A Modest Proposal For Academia

An earlier post elicited this comment from George Turner (who should have his own blog). I thought I’d slightly edit and elevate it here:

“Trying to stop the cheating won’t fix the problem, which was baked in when parental/donor pressures led to grade inflation. Using brutal attrition and grading on the curve was a way to continually deselect students. There was no point in a parent tying to cheat a kid into Harvard if the kid would almost immediately flunk out.

That harsh grading system’s drawback was that it produced drop-outs, and that was an inefficient way to get all of the bright kids the maximally beneficial education. And it still had the corruption problem because some rich or powerful kids simply weren’t going to be flunked out, even if it took hand-holding by the administration. And once it became obvious that rich kids weren’t really going to flunk out, the public realized that the Ivy League had become social clubs.

That seemed unfair, so SATs/ACTs. But those are harsh, and Jews did too well, so they added essays. But essays are hard, too, and Jews and Asians are great writers, so they emphasized BS high-school extra-curricular activities and offered a back door for ping-pong. Academics, educators, and administrators will no doubt make careers out of debating the merits of various fixes, and the wheels of the bus go round and round.

So let’s look outside the box at other American educational institutions that are perhaps doing a better job of maximizing the educational attainment of a fixed pool of students. Yes, the schools we run to teach students how to kill people and blow stuff up. Our military has run those forever, and they apparently work pretty well. Not only that, parents aren’t spending $400,000 to bribe marksmanship instructors, and kids aren’t turning their whole life into a lie so they can get into BUDS to become a SEAL – because the program is brutal and they’d ring the bell by day three. Importantly, when one fails a special-ops school they don’t get kicked out of the military, as would happen in basic training and as our universities would do, they get returned to where they’d been, and can get subsequently routed to other specialties. Failing out of Yale should land a student a slot at another school.

Tellingly, that’s quite different from college. Each service branch runs a wide range of schools, but each school is a part of a unified military service. In each service, there is a pool of recruits who first go through basic. If they aren’t weeded out there, then they’re in the military until the military decides they’re no longer needed or fit. Then the military shuffles those recruits through postings, slots, and schools. The military doesn’t run the schools to make money, or because drill sergeants want jobs and respect, but because the military wants what comes out of the other end of the pipeline, highly trained and specialized war fighters in the right numbers needed to meet the military’s mission. If a SEAL wants to study hot bi-chicks, he’ll have to hang out in a bar and watch like everyone else because unlike Brown or Yale, the Navy will never offer lesbian dance studies.

But the contrast with our military goes a bit deeper. Our universities were not set up as a system, they were set up as independent private colleges that compete with other independent private colleges. Public ones came later, but they followed the established stand-alone model. Each college is its own world. It provides food and housing, and its graduating seniors generally started as its freshmen. Transferring to another college was inconvenient, and often made difficult because the new university got to make students jump through hoops and they wouldn’t allow many credits to transfer. The less credit a college gives to coursework from other colleges, the better its own programs must be!

The stand-alone model is somewhat like a militia from the medieval period. Different warlords had different armies, and you picked one and joined up. The unit might be brutally tough and disciplined, or it might be a gaggle of incompetent boobs. Soldiers weren’t shuffled between different militias to fill slots as needed because those other militias were at best competitors, and at worst mortal enemies.

Our universities are somewhat like those private militias, competitors who operate independently. They’re producing similar products (graduates, and in the same range of majors as competing schools), trying to sell to the same market of parents. The price they can charge is based on the social value of their particular diplomas (their brand). Virtually guaranteed graduation means the value of the acceptance letter is the same as the value of the diploma. However much you want to point to academic this or educational that, the product and the marketplace is what it is.

It’s not like the military’s model of running a pipeline designed to maximize the utility of the output, tailored to the needed slots in the field, from the fixed number of recruits or draftees put into the pipeline. It’s not like the military’s model of starting everyone off with the same basic training, then figuring out what they’re suited to do once they’re in the system, and then shuffling them up or down based on how they do. Harvard apparently believes every word a narcissistic, spoiled, self-important social climber says, especially if someone waves money around, whereas a drill sergeant knows the snots are coddled brats and sniveling worms who don’t deserve to be in his beloved Corps.

Maybe our university system should be a bit more like that, with hardly any selectivity at the freshman level and very nimble at shifting students between schools, slots,and programs, and shifting them both up and down in difficulty without any demerits attached to downgrades. Not everyone can make it through BUDS, Ranger School, or Harvard Law, and there shouldn’t be any demerit in dropping back in difficulty. If not hacking it at Harvard loses sting, then the students and parents wouldn’t have to pressure the school into handing out all A’s and not failing anybody out. Then acceptance wouldn’t mean graduation, and the degree could go back to indicating merit instead of class.

The other fix is pushed by Nolan Bushnell of Atari, who says let’s just do most of college via the Internet, perhaps even making it more like certifications per course work. But if we did that, I wouldn’t have so much fun suggesting changes where I get to call Harvard students sniveling worms.”

[Update late afternoon]

Tucker Carlson: Congress must address the student-loan debt problem and stop colleges from scamming our kids.

16 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal For Academia”

  1. The core problem for academia is what it was started for during the Middle Ages. Kings used to use monks and priests for most of their clerking, because those were the majority of literate people around. However, around the year 1000AD, the Popes developed the habit of excommunicating rulers whose policies they disagreed with. This meant the majority of these Kings own churchmen/clerks were forbidden to talk to them, until the King made nice with the Pope!

    It should be no surprise that Universities were most often started in countries whose Kings had experienced this sort of blackmail recently, and others whose Kings wanted to avoid it. Clerks produced in Universities were not as tied to the Pope during such disputes, and worked for King right through an “excommunication emergency”. It also provided paid “places” in society for second and third sons that did not degrade their status to mere “tradesmen” or farmers.

    The King was almost always the largest single contributor. For the majority of donations, though, the nobility in primogeniture societies soon found their contributions worthwhile, through degrees granted to their second and third sons, …who fought each other less when “places” were available. But the core purpose was providing clerks for the growth of the King’s State government.

    The Church controlled so much of the land that produced wealth, that it sparked the desire by Kings to control those revenues by controlling their local Church hierarchy. This only increased the desire for independence from the Pope, so that pressure on “their” Church landlords for revenues could increase. By the 14th century this was beginning to have significant positive effects on the battle of King’s Nation States to control the available revenues of the land.

    Without that, the Kings holding to the Protestant Reformation might not have been nearly as successful. However, the usefulness of Universities after the 16th century began to give them a bit more influence. As the Nation State began to depend on the Universities for strengthening its hierarchies, Universities themselves began to become a bit more independent. By the 18th Century, their demands for academic freedom became more accepted. By 1800, Simon De Laplace could stand in front of the most powerful man in Europe, Napoleon Buonaparte. When asked about his book, “Celestial Mechanics”, and asked the question “Monsieur, I am told your book contains no mention of God!”, Laplace’s answer was simply: “I found no use for that hypothesis”, …and he went utterly unpunished!

    From this point, the dependence of rulers on academia for building their State apparatus grew. It was alongside the greater prestige of supporting Science inside academia, which completely overgrew the growth of Science outside academia. This prestige for academia allowed it to increase academic freedoms vastly.

    By the mid-20th century, academia was, not surprisingly, looking to grow the same State Apparatus that had been its students original primary “place” in society. While academia bloated, through government funding, with the increased prestige of its degrees, that ability to “secure a place” has never been far from its core, whatever the professoriate might say about primacy of “pure thought”. Thus, we come to a day when Universities are selling degree openings like the Church once sold indulgences.

    Academia is too often becoming, once again, a place where one secures an unquestioned “place”, rather than learning the critical thinking needed to ask competent questions, and find competent answers.

  2. Comrade George’s unified-system fix very very good. After we unify educational system, we must implement unified healthcare system. And next, comrade, we shall organize all the grocery stores and restaurants into a glorious unified food distribution system!

      1. I was wondering what Henry George had to do with this. Then I realized there was no mention of single taxes.

      2. Don’t you want to discuss George’s proposal? You don’t see it as a complete rejection of the free market? You don’t see parallels with the single-payer health care debate in the US? You don’t find George’s proposal to be an open embrace of a communist-style project, where all students are stuffed into a nation-wide machine? I’d admire George’s creativity and writing style and expansive thinking, but I’m quite shocked if his proposal actually appeals to you.

        To answer your question: yes, I do have an answer for reforming K-12th. The key for teachers to harness a kid’s passion for a project. Some kids like to design evening gowns. Some kids like to design airplanes. Some kids want to make their own tv shows, and some kids want to play soccer. I believe you can teach everything a kid needs to learn in school by allowing the kids to pursue their passions. Teaching would take the form of coaching kids on how to pursue their passions more avidly. If you want to teach reading skills, or math skills, or history, or chemistry, or biology, (etc), instead of taking a math class or science class or english class, etc, you could allow kids to work on a project they are passionate about all day long, Of course, that’s not to suggest that the schools in any way abandon teaching reading, math, science, history, etc. In the course of coaching kids on how to work on their projects better, in the course of showing kids how they can pursue their own goals even better than they could have before, kids will discover how reading, writing, math, science, history, etc will help them get to where they want to go. Teaching science, reading, math, etc in the service of making a tv show will look different from teaching those subjects in the service of designing an evening gown, or designing an airplane, but to do any really cool project well, science, history, reading, math, etc can make the project better, and make it more fun.

        At this point, you need to hear some examples of what I’m talking about. And you’ll have all sorts of objections, I’d need to address. I don’t have time to write another 100 paragraphs right now, but I thought I’d give you a small sampling of my answer on K-12.

        As for college, that’s easy. Eliminate it. Replace it with grad school. For that matter, that’s a good way to summarize my answer above for k-12 (or at least grade 6-12): eliminate it, and replace it with PhD projects. The best kind of intellectual deep dive will inevitably lead to a sufficient amount of breadth as well as depth.

        1. Are you unfamiliar with the history of the phrase “a modest proposal”?

          What you’re proposing sounds great, but it’s completely antithetical to John Dewey’s socialist vision for public education of the factory drones, and thus (like school choice) would be violently opposed by both the Democrats and (but I repeat myself) the teachers’ unions.

          1. As with the last time you highlighted a modest proposal (an anti-gun control rant which proposed squashing the first amendment), I find I have a hard time figuring out your point of view, because the very same ideas, if proposed by liberals, would have been taken seriously by you, and would have elicited your scorn and genuine outrage. There must be something in George’s proposal that you like very much, and something that you find goes too far, but I can’t figure out which is which.

            As for support for my serious proposal, if I thought that the Democrats would oppose it, then this Jewish voter would have a real reason to not only not vote for Democrats, but to actively work for their defeat. But in my experience, people who are democrats are the ones open to educational reform ideas very similar to the ones I described above, in which education occurs in the course of allowing students to pursue their own goals and following their own passions, however unorthodox. When a conservative hears that playing soccer or producing tv shows will be a means to teach history and math and writing, they blanch, while liberals say “lets try it.”

            As for the unions, proposals like mine requiring hiring more teachers. Proposals like mine (and there have been many – I didn’t say anything original) can be used as a justification for giving teachers higher salaries. Proposals like mine will not be opposed by local teacher’s unions where school districts have been hired teachers wisely.

          2. When I’m writing about education, I especially dislike typos and accidental grammar errors due to sentence editing, so please know that I feel discomfort over the ones I made above.

    1. I can see how you could think it was unified but it also comes across as allowing for diversity of study and mobility.

      Online learning is tough, I know a few teachers who think it is impossible, but it relies a lot on the individual taking on the responsibility to learn the material. It does have a lot of drawbacks. One of the benefits though, is mastery learning. Mastery learning is part going at your own pace but it is equally not moving on until a subject is mastered. The modern university system is not set up to accommodate this method of learning. Even nerdy nerd ace students often don’t master the subject. They master homework and tests, which is not the same thing.

  3. If I were king:
    – Online classes for the liberal arts base classes
    – Online classes to kneecap the grievance studies industry
    – One extra year of intensive detailed study of a chosen specialty rather than just a few specific classes.
    – Focus and support of students preparing for and attaining industry certifications.
    – Making colleges have skin in the game by making them liable for students who drop out, don’t get jobs in their fields of study, or don’t pay back their loans.
    – Make government financial support of colleges tied to how well the schools measuring up to the previous point.
    – Only intramural sports

    Grade school and high school require other solutions but reducing the influence of marxists at the college level would go a long way toward helping out.

    1. Making colleges have skin in the game by making them liable for students who drop out, don’t get jobs in their fields of study, or don’t pay back their loans.

      This is a very popular concept right now. Ultimately, I don’t like it, because it moves us further away from personal responsibility. However, I’m willing to support this for the near term.

      Currently, it seems the only incentive for colleges not to accept student is limited space to put them. As growth occurs, standards are lowered, more students are enrolled, and more money comes in. More money means more growth and then the cycle repeats.

      This was ok, when colleges would open up for more freshmen, but quickly flunk out those who may have embellished their credentials to get admitted. Unfortunately, colleges learned that money continued to come in if the student simply stayed enrolled, and if the student developed a loyalty, they might donate even more after graduating. So universities began to embellish the students credentials to get them to stay and continue bringing in money.

      The result was a product whose quality became increasingly diverse and unknown by potential hiring businesses. The traditional role of universities in providing a skilled workforce, or resetting individual expectations, transferred to employers. Business has no financial incentive to retain poor employees. Employees don’t pay to go to work like they do university. And banks definitely don’t underwrite employees to go to work.

      A rebalance is needed, and I think the most efficient way to get there is to destroy the current university economic model. Even if that is at the expense of not making the students personally responsible. The resulting reintroduction of competition will solve the problem of responsibility.

      1. Students who don’t get jobs in their field of study, who can’t repay loans, or who can’t find jobs have personal responsibility that can’t be taken away. A college being partially, or fully, responsible for their loans doesn’t remove the negative impact of loss of time and money. They live with the consequences of their decisions.

        The question is how to instill responsibility in colleges and tying their financial success to that of their students isn’t a bad way to go. But maybe it would create some ither perverse incentive?

  4. Not having any kids (yet) myself, I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent watching a child struggle to succeed, and I don’t know how to raise a child to learn and be inquisitive.

    But I have recently pondered whether or not it would be better to have a college-aged child take out a Small Business Loan for, say, $50,000 (which may be only 1 semesters’ tuition by the time any kids I have are old enough for college), start a business (not just an Etsy shop, either), and utterly fail at it.

    At least the SBC loan would be semi-dischargeable (compared to student loan debt) and the kid would hopefully learn from the experience. In fact, I would think that any business with a desire to hire good employees would jump at the chance to hire someone with experience running a business. Who talks back to bosses less than someone who has previously run their own business?

    As for George’s proposal, as Rand and wodun pointed out, it needs to go even deeper and earlier, and start in grade/middle school.

    1. I have children that are now writing adults. However, I often wondered if it were not better to just seed their retirement with $100k, put it in trust until they were 50, and then let them work their way up from an entry level position. In the meantime, the initial input is gaining interest rather than having interest added to the payoff.

      A good work ethic should allow for steady promotion, and their are plenty of blue collar jobs that command 6 figures for those who have self discipline and fair talent. By the time the college grad with a student debt caught up, the worker with 30 years experience would be ready to contemplate retirement, thus the reason to release the funds at age 50.

  5. But if we did that, I wouldn’t have so much fun suggesting changes where I get to call Harvard students sniveling worms.”

    While fun, not very accurate. Most of the Harvard students I’ve encountered are struggling mightily with heavy academic workloads and financial stress. I don’t see any glamor in it. Paper Chase is a very apropos phrase and is the price to be paid to participate in an “elite” school. You’d better be sure of your goal before you start. You will be exploited.

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