17.4.05

EXIT AND VOICE. Jeff at Quid nomen notes the return of No Credentials and the end game for Academic Game (where the farewell page pays several compliments to these pages.)
The perspectives of both of these women--and other people like them--should serve as reminders to defensive professors that "attacks" on academia are neither a right-wing conspiracy nor a movement driven by ignorant bumpkins. As the prestige of academia further diminishes, no one who's familiar with these and similar blogs should be at all surprised by the phenomenon.
Perhaps. People respond to incentives, after all. On the other hand, John at Mt. Hollywood might interpret their exit -- and the exit of other former academicians -- as an efficient reallocation of resources in the face of a reserve army of underemployed Ph.D.s in some fields. Jeff is correct to observe that the academy's troubles can no longer be blamed entirely on an anti-intellectual strain in conservative politics, some fears in this manifesto notwithstanding.

Years ago, I wrote the following:
Universities are failing to carry out their mission. Contributing to this failure is a collection of ideas we call "politically correct." The intellectual foundation of these ideas is an extreme relativism that questions the possibility of objective knowledge and seeks to dispel "coherent beliefs of any kind." A university built on such a foundation cannot stand.
Others are beginning to catch on. The Washington Post's Steven Goodman invites professors to come back to earth.
With faculty and administrations leading the way, political correctness and posturing -- from both the left and right -- is reaching dizzying heights in the land of the ivory tower. And rising right along with it is the frustration of middle-class parents, who are growing increasingly resentful of paying sky-high tuition for colleges they see offering their kids a menu of questionable courses and politically absurd campus climates that detract from the quality of a university education.
(Do I hear an echo?) My prescription:
Universities best serve their students through rigorous development of reasoning skills and respect for what we have learned. Rigor is likely to diminish incivility on campus, because students kept grappling with intellectual problems will have less time to fight with each other. Better that they be unhappy with a few demanding professors.
(In those days, student reactions to the excesses of affirmative action sometimes took on a more ugly tone.) Hear Reason's Cathy Young on the consequences of viewpoint imbalance.But universities are different:
Ideas are their lifeblood, and a lack of intellectual diversity endangers the very purpose of the academy. In a recent survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni nearly half of the students at America's top 50 universities and colleges complained of ''totally one-sided" presentations and readings on controversial topics.
(And how often have I taken a doctrinaire faculty liberal aback by referring to a line of research that just doesn't fit the dominant paradigm outside of economics?) I also made this claim.
We are only beginning to see the consequences of our failure to carry out our mission. The employers who hire our students and the legislators who underwrite our efforts are questioning our effectiveness.
Regular readers will recognize those themes here. This post is to recognize others sounding those same themes. Start with some recent lamentations in Atlantic by Princeton and Harvard graduates who discovered, too late, that they were not properly challenged. Perhaps Charlotte Simmons is art reflecting life. And Professor Reynolds notes,
Speaking as someone working in the factory, I'm a bit worried at the increasing dissatisfaction out there. Then again, as the biggest problems seem to be at expensive private schools, perhaps those of us at public institutions will benefit.
(What is it about lawyers not getting "a counterexample can be a disproof?" A reader brought up Ward Churchill at not-yet-privatized Colorado.) And, pace University Diaries, this optimism about the future of the Ivies and the like appears to be misplaced.

The most wealthy and prestigious of universities in our country, I mean to say, aren’t part of the crisis this writer evokes. They subsist in a stratosphere of their own, revolving perpetually without need of students or alumni or anything. They are self-sustaining planets in the firmament of the American university, and they do not need to worry about the dark scenario of alienation that the Post writer sketches.

To be sure, such schools are evolving into rich people’s playhouses, theatrical settings for the cognitively dissonant dramas of liberal guilt and reactionary self-indulgence, apparent rigor and actual grade inflation… But their growing triviality makes them no less sought-after. For while it’s true that, as the Post writer notes, many parents “aren't sure that the Ivies -- where the political battles on campus are fiercest -- are worth the money,” it’s also true that the United States contains tons of parents for whom Harvard’s tuition is affordable.

Yes, but one does not get rich or stay rich by mis-spending money. Mr Goodman has seen this in his work finding matches between students and universities.

In 18 years of in-the-trenches experience counseling kids on their college choices, I've never seen the unhappiness as widespread as it is today. If colleges don't tone down the politics, and figure out how to control ballooning costs, they run the risk of turning off enough American consumers that many campuses could marginalize themselves right out of existence.

Colleges are having an ever-harder time making what they do comprehensible to the families footing the bills. I counsel families of all political stripes -- liberal, conservative and in-between -- and varied income levels, but they all agree on one thing: the overly politicized atmosphere on campuses is distracting colleges from providing a solid education to our young people.

Maybe. On the other hand, the real return on an investment in a proper baccalaureate is still quite high.Im my essay, I suggested,
Rising incomes may be rewards to people who learned careful reasoning, mathematics, and science, and who sold their skills to employers who valued them. That others are losing ground may be evidence of diminished skills of more recent graduates of high schools and universities. Economists are sorting out these hypotheses.
Another 14 years of research gives me no reason to withdraw any of that statement. The problem may not be with the price tag; rather it is with the content. The wordnoise about "access" and "diversity" and "service" and "social justice" conceals the reality: some 20 percent of new matriculants require what the administrators delicately call "remediation." Translation: high schools didn't bring up short the individuals who had shortcomings in their basic skills. And there's little that looks like a core curriculum. Here's Mr. Goodman.
Liberal arts courses, taught in the context of free speech, have always helped open young minds to the excitement of the marketplace of ideas and to the value of even unpopular opinions. But that tradition seems to have been stood on its head. There is a world of difference between challenging students to think more broadly and trying to shoehorn them into a more narrow spectrum of thought, which many parents feel is happening.
(And which, when a Pigouvian compares notes with a social democrat who compares notes with a Marxist, is likely to be the outcome: the polemics about "viewpoint diversity" are not simply spin.) Moreover, the Ivies need not be the only path to the executive suite. Perhaps that path leads through Augustana, with some of its faculty holding Northern Illinois University degrees. That article offers some speculation on ethical principles inculcated at church-based universities, and the military academies.

There is one complaint in Mr Goodman's article that requires a bit more discussion.
Some universities use financial aid as a way to compete for the most desirable students. Kids get the message that money talks at these campuses. One of my clients just chose Syracuse University -- not because of the educational quality, but because the high tuition there at least has a tradeoff. "They will help you get a job afterwards," he said.
Hmm, if you're concerned with raising the intellectual tone in your classes, won't it make sense to recruit the high achievers. Why does the Orange athletic program get to do that but not the Maxwell School? And why not help develop networks and place students? Those might be more effective than the informal ones that evolve in the Greek letter organizations (Dude, I, like, can make you night manager at the Peoria Best Buy.) It's those informal networks that might be the real attraction of the name colleges: there is a separating equilibrium in which well-to-do strivers pay more for the privilege of associating with other well-to-do strivers.

There is still work to be done, and, as I do not intend to exit the academy in the near future, I shall continue to raise my voice, and to welcome the contributions of others who are discovering the same things.

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