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.


Read more:

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.

Evolution in Everything: Handwriting

There’s a whole set of simple but profound lessons that, if I were being lazy, I might call “the economic way of thinking.” We move through a hand-me-down world, solving some problems and creating new problems, adjusting and adapting, and shaping the world that we pass on to the next generation.

I just stumbled on a lovely example in an article about ballpoint pens and the end of cursive. A technological change changed the nature of handwriting, but the structure of human capital lagged behind. Specifically, the widespread adoption of ballpoint pens meant the old way of writing–how to hold the pen, how to form the letters, etc.–was poorly suited to the tool being used. This should have been an opportunity to test unchecked assumptions (e.g. about what the “correct” way to write is) but instead an inefficient practice (cursive writing with a bic pen) persisted in the face of increasing obsolescence.

I particularly like the idea of trying something new (fountain pens) can lead to a realization that some old method has a lot more going for it than was obvious to the non-alert.

I wonder how many other mundane skills, shaped to accommodate outmoded objects, persist beyond their utility. It’s not news to anyone that students used to write with fountain pens, but knowing this isn’t the same as the tactile experience of writing with one. Without that experience, it’s easy to continue past practice without stopping to notice that the action no longer fits the tool. Perhaps “saving handwriting” is less a matter of invoking blind nostalgia and more a process of examining the historical use of ordinary technologies as a way to understand contemporary ones. Otherwise we may not realize which habits are worth passing on, and which are vestiges of circumstances long since past.

How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive

Learning takes time. So in a dynamic society, it’s natural that there will always be some sort of practice outliving its utility. The only other way I see is stagnation: no new methods, no new problems, and we eventually setting into a “making the best of it” equilibrium.

The discovery of each of these inefficiencies creates some pocket of entrepreneurship. Sometimes it’s a massive, market oriented bit of entrepreneurship–like Bic industrializing the process of making cheap, reliable pens. Sometimes it’s a niche community of hobbyists (who might be incubating the next big thing). But that entrepreneurial reaction to inefficiency is pretty exciting. Realizing how my bad handwriting is the outcome of a technical problem makes me want to try fountain pens.

First Contact, libertarianism, and astropolitics

Permit me to speculate.

Earth is currently composed of 193 or 195 states, depending on who you ask. There are several more states that have an ambiguous status within the world order. Of these states, dozens have bureaucracies dedicated to scientific research in outer space.

Now suppose there is life on a planet close to ours, say on Proxima centauri b, and suppose further that the life there harbors an intelligence that mirrors our own.

How many countries would be on Proxima centauri b? Given how difficult it has been here on Earth to establish global dominance, I have to assume that the same difficulties face other extraterrestrial life in nearby star systems. I assume this because if they haven’t been able to contact us, or are unable to contact us, they are likely on the same playing field as us when it comes to intelligence.

What if the United States or its much more libertarian successor, the Federation of Free States, allies with a country on Proxima centauri b, while China allies itself with another country on proxima centauri b and Russia allies itself with a third Centaurian country?

I think this would be the most realistic scenario for First Contact. If there are species out there with higher intelligence and better technology, I don’t think they would even bother with us or with the Centaurians, not even if they needed our help. Would we, as humans, ask for the help of baboons if we were stranded in the desert with a broken arm? Have we ever thought it necessary to eliminate another species simply because it existed or even because it might pose a future threat? I think those of us who can achieve the same type of reasoning based on the same limited cognitive ability of our brains will be brought together in our section of the Milky Way.

Basically, I think when First Contact happens, it will be the same ol’ geopolitics playing out, but instead of being geopolitics it will be astropolitics. All the more reason for libertarians to eschew unilateralism in favor of federation.

Cixin Lui’s trilogy has been on my mind, as has Neill Blomkamp’s short film Rakka.