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In Support of Higher Education Reform

I am more sympathetic than Peter Lawler to the movement for reforming higher education, even though I share his delight in Greek and the philosophy of the ancients. I majored in classics, and spent part of my graduate studies at Oxford on the Patristics. I even still occasionally blog about Homer! But I believe that American higher education needs generally to become more variegated to take account of the varied endowments and needs of students. And higher education funded by the state should be a public good providing benefits to society as well as to its students.

I do not doubt that learning Greek and ancient philosophy is a valuable experience for most of the students who undertake it. I am doubtful, however, that a great many others would benefit from this challenge, because of the substantial opportunity cost in learning a difficult language like Greek: passing up other bodies of knowledge that have more direct payoffs in more vocations and provide better tools for understanding many aspects of the modern world.  To be sure, some future writers or thinkers may gain. Others who are quick studies can choose many vocations and methods of modern analysis without any particular preparation beyond their genius. But that does not describe most students, even those that would substantially benefit from a college education. I myself occasionally rue my single-minded pursuit of the typical nineteenth century education at the expense of courses with the economics and statistics needed to evaluate complex tradeoffs in public policy.

Similarly, many students will benefit from an old fashioned structure of education, even the kind of tutorial system that I enjoyed at Oxford. But the more labor intensive is education, the more expensive it is. Other students of more limited means or with a clearer vocational focus may profit from a cheaper education that combines personal instruction with more distance learning and other new technologies more cost effective. Higher education needs to experiment with  a variety of methods to meet very different needs.

We even should consider alternatives to tenure for some full-time professors, particularly now that the federal government unfortunately has decreed through the Age Discrimination Act that tenure equals life tenure. As Max Schanzenbach and I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last month:

But there are other ways of getting the benefits of tenure [like encouraging scholars to make investments in human capital that have no payoff outside the university], without its associated costs. Long-term contracts can do much the same as tenure, without as bad effects on productivity or administrative flexibility. A 25-year contract would certainly achieve much of the same protection as an offer of tenure for someone age 40. We are not sure what the optimal contract length is, and the correct period may well vary according to field. What’s clear is that lifetime tenure is an inefficient one-size-fits-all solution to the problem.

And state colleges and universities should be focused on the delivery of public goods. Taxpayers should not be expected to fund colleges that simply provide a stimulating course of study or, even worse, subsidize four years of partying and cultural studies. That is a transfer from the poor to the rich, because most four year graduates will earn more than the median taxpayer, largely not because of what they learn there but because of their greater innate abilities. In my view, public higher education thus should largely center on science and technology, where the research undertaken by professors and the knowledge acquired by students does create public goods that benefit all.

I take seriously one of Professor Lawler’s public good-like arguments for Greek. It helps us understand the foundations of a free society and the foundations for our society in particular. A classical liberal democracy of the kind I favor faces this paradox: In a society dedicated to the pursuit of individual liberty there must be some public virtue—at least enough to preserve the structure that protects liberty. But I am skeptical as a factual matter that the best way of achieving this goal is to get more people to pursue Greek and ancient philosophy at college. Better by far to require every high school student to learn civics and make sure that American history at that level recognizes the accomplishments of our Foundings –that of the 1860s as well as 1789.

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