29.12.15

THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE COLLEGE BUBBLE.

It has been an average year for higher education, in the way comrades behind the Iron Curtain used to describe it (worse than 2014, but surely 2015 will be better than 2016 will become).  And many of its troubles are self-inflicted.  Start with George Will in the Washington Post, suggesting that the Perpetually Aggrieved are revealing themselves as clueless poseurs.
Higher education is increasingly a house divided. In the sciences and even the humanities, actual scholars maintain the high standards of their noble calling. But in the humanities, especially, and elsewhere, faux scholars representing specious disciplines exploit academia as a jobs program for otherwise unemployable propagandists hostile to freedom of expression.
It's not that simple.  For years, the chemists or mathematicians or most notoriously the physicists (a manifestation of Nagasaki Syndrome?) have demonstrated their liberalitas by supporting a faux studies department that will enroll the unprepared students and keep them out of the labs.  Or the experimental and mathematical sciences will participate in interdisciplinary or "studies" efforts themselves.

Then comes the endless internal politicking of the university, which, in these days of excellence without money, looks like rent-seeking without any rents to dissipate.  Not that Ohio State's Harvey J. Graff is deterred.  Here, he's griping about emphasizing the practical arts at the expense of the liberal arts, which doesn't work out well for his home departments, or for higher education qua higher education, rather than as some sort of vocational and technical school.
A university cannot construct its student body by blindly pursuing percentage increases in applications to the neglect of the undergraduate population over all or the impact on its academic components. A university is not determined by a popularity contest. In fact, its reason to exist is just the opposite.
We are completely in accord. But forty years of bringing the trendy and the popular into the curriculum expeditiously, rather than judiciously, and forty years of creating "studies" departments and faddish interdisciplinarity makes reclaiming the academy more difficult.
Apart from overloading disproportionately some parts of the university and underserving (and underfunding) others, such actions ignore, for example, that the College of Engineering reportedly graduates a lower proportion of its entering students than other colleges (and is also marked by a gender imbalance).
Without irony? What did you expect, dear Professor Graff, when "access" becomes diplomatic cover for admitting unprepared students?
Without a larger discussion and declared institutionwide policies about the present and future of higher education, such actions cripple the contemporary university’s core, compromise its declared mission and move from a balanced university to a vocational and technical institute. Indeed, such actions answer crucial and challenging questions about the future and the value of the liberal arts and sciences withoutever asking them.
Inasmuch as it is in the humanities and in the studies departments, with or without the connivance of the mathematicians and laboratory scientists, that the simulacrum of higher education is most evident, those disciplines properly have the most to answer for.  Obscurantism and word-noise will not be enough.
The supply of super-lefty people who are able to parse artificially dense text is limited, but not so limited that it's hard to find people who are willing to do it for $70,000 a year. Meanwhile, student demand for humanities, anthropology, urban studies, and sociology majors is probably pretty inelastic, so university demand for professors in these areas is probably inelastic. Hence, for departments and journals in these fields to make "critical theory" a soft requirement for professors is probably an effective way of keeping their salaries (and job perks) as high as they are.

It seems pretty obvious that humanities departments have been almost entirely consumed by this sort of thing. Any semblance of objectivity (whatever that would even mean in the humanities!) is gone, replaced by pervasive quasi-Marxist doofiness. And humanities scholars' research work now appears to largely consist of parsing and writing artificially dense text. As for the social sciences, anthro seems to have taken some big steps in this direction, and sociology more modest steps.
The author also complains about obscurantism in economics ("pressure on empirical economists") that might better be understood as at least recognizing that arbitrage or substitution might be at work, even if the latest data-torturing technique is what the paper is really presenting.

But if the point of higher education is now to provide a play-pen for obscurantists whilst credentialing the snowflakes, maybe it doesn't matter.  Except, as Glenn Reynolds points out, it does.  It's only in The Wizard of Oz that conferring a diploma gives the holder wisdom.  (Or sentiment.  Or courage.)
The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have.  If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people.

But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re evidence of the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay in, the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.
Inculcate the habits of the middle class, forsooth!  But failure to inculcate, suggests Philo of Alexandria, might be the way to keep generating the rents.
Progressivism can’t deliver on its central promise. In fact, it’s guaranteed to make things worse in exactly that respect. It’s not that it sacrifices some degree of one good (liberty or prosperity, say) to achieve a greater degree of another (equality). That suggests that the choice between conservatism and progressivism is a matter of tradeoffs, balances, and maybe even taste. Reynolds’ Law implies that progressivism sacrifices some (actually considerable) degrees of liberty and prosperity to move us away from equality by undermining the characters and thus behavior patterns of those they promise to help.

Not coincidentally, progressives accumulate power for themselves, not only by seizing it as a necessary means to their goals but by aggravating the very social problems they promise to address, thus creating an ever more powerful argument that something has to be done.
That works, until you run out of more powerful arguments.

No comments: