What should universities do?

The new semester is here so it’s time for me to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to be doing in the weird world of modern American university life. Roughly speaking, the answer is going to be “do the stuff that professors do to help universities do what universities do.” So what do universities do? What are they supposed to do?

Universities occupy a few different niches in society. I’m usually tempted to think of universities like a business. And in that framework, I justify my salary by providing something of value to those students. At my school, something like 90% of the operating budget comes out of students’ pockets.

But that’s an overly narrow view. Students pay to go to school because they expect they’ll get value from it, but they also go to school because them’s the rules–if you want to enter adult society, university is the front gate. In this framework, I justify my salary by serving as a gatekeeper. Even though it’s students paying, the (nebulous) principal I’m obliged to is the collection of people already inside the walls.

But wait! There’s more! Universities are (in no particular order):

  • A repository of knowledge,
  • A generator of new knowledge,
  • A place people go to learn,
  • A place people go to prove themselves,
  • A place people make friends and have fun (in a way that may be hard to replicate),
  • A business (engaging in mutually beneficial exchange),
  • A special interest group,
  • An institution that holds a particular (privileged) position in a wider cultural landscape.

Any one of these functions is a can of worms in its own right. When we start to consider tradeoffs between each function (and the many less visible functions I’ve surely missed), it gets downright intractable. I’m going to focus on the student-focused aspects of university life.

The mainstream view:

University is a place students get educated. This education helps them get jobs because employers value it. Students might also learn things that help them be better citizens.

The mainstream view doesn’t seem far off from what I’ve got in mind until you get your hands dirty and start disentangling what that view says. Here are three big problems inherent in that mainstream view:

  1. The education-for-job myth.
  2. The definition problem.
  3. The one-size-fits-all problem.

The Job-training myth

We’re told that students go to school to learn valuable skills. I think that’s true, but not in the usual way. Any specific skills students learn in school are a) incredibly general, or b) out of date. My students might learn some interesting ways of looking at the world (general knowledge), but a lot of what I teach is completely useless in the workforce (“Johnson, draw me a demand curve, stat!”). But students do learn valuable skills incidentally. They learn to manage their time (ideally), how to be conscientious, and in general they’re socialized so that they can fit in with adult society.

Lately I’ve been thinking of college as a form of upfront consulting. Instead of going to school when you’ve got a specific problem to solve, go when you’re young and have nothing better to do. Since you’re getting the consulting before you know what sort of problems you’ll face in the future, we couldn’t possibly give you exactly the right bundle of knowledge.

College exposes students to lots of different ideas that might combine in unexpected ways. Your class in underwater basket weaving might seem like a waste of time until some day 30 years later you are trying to solve some problem that turns out to make a lot more sense if you think of it like wet wicker (I’m looking at you civil engineers!).

Some of what I (and my colleagues) do helps prepare students for their careers, but mostly I’m trying to help them be better–better thinkers, better able to understand and appreciate, better able to enjoy life.

The definition problem

The word “Education” means a lot of things to a lot of people. More often than not, people use the word without being clear about what they mean. Often it means “job training.” Sometimes it means “enlightening.” Other times it means “making you agree with me.” In practice, it means surviving enough classes that you get a piece of paper indicating as much.

It should be recognized as a vague and nebulous word instead of being pigeonholed. It isn’t a binary state (I was ignorant, now I’m educated). It’s helpful to think of people as being more or less educated, but the state of your education isn’t something we can really objectively compare to my state of education.

There are lots of important but nebulous things in our lives: health, happiness, moral worth. Their vagueness makes them difficult, but it isn’t going away.

It isn’t hard to convince people that education is nebulous, but it is hard to get people to behave as though they really understand that.

Homogenization and commodification

Once people start thinking of education as some objective thing we can pull off a shelf and give to someone, we run into the real problems. This unexamined view leads to bureaucracies that attempt to standardize and commodify education.

Don’t get me wrong, I get why people would try to do this. We want everyone to get education (and moral training, and good health, and…). And as long as we’re worried about that, we’re going to worry about making sure everyone gets the best education possible. But “the best” gives the false impression that there’s one right answer.

A top-down approach isn’t the right way to achieve the goal of widespread education. Attempting to systematically scale up education provision kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. We should fight against attempts to commodify university (which currently happens via accreditation-as-gateway-to-subsidy and the general expansion of bureaucracy through administration).

So what should universities do?

There are different margins on which we can justify our existence, but it’s not obvious how to balance our tasks: teaching, researching, advocating, etc.. Given the high degree of uncertainty, I’d argue for pluralism… different schools (and professors) should be trying different things. As universities adapt to the future, it’s important that they don’t all try to adapt in the same way at the same time.

I think a big part of the problem is that we’ve been too successful at rent seeking. All money/privilege/goodies comes with strings attached, and more money comes with more strings. We’re always going to get a little tangled up in those strings, but in the last couple generations we’ve hamstrung ourselves. Accreditation and assessment have become the most important things a modern university does, which distracts from our more fundamental goals.

A bottom up approach doesn’t mean less education, just different education. A more modest education system would change the mix of costs and benefits faced by stakeholders. Employers might rely less on degree signalling, which means hiring managers and potential employees exercising more judgement in sending and evaluating quality signals. I don’t know exactly what would happen, but flexibility is valuable for the nebulous goals universities are supposed to be pursuing.

But at the moment we seem to be in an equilibrium. Students are expected to go to school, schools are expected to deliver on promises they can’t really fulfill, and we go through the motions of keeping schools accountable in a way that basically misses the point.

So what will I do this semester? I’m going to keep talking about interesting stuff to students. I’m going to keep working towards getting tenure. But I’m also going to quietly subvert attempts to commodify university.

 

Cheap college: Ten Tips

If you’re about to embark on your undergraduate education in the US or Canada, you probably have a good chance of ending up owing some money to pay for your studies and expenses. Can you avoid financial disaster and still end up with a pretty good “education” section on your CV? I believe so, and I’d like to share with you a few tips on cheap college education. They might turn out to be useful, whether you want to go straight to the job market after graduation or whether you have further studies in mind.

I did my undergraduate degree in Brazil. Then, I moved to the UK and completed my graduate education there with a very generous stipend. I also taught in higher education in both countries, including two top universities in the UK. I worked part-time for an institute attached to a university in Europe. Now I work at a major university in South Africa. I know a few things about higher education, and here’s a list of tips for you.

1. Accept a full-tuition scholarship.
If you’ve received an offer of a full-tuition scholarship, go for it. As long as it’s not a loan. No brainer. You’re being subsidised to study full-time. This is your job now. Do a little bit of networking and career skills training, but focus on your degree. Try to do as well as you can. The problem with this strategy is that, quite frankly, the vast majority of students aren’t offered scholarships that get even close to covering full tuition costs.

2. Avoid the athletics trap.
Don’t count on your prowess in sports to put you in a position where you earn full tuition to study. Athletics scholarships cover at most a fraction of the college cost. At most, you’d be able to combine an athletics scholarship with some other source of funding, but even if you get to that stage, you’ll have to figure out a way of earning B+ or A on average with little time to study.

3. Split your degree.
This is the oldest trick in the book. Yet, not enough students seem to follow it. I didn’t know the North American system very well, and I owe this point to Gary North. He explains it on this video. In the US, you can save a lot of money by doing the first two years of your degree at a community college or some other low-cost higher education institution. You can earn an Associate degree and then transfer credits to a four-year college to complete your Bachelor’s degree. One advantage (apart from the financial factor) is that you could do it in the evenings, while you earn some money during the day. Another advantage is that permanent teaching staff in a small college or a community college are gifted teachers – that’s why they were given their jobs in the first place – whereas at a major university professors are rewarded according to their research achievements and teaching might not be terrible, but it’s not necessarily the best you can get either.

4. Try distance learning.
This is emerging as a major alternative to traditional university attendance. You can either earn credits (which you can, later, transfer) or a whole degree at a fraction of the normal cost of university attendance. You can also combine this with point (3) above.

5. Stay with your parents.
Okay, as a Brazilian I didn’t see any problem in staying home for another four years during my university education. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, and it’s up to you to decide if this strategy is worth it, depending on your family’s culture and habits. But the fact is that, even if your parents charge you some rent, they won’t charge as much as the average university dorm would. This means you can save. Plus there won’t be any learning curves related to living in a completely new locality. This strategy requires you to do either a distance-learning degree or to attend your local college, and you can combine this with points (3) and (4) above.

6. Distance learning abroad.
This can be combined with (3), (4) and (5) above. The truth is, most employers don’t care very much about where you got your undergraduate education, except if the place is one of the top five or ten universities in the country. Higher education in the UK is slightly cheaper (on average) than in the US, and often much cheaper if you’re doing it online. You can register at the Open University, or at the University of London’s international programmes. Depending on the area of study, you can even do a distance degree part-time while you work, paying for each course at a time. The University of Aberdeen, for example, offers a distance degree in Religious Studies along those lines. If you give up halfway, you can still earn a CHE degree after completing the first year, a HE Diploma after two years, and the undergraduate course in the UK normally lasts for three years (except, normally, for Scotland).

If you want to save even more money and benefit from favourable exchange rates, you could also apply to study at the University of South Africa (UNISA), one of the world’s largest universities. UNISA has a very good reputation. Remember Nelson Mandela? He earned a degree there. For South Africans, each year of study costs around 1,000 dollars, and if you live abroad, you need to pay extra, but not a whole lot more. There are no classes. Normally, you use multimedia material, lots of written material, and travel to some place in your country where you can do the exams. So you need to factor in the cost of travel, but it still might be worth it. Other South African universities, such as North-West University, also offer distance degrees for certain fields.

7. Move abroad.
This is also becoming more of an alternative for North Americans. In Germany, for example, you can register at a university, as long as you can prove you know the German language well, and get a degree from some of the top universities in the world. The downside is the learning curve of moving abroad, visa bureaucracy and, perhaps, the cost of living in Europe might not be worth it. For example, you could pay low tuition fees in Finland, but it’s not that cheap to live there. For a tuition fee of around 1,000 Euros per year you can also do a degree in Portugal or Spain. Tuition fees in France and Italy are also relatively cheap. All this assumes you can prove you know the local language well enough to register. Depending on where you go, the case for doing a degree abroad is even stronger. In Portugal and Spain, an undergraduate degree normally takes four years. In Italy and France, it depends. In Germany, it normally takes three. This means you save a whole year of expenses.

8. Erasmus+.
If you decide to do your degree in Europe, you can still end up experiencing campus life and networking in North America. The reason is that students at European universities can be selected to do a year abroad under the Erasmus+ programme, and some of the partner universities are from North America. This is not very easy, but what I mean to say is simply that going abroad doesn’t mean abandoning any hope of experiencing student life in North America.

9. Cut corners while still following the rules.
You should thank Gary North for pointing this out. In a North American degree, you must do a number of credits, including electives or credits you can choose, as part of the total number of credits you must earn to obtain the degree. You can cut corners and save time and money by learning independently and then doing a credit-awarding exam. Some of the exams you can do are for general courses you’d end up doing as an elective anyway.

10. Make sure you do French and German.
How does this relate to “cheap college”? I confess there’s no direct relation. But I’d still urge you to do French and German as electives, particularly if they’re “for reading knowledge“. Those are intensive courses that get you to be able to read scholarly work in French or German by the end of a semester. This might not in itself make your college life cheaper now, but it will get you some skills you can use in the future. It gives you a head start in applying for the top, well-funded, PhD programmes in the US and Canada, in case that’s what you’re planning to do. Most PhD courses require you to have reading knowledge of at least one, if not two, of these languages. You might as well do it now. Moreover, if you just want to go to the workplace after you graduate, this can also give you a little advantage over the competition. While it doesn’t necessarily make your college any cheaper, this strategy will make your life easier by adding another relevant item to your CV which might turn out to be very useful in the near future.

I hope those tips can be useful. Maybe you’re even reconsidering whether you should really get deep into debt in order to earn a degree. Well, here’s my appeal. Please reconsider. Student loans may be common. Some even call this kind of debt an investment. But it’s not healthy to owe tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars when you’re just 22 or 23 and under pressure to find a good job to pay that money back. You want to be free. Maybe you want to go to a well-funded graduate programme without that stress. Maybe you want to get married. Who knows? Before accepting a loan to finance your education, please consider these alternative options. I urge you.

Before concluding, a disclaimer. I’m not saying any of these tips will work in every case. Be responsible and make sure you understand the details and implications of any decisions you make. Check, for example, if your target university or college will accept credit transfers from the place where you obtained those credits. Read the small print. But this is more or less what you’d be doing if you accepted a loan – you’d read the small print, right?

SOTU: a Masterwork of Co-option.

Sheila Broflovski ‘solves’ the ‘problem’ of ‘obscenity’.

A professor of Political Science at my school described the modern left-right paradigm for the class today — to paraphrase, he summed up the political landscape of the US with the all-too familiar perspective: ‘conservatives want less government, and liberals want more government’.

I opined, silently, in my seat.  Sensing my disapproval, the professor asked if anyone had a differing perspective on the country’s political spectrum.  I raised my hand and pointed out the perspective of this oft-regurgitated axiom of political theory.  rephrased the point: Conservatives want liberty, and Liberals want safety.  When it was suggested by a classmate that I was coloring the axiom to suit my political bent, I defended my choice of language.  This phrasing, I argued, is the happy middle ground between the original, popular formulation that the professor used, and a statement that more closely aligns with my actual opinion: Conservatives want freedom, and Liberals want slavery.

When placed together, these three phrasings of the same observation illustrate the powerful effect nomenclature can have on a statement — and sheds a pinhole of light onto the vastness of the power of language analysis with respect to ideology:

Conservatives want less government, and Liberals want more government.

Conservatives want liberty, and Liberals want safety.

Conservatives want you to be free, and Liberals want you to be a slave. 

The words we chose to use when we frame our thoughts betray our underlying perspective.  Language is the seat of understanding, and can be deconstructed to suggest motivation and perspective.  Analyzing the language used by self-styled ‘progressive liberals’  (forgive the quotes — the term itself is completely removed from cogency as a representation of meaning, as is ‘conservative’.  These two terms as used in modern US politics do not come anywhere near connoting accurate definitions) yields a lexicon that I dub the language of Co-option.  This liberal dictionary is used by a vast majority of the public out of rote; most people do not consider deeply the meaning of the language they use.  Those that speak this dialect knowingly craft the language, and therefore, the thinking, of the larger public who adopts the dialect and spreads the meme and built-in collectivist programming therein.

This Language of Co-option is the language of our classrooms.  It is the language of our politicians.  It is Hegel.  It is Sociology.

Let’s vivisect the following liberal sociological speech pattern:

is bad for society.  We should do so that happens instead.”

To make the point that much clearer, let’s translate the above formulation into political rhetoric:

“For American families, x is a real problem, so our administration is committed to policy so that z will result.”

To define our terms:  the value in this construction represents a ‘problem’ — to be specific, some suggested verifiable disadvantageous phenomena, that would be mitigated by taking action.  These instances exist; we can plug in some terms for our variables to create cogent statements:  Suffocating is problematic for humans, therefore humans should breathe.  This construction is cogent because human beings need to breathe in order to avoid suffocation, which is indeed, harmful to humans.  However, such statements rarely provide people with new insights, because cause and effect tend to be plainly apparent; most everyone knows that they need to breathe to live.  It seems tedious to think such obvious statements would warrant comment, let alone, say, a State of the Union address.

The power of this statement only manifests when coupled with action — the y variable.  The point of x, of stating an obvious ‘problem’, is merely to gain the agreement of the audience to the that will follow.  In fact, in political speech, and need not have any real connection at all.  This effect has been pointed out by others, including the research of behaviorist Ellen Langer, who’s research suggests merely by adding any explanation to a request one can improve the chance of a ‘yes’ in response.

For example, take this phrase from the State of the Union Address last night:

“There are other steps we can take to help families make ends meet, and few are more effective at reducing inequality and helping families pull themselves up through hard work than the Earned Income Tax Credit.”

to simplify:  “Poverty (x) is a problem for people, and we can fix inequality (z) with the EITC (y).”

Let’s break it down critically.  Poverty is always a problem for a family, as it is averse to survival.  If you don’t eat, you starve — as obvious as the sun shining in the sky.  This statement alone is almost as bereft of importance as ‘nice day, huh?’ or ‘how about those (insert local sports team name)!’ The President must have had a reason to make the comment.  The statement made in this way implies poverty is a fixable problem in society, rather than a product of the human condition or the laws of our natural world.  The first law of the human condition is scarcity; there is never enough of any resource to satisfy demand in any economy.  When coupled with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, any natural system in the universe behaves the same way.  POTUS makes the statement about poverty implying a collective problem that can be solved by some action.

The showstopper for libertarians is usually y.  The solution to the problem offered by the state is ALWAYS aggressive force.  In the above example, that aggression is in the form of extortion — specifically, theft of property through threat of violent action via taxation.  This is stated in a positive light as phrased; the Earned Income Tax Credit is sold to the public as a tax break for some people, but comes at the expense of everyone else.  The fact that your government is extorting less money from some than from others is aptly defined as ‘inequality’, but this obvious truth is distorted and reversed completely with Co-optive language to masquerade as benevolence, yielding the aberration cited.

This construct is the essence of the Hegelian ‘crisis, reaction, solution’, and is a hallmark of Co-optive speech and thought, and permeates our zeitgeist.  Freedom-minded individuals hear this language and know just how ubiquitous it is in society — keep it in mind the next time you hear someone spray about what ‘We’ must ‘do’.  Co-option is built in to the culture and mindset of authoritarianism, and in fact, the democratic process itself as naked tyranny of the supposed majority.

Please, feel free to post your co-optive, authoritarian quotes in response below!

Narrating the Decline from a Classroom Desk,

L.A.Repucci