to return to the topic of my research with the head I have today, but I don’t have time for that. To some extent, I would also like to go back to those classes knowing the things I know today. But I also believe that I would not have that much patience. I have a better notion of what I consider epistemologically valid or not. I suppose the master’s degree would be more difficult to take today. Anyway, the master’s degree gave me my first job as a professor: I started teaching international relations when I hadn’t even defended the dissertation, and I did it for eight years. It was a very good eight years. Although I am away from this area, I still like what I learned, and I feel benefited by the time I studied and taught international relations.

The importance of biography

There is a now-out-of-print children’s book series entitled “Childhood of Famous Americans,” published as a subdivision of the Landmark Books series between 1950 and 1970. When I was between the ages of six and ten, I was fortunate to be able to read almost all of the books, which were, unsurprisingly, the biographies of prominent Americans written for children. Even when I was little, the books were fairly ancient: the most recent subjects they covered were Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Albert Einstein. Despite, or even because of, their relative antiquity, these books had a major impact on my own trajectory.

This is not to say that they weren’t flawed since they were. Often they were riddled with historical inaccuracies, the quality of writing varied wildly from author to author, and the content could be outright offensive in regards to religion and races. The overall series, however, did a very good job of including biographies of Americans from minority groups, but, depending on the subject, author, and time period, the portrayals of other races could be quite insensitive.

The books all followed the Joseph Campbell theory of story to a T, with the result that they were very good stories. A critic might argue that these biographies lionized or apotheosized individuals in an unrealistic way. While such an accusation would be true, the series was titled “Famous Americans,” not “average Joe Americans.” The important trait of these books though was that they all shared a common theme: stature was a choice and one that was made in childhood or adolescence.

Using Campbell-ian terms, the moment of awakening was almost invariably an episode where the subject realized that the people surrounding him or her were stupid, fearful, and conventional – Mark Twain being expelled from multiple schools, Abraham Lincoln denied an education by his illiterate father (as I said, not all of the stories were tremendously accurate), Henry Clay fighting for his inheritance rights against his extended family, Jim Thorpe struggling against racial and social prejudice throughout his sporting career.

On a side note, there was a remarkable absence of American fine arts figures in the series. Mark Twain was one of a handful of writers that included Edgar Allan Poe and Louisa May Alcott; I don’t recall that some of the more sophisticated writers, such as Washington Irving, Henry James, or Edith Wharton, received the honor. One could say that the absence of fine artists was countered by an equal absence of career military men. Dwight D. Eisenhower had a biography, as did George Armstrong Custer (his was most uncomplimentary). Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant both received a book. I’m sure that there’s room for analysis of a vision of civil society expressed in who the series’ editors decided to cover.

The “Childhood of Famous Americans” series only rarely had a specific antagonist. Some combination of self-satisfied parents, authority figures attached to a status quo, and parochial small-mindedness served as the villains. The subject’s daily obstacles were educational and cultural mediocrity, societal complacency, intellectually inferior peers, and timorous and incapable mentors, who by extension weren’t very good at their job.

Fundamentally, the goal of the series was to create role models for young readers. The model proposed was complete rejection of (and a little healthy contempt for) existing systems. The unifying theme among all the people selected was the tradition of “rugged individualism” and the idea that progress was due to the action of individuals, not that of their communities (recall, the village inhabitants were invariably shown as small-minded, poor spirited morons).

Carl J. Schramm argued in his 2006 book The Entrepreneurial Imperative that the “rugged individual” ethos was an American casualty of post-World War II society. Americans turned more toward the concept of the “workforce,” with its communal overtones, and away from individual achievement and success. The peak of statist, stagnant communitarianism came in the 1970s, the decade in which the “Childhood of Famous Americans” also ceased publication.

Both biography and entrepreneurial spirit speak of a path to personal greatness, a way for individuals to emancipate themselves from their origins if they have sufficient will. The loss of biography and an entrepreneurial ethos indicate an impoverishment in role models. Without role models of individualistic thought or practice, most people lack the originality to conceive of ways of life beyond their current existence. Discontent and feelings of betrayal by “the system,” society, or the status quo are the ultimate result.

Today, we are confronted by the implosion of the post-WWII status quo. To further complicate matters, the majority of the adult population lacks a blueprint for either challenging what remains of the status quo, or for forging a new path. Without the proper role models of individuality, shown in biography, such people are in thrall to the false promise of communitarianism.

How much more progressive is the corporate world than academia?

Academia is a hotbed of leftism and has been for centuries. At the same time, it’s also one of the most conservative institutions in the Western world. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Leftists are conservative.

The recent writings of Lucas, Mary, and Rick have highlighted well not only academia’s shortcomings but also some great alternatives, but what about stuff like this? The link is an in-depth story on how senior professors use their seniority to procure sexual favors from their junior colleagues. There is, apparently, not much universities can do about it either.

If a manager within a corporation tried any of the stuff listed in the report, he or she would be fired immediately. Sexual harassment is still an issue in the corporate world, but it is much, much easier to confront than it is in academia. The same goes for government work. The President of the United States couldn’t even get away with a blow job from a teenage intern without dire consequences in the 1990s.

What makes academia so different from corporate and government work? Is it tenure? Is it incentives? In the corporate world profits matter most. In government, “the public” matters most. In academia, it’s publish or perish. I don’t think this has always been the case. I think the publish-or-perish model has only been around since the end of World War II. Something is horribly wrong in academia.

In the mean time: corporations, churches, governments (it pains me to say this, but it’s true, especially when compared with academia), and all sorts of other organizations continue to experiment with social arrangements that attempt to make life better and better.

Pathologies in higher education: a book, a review, and a comment

Cracks in the Ivory Tower, by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness, brings a much needed discussion of the pathologies of US higher education to the table. Brennan and Magness are two well-known classical liberals with a strong record of thoughtful interaction with Public Choice political economy.

Public Choice is an application of mainstream economic concepts to political situations. One of the key points of Public Choice is that people are self-interested and rational. This drives the choices they make. But people also act within formal and informal institutional environments. This constrains and enables some of their choices to a large degree. In other words, people react to incentives.

The Public Choice approach is not so much a normative handbook, but rather an attempt to explain how politics operate. The application of this theory to understand higher education in the US is a welcome addition to a growing literature on the economics of higher education.

It is perhaps surprising how the subtitle of the book stresses an aspect that tends to be extraneous to Public Choice scholarship: “The Moral Mess of Higher Education”. Of course we all draw on moral reasoning and assumptions in order to pass judgment on economic and political phenomena, but normally the descriptive side is kept separate – at least by economists – from explicit value judgment.

John Staddon, from Duke University, has reviewed Brennan’s and Magness’ book. In his review, he focuses on three main key issues. First, colleges and universities act on distorted incentives created, for example, by college rankings, to recruit students in ways that are not necessarily related to maintaining or expanding the academic prestige of the institution.

Second, teaching in higher education, at least in the US, is poorly evaluated. Historically, it has shifted from student evaluation to administrative assessment.

So why the shift from student-run to administration-enforced?  And why did faculty agree to give these mandated evaluations to their students? Faculty acquiescence — naiveté — is relatively easy to understand. Who can object to more information? Who can object to a new, formal system that is bound to be more accurate than any informal student-run one? And besides, for most faculty at elite schools, research, not teaching, is the driver. Faculty often just care less about teaching; some may even regard it as a chore.

The incentives for college administrations are much clearer. Informal, student-run evaluations are assumed to be unreliable, hence cannot be used to evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion. But once the process is formalized, mandatory, and supposedly valid, it becomes a useful disciplinary tool, a way for administrators to control faculty, especially junior and untenured faculty.

This is not necessarily conducive to improvement in the quality of teaching. Perhaps colleges fare better than universities here, given that their faculty is not expected to allocate a large amount of hours per week to research and writing.

Third, Brennan and Magness offer a critique of what is known in the US system as “general education” courses. In their view, it is clear that those courses are unhelpful in a world where academic disciplines are increasingly more specialized. However, offering those courses is a good excuse for universities to grab more money from the students.

This is where Staddon begs to differ:

Cracks in the Ivory Tower usefully emphasizes the economic costs and benefits of university practices. But absent from the book is any consideration of the intrinsic value of the academic endeavor. Remaining is a vacuum that is filled by two things: the university as a business; and the university as a social activist.  Both are destructive of the proper purpose of a university.

I tend to agree with this point, and I do not think it is a minor point. We can do colleges and universities without football, without gigantic administrative bureaucracies, and without the gimmicks to game the college ranking system. I could even go further and argue that we should do colleges and universities without dorms and an artificial second and worse version of teenage years right when students are supposed and expected to behave like adults. Getting rid of those tangential features of US higher education should help refocus on knowledge and reduce the cost.

Colleges and universities in the US are also expensive and unnecessarily inflated because of the structure of the student loans system, which also generates perverse incentives. But this point has been explained and described to exhaustion in the economic literature. This also has to change.

However, I am not convinced that making universities focus on professionalizing their students would be the best way to go. Brennan and Magness raise some important issues and concerns, some of which also apply outside the US, but the Staddon highlights in his review an important counterpoint: higher education, at least on the undergraduate level, shouldn’t be seen 100% as an investment good, but also as a consumer good:

Higher education does not exist for economic reasons. It exists (in the famous words of Matthew Arnold) to transmit “the best that has been thought and said,” in other words the ‘high culture’ of our civilization. Job-related, practical training is not unimportant. Universities, and much else of society, could not exist without a functioning economy. But — and this point is increasingly ignored on the modern campus and by the authors of CIT — these things are not the purpose, the telos if you like, of a university.

Undergraduate education is there to hand over knowledge to the next generation. It can be small and cheap. You need an adequate building, a small library with the best classic books, electronic access to journals, and faculty that excels at teaching. Courses would be general, comprehensive, and interdisciplinary by definition. The program could last only three years. An optional additional year could be offered to those with an academic profile, where they could pursue more specialization as a bridge to graduate education.

This is more or less the mediaeval model. I am not sure we need to reinvent the wheel in order to deal with the crisis of higher education. What we need is to get back on track – back to the bread and butter of college education. This is a reflection that both sides of the story – those who demand education and those that offer it – need to make.


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In a recent contribution to Notes on Liberty, Mary Lucia Darst has recently commented on the status of higher education during the 2020 pandemic and prospects for the future.

I also wrote about the college trap in the US a few years ago.

Be Our Guest (Sunday Poetry): “Food & Drinks to Rats & Finks”

Our latest Be Our Guest post comes from poet N.D.Y. Romanfort, and it’s another poem. Once again I’m taking liberties in regards to Alex’sSunday Poetry” series and sharing Romanfort’s poem today. An excerpt:

Two-legg’d rodents have seized
the cherished eateries.
For these rats of great size
Mere food scraps aren’t the prize.

Please, read the rest. Enjoy. And if you’ve got something to say and no place to say it, Be Our Guest.

Foundering in academia

For the last couple of weeks, I have been reading and re-reading Gerard Klickstein’s book The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness. Klickstein is a musician and professor who has spent much of his teaching career helping other musicians recover from physical injury or overcome psychological issues, such as performance anxiety. Klickstein argues that the vast majority of musicians’ problems, physical and psychological, are a result of poor formation at critical stages of development. Reversing problems engendered by “unqualified,” i.e. incompetent, teachers is an overarching theme in the book. Reading Klickstein’s anecdotes in which many of his students are recent college graduates, one becomes alarmed at the sheer number of incompetent teachers present in “higher education.”    

Several summers ago, at a music festival, I sat with an opera singer friend and we assembled her audition book. An audition book is a selection of opera arias which a singer provides to producers during the audition process. My friend and I were deep into research and consideration, when another musician, also a singer, joined us. His contribution was to question us as to why we bothered with the book at all.

He went on to reveal that he wasn’t planning on attempting the opera house and festival audition cycle, nor was he considering trying for a choral ensemble. Instead, he was applying for faculty positions at small colleges. He was a recent doctoral graduate from a university which is overall relatively famous but not particularly well-regarded for its music school. At that time, the three of us were roughly at the same level. His experience and education were slightly above average for the types of small, regional institutions he was targeting.  

Behind his dismissive behavior lay a mentality of minimal effort. Why should he go to the trouble of researching roles, evaluating musical suitability, and learning parts when his résumé would satisfy the expectations of small, provincial colleges? He lacked the vocabulary to explain his vision, but what he described was a sinecure. Before the festival ended, he had secured a full-time position at an institution in a backwater of the American southwest.

One side of the proverbial coin says that the institution was lucky to have him – his background certainly was above anything the college could expect on the basis of its own reputation and musical standing; the other side of the coin says that it is concerning that someone like him could see academia as a safety net. 

Now American colleges have begun to furlough staff. As you can imagine, many of my Facebook friends are people who attended and are now staff at small liberal arts colleges and small state universities throughout the country. In the atmosphere of uncertainty, my own FB feed has filled up with people lashing out against a society, which, they insist, doesn’t value them. There is an underlying financial element; few can afford to be furloughed. But there is a deeper issue present: a professional inactivity that has pervaded American small liberal arts academia for the last few decades.  

In truth, financial concerns are more a symptom of professional inactivity than they are representative of some overarching truth about poor pay for teachers. I recall how one of my Columbia professors told my class never to rely on a single income stream. He would talk about how all breaks are opportunities to be productive. He told us about how when he was starting his career in the 1960s, he deliberately accepted a part-time position, rather than a full-time one, so that he could finish writing his first book. In terms of his career, the book was more important than his job at a small city college because the book paved the way for the big opportunities. To tell the truth, it didn’t matter that he taught at a small city college, outside of gaining some official teaching experience which he could have obtained through teaching just one class. There’s a difference between being professionally active and simply being busy or being employed.

There is a species of person who follows the same MO as the singer from the music festival. Academia is a safety net, and the goal is to rush into a full-time position and sit there for a lifetime. Their attitude is that of a career teacher, not a professor. They lecture and grade, however there is no professional contribution or creativity on their part. Such people tend to be barren of original thought and to react with hostility to new ideas or concepts. A quick search of academic databases shows that they don’t write articles, they haven’t written books (their theses don’t count), and they don’t write for think tanks or journals. An egregious example is a college professor who writes movie reviews for popular art enthusiast magazines; he’s been passing this activity off as “publishing” and “being published” for years. 

There is, I know, a perception of a double standard on some level. For example, Kingsley Amis taught English Literature at Oxford for the majority of his career. He published comparatively little on the academic side in contrast to some of his peers, and much of his lighter work took the form of reviews, essays, and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, such as the London Times or The New Yorker. But he averaged a novel a year. Recognized in his own lifetime as a giant of twentieth century English literature, no one questioned his publication record or his ability to teach the field.

The subtle stagnation at the liberal arts college level has contributed to a culture of belief in talent and luck, rather than good decision making and hard – by which I mean calculated and carefully weighed – work. There are many people today who would classify my Columbia professor’s story as one of privilege and make assumptions about a background of wealth that allowed part-time work. In actual fact, he did not come from a particularly “privileged” background: he simply settled on his priorities, thought ahead, and made his decisions accordingly.

One thing one learns very quickly in the arts is that one must create without expectation of immediate payment. Singers learn arias, instrumentalists study concerti, filmmakers shoot reels all so that when the moment is right, they can produce a piece that demonstrates ability and wins a commission. One tidbit my professor included was that he had to write several critically acclaimed books before he began to receive advances for his work. The principle is the same: create first then receive a reward. A person who works according to the parameters of payment is a drone, and it is unsurprising that such people do not create new works, make discoveries, or have groundbreaking insights. If one considers that American small colleges have populated themselves largely with professional drones, one must reevaluate their worth to education.    

A Queens’ Marxist in the Lions’ Court

When I first walked into the conference room, two other girls were already there. One of them caught my eye and with a friendly nod indicated I should take the seat next to her. I did and then observed the girl on the other side of the table.

She was quite striking, well-dressed in the trendiest fashion, and clearly intelligent, but she exuded an agitation and antagonism that clashed with the sleepy serenity of the room and our own quiet desire for friendship. As our other six classmates trickled in, the Girl across the Table never relaxed and though she responded correctly to any friendly overture, she did so with an attitude of suspicion. Puzzled but too preoccupied to give it much thought, I turned my attention to the department chair who was opening orientation.

For the first couple of weeks I was much too in awe of my new surroundings at this Ivy League university to concern myself with anything more than adjusting as quickly as possible. Only one of us had attended an Ivy for undergraduate and she was one of the nicest people in the class. Recognizing how intimidating the new environment could be, she went out of her way to demystify the place for us, and with her help we soon realized that the tranquil, yet demanding, atmosphere of the first day was genuine. We were meant to become our best selves, not to compete insanely with each other. About three weeks in, our entering cohort of nine had settled into a social and academic routine with everyone participating in a cordial, collegial manner, everyone except one: the Girl across the Table – hereafter called GatT. 

Her hostility from the first day was unabated, and now we were its direct target. During lunch, if someone suggested a book, she had a snarky putdown, even if seconds later she would be raving about another book by the same author. One evening a group of the classical music lovers took advantage of free tickets from the school to go to the opera. GatT came with us. Stretching our legs at intermission time devolved into standing in  a circle and listening uncomfortably as GatT made snide comments about how everyone in the lobby was dressed. As we turned to go back in, I heard her mutter something about “bourgeois” under her breath. A light went on in my heard: GatT was a Marxist – puzzle solved! The next morning, GatT publicly avowed her Marxist leanings during a seminar discussion. 

The mystery of her hostility solved, we moved on with our social lives and pretty much managed to maintain a state of cautious détente with GatT. She made her desire to lead a jacquerie against us fairly clear a couple of times a week. This became funny once a casual lunch conversation revealed that eight of the nine of us had some familiarity with firearms; I commented to the friendly girl from the first day that this particular jacquerie wouldn’t end the way GatT thought. Eventually we became accustomed to her outbursts, and it took one of extraordinary absurdity to elicit any reaction from us. The closest anyone came to snapping at her was the time she claimed that our completing assignments on time was an act of class oppression against her. 

One of the other students was the daughter of two economists who had became ardent free-marketeers after spending their youths as equally ardent Marxists; consequently her grasp of both arguments was comprehensive. After losing a verbal bout with her, GatT refrained from practical arguments and retreated to social commentary. One day during our daily class coffee gathering, she proclaimed that if she had known our school was an Ivy, in order to show support for the proletariat, she would not have applied. As the “discussion” continued, she branded us as privileged elitists. Meanwhile, we quietly drank our cheap coffee and pondered the fellowships that made this our most affordable option. 

The remainder of our graduate studies passed in the pattern of endless writing and studying, intense debates on all sorts of topics, excursions to museums and evenings at the theatre or concerts, and of course simply socializing with each other. We tuned out GatT’s insulting nattering and someone always ensured she received an invitation to whatever activity was scheduled. Despite her clear resentment, she usually came. 

In the final term, when the course load was intentionally light to leave room for writing the Masters thesis, GatT disappeared for a few weeks. We learned through her social media that she was participating in anti-austerity protests in Europe and was immediately sprayed with tear gas during a raucous demonstration. Soon after she returned to school, I ran into her. She told me that she hadn’t started writing her thesis yet: the submission deadline was three weeks away.

I haven’t seen GatT since that last meeting, but the rest of us stay in touch. During a dinner with some of the gang a few months ago we tallied where everyone is now. GatT was the only one we couldn’t account for; because of her propensity for agitating, we suspect she might be locked away in a third-world prison somewhere. We also wonder if she ever managed to complete her thesis.     

Be Our Guest (Sunday Poetry): “The Tyrant’s Burden”

Our latest Be Our Guest post comes from poet N.D.Y. Romanfort, and it’s great. So great, in fact, that I’m taking liberties in regards to Alex’s “Sunday Poetry” series and sharing Romanfort’s poem today. An excerpt:

Shoulder the Tyrant’s Burden-
Yield to “expert” decree-
3 Lettered Health Institutes
Control mind and body-
Free thinking doctors? They’re called
Medical Heretics-
Big Tech will silence their noise,
Thus, public thought is fixed.

Please, read the rest. And if you’ve got something to say and no place to say it, Be Our Guest.