9.6.06

BENEFIT PRINCIPLES. Jim at Blogs for Industry has a few more observations on the latest from the pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton of the Chronicle of Higher Education (which, judging from much of its recent content, might better be titled II Lamentations.) In particular, he finds Professor Benton's proposed statement of principles for a course outline patronizing. And his response to the professor's assertion that adjunctification plus course evaluation equals diminished standards bears repeating.
But the claim that they're "routinely punished for maintaining standards" is simply not credible at any institution where I've been a student, a TA, or a faculty member. I'm not sure I've ever seen a convincing example of this, much less routine punishment for maintaining standards. The idea is an appealing myth to tell yourself when the reviews are bad. But an alternative hypothesis, when the reviews are sufficiently negative for others to intervene, is that maybe your teaching needs some critical self-examination. Standards are necessary, but they're not sufficient.
Apparently others have been Academic Ninjas before tenure.

His post poses a few questions I didn't address fully previously.
There may be more than one set of customers involved in my purveying of teaching services. Are the taxpayers of the state of Texas customers too? Or something else?
Exactly. The "derived demand" argument I alluded to suggests that the employers, not the students, are often the consumers. That is the faculty position at a well-known business school somewhere to the East, and I'm sure others hold it as well. The taxpayers are also consumers, although it's less clear what they're paying for. The rationale for the state-supported land-grant and normal-school universities traditionally has been to equip the state's best and brightest with the liberal, agricultural, and practical arts. Why all taxpayers ought to be digging down to allow some taxpayers' children access to cheap beer, the sexual cartel, and four- to - six years of summer camp AND a better shot at a high income perplexes, but with relatively thin capital markets for borrowing against future earnings, the state universities might be relatively efficient at augmenting human capital. Alternatively, perhaps higher education equips graduates with coping skills that have spillover benefits to others. Private markets, even with sophisticated capital markets for borrowing against future earnings, might not value those skills accurately. (In economics, that's a "positive nonpecuniary externality" argument.) But perhaps not. Perhaps the positive nonpecuniary externalities are produced in kindergarten.
That the student is a customer doesn't mean that they should get less rigorous education no matter what they're paying for it. "The customer is always right" is not meant to be taken literally (It would make grading a lot easier, however; A+ for everyone!)
Yes, that's the paradox in the student-as-customer argument. I think King has summarized that as higher education, the industry where "customers" claim a higher price entitles them to a poorer product. There, however, Professor Benton has it right: as employers discover the hollowness of "A.B., Harvard, magna" the con collapses. I've put that one somewhat more crankily as looking forward to the day that a major employer, frustrated with meaningless college transcripts, decides to hire out of the high schools rather than rely on a four-year-plus-old College Board score and a college degree to make decisions. That, not the Phoenixes, not the Diversity Boondoggles, not the micromanaging Legislatures, is the real problem.

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