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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.

Reader Discussion

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on September 03, 2015 at 17:14:54 pm

It seems to me that higher education produces a variety of goods. One might break them out into three broad categories: civic education, since republican societies make demands on citizens, for which education is useful preparation; what I take to be the classical component of education, preparation for a life well lived; and education for acquisition of job skills.

Right now, the focus is very heavily on vocational education. More than 90% of all degrees completed at my university--I think the figure is actually closer to 95%, are pre-professional. I have good reason to believe the story is similar elsewhere.

I agree with much of what Professor McGinnis writes above, with the caveat that we have tilted pretty far already towards the jobs/vocational component of higher education, and are at some risk of devaluing the first two. Indeed, I would argue that we have already largely lost the first two. Hardly any of the 20,000 undergraduates at my university take even a single upper division course in Philosophy, Political Theory, or American History, let alone courses like Music, Art History, or English Literature. Most of them--the overwhelming majority--are taking courses in marketing, or nursing, or web design, or kinesiology, or any of several dozen other, similarly vocational majors. Once they begin their upper division courses of study, few of them have room or wish to make room for electives that, to their eyes, have no direct value to the careers to which they believe they will devote their lives.

One of the worrisome consequences of this kind of focus is that it ill-serves our economy. Most employers expect new hires to learn much of the most important things a professional must know on the job--so what matters for a good many entry level jobs is intellectual flexibility. If, as the evidence suggests, most young people will change careers several times in their 20s and early 30s, then what good is an overly narrow education focused on a single professional track? Our careerist, vocationally oriented students--who comprise the overwhelming majority of students at public universities--for the most part do not appreciate the value of a broad education, even though the vast majority of employers want applicants who possess the character that a broad education elevates.

I recall quite vividly a phone call some years ago from an undergraduate classmate who had gone on to a distinguished career working as a financial analyst. He called me to prospect for possible interns--the student interns from the business school at the (excellent) institution at which he acquired his MBA were, he said, good only for the most basic entry level job skills. They could read a financial spreadsheet or critique a business plan. But they were useless for doing an onsite visit to an actual enterprise, to assess whether or not the internal dynamics of the business were sound, the management astute, the capital plant well organized and well structured; whether, in short, it was a good long-term investment. And they were boring. "I have to sit next to them on the plane," he said. "And all they know how to talk about is finance."

I tell my students that it is not sufficient to have the pre-professional credentials. The people who are most successful are the ones who seem promising to more established professionals, and who receive on the job mentoring. You want to be the kind of person who gets mentored. And that means attending to your education more broadly. Boring, narrow people, are less likely to be successful long term. Students who think about what it means to live their life responsibly and well also tend to attend more carefully to their personal character--with healthy consequences, I have reason to believe, for their long term career success.

Each of the three components of sound education that I list above, it least so it seems to me, should be taken seriously. None of them reduces to delivering a "stimulating course of study" at public expense. Professor McGinnis' choice of words here strikes me as unfortunate, since I do not think that anyone in the conversation advocates that the sole and only purpose is to train yet more narcissistic, disengaged, "me-first" graduates whose only criteria for meaningful education is whether or not it is fun.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 04, 2015 at 09:23:24 am

Ahhh!, Kevin, you have outdone yourself again. Absotively correct.
" I do not think that anyone in the conversation advocates that the sole and only purpose is to train yet more narcissistic, disengaged, “me-first” graduates whose only criteria for meaningful education is whether or not it is fun."

Your former financial analyst student is quite perceptive. In my own experience, I recall similar incidents where the brash young MBA's visiting / assessing my firms operations / viability were not only unable (unwilling, perhaps?) to understand the intricate dynamic interchanges that are an inherent part of a successful (even unsuccessful?) technology / manufacturing operation but they were unable to even recognize that such dynamics existed.
The same was true with IT specialists who would disregard all input from our employees and proceeded to produce a manufacturing data system that succeeded in a rather short time in reducing our productivity.
Not only were they boring, they were also incompetent. I would argue that this incompetence was a direct result of their inability to apprehend some of the *un-taught* realities of a complex human interchange - i.e., manufacturing.

Correct me if I am wrong here but: Do not the majority of folks actually end up working in disciplines for which they do not possess a degree. Many of them do quite well. I suspect it may have to do both with native intelligence but also with an ability to recognize the complexities / subtleties of human dynamics. One may garner some of this knowledge from a wide variety of academic instruction; philosophy, literature, etc are among those disciplines.

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