Does teaching matter at (American) research universities?

by Harry on May 18, 2010

A discussion at Leiter’s site, prompted by an admittedly alarming letter from an anonymous correspondent focuses on whether teaching counts for anything in a large research university. Here’s the prompt:

(1) “Teaching counts for nothing.” It was a shock to me how dishonest research schools are about teaching: on the brochures, to parents, in official pronouncements the line is that we care about teaching deeply. But in private all my colleagues, even at the official orientation, have said teaching counts for virtually nothing for tenure purposes, for merit raises, etc. (Exception: if your student evaluations are truly awful that might hurt a bit.) In other words, there is hardly any institutional concern for teaching, i.e. concern that manifests itself in aligning incentive structures with good teaching. It’s not 50-50 research/teaching, it’s 100-0 or maybe 90-10. Experiment: try explaining to your non-academic friends, neighbors, legislators that our top universities basically ignore teaching in their evaluation of teachers. I often wonder whether our actual policies could survive publicity.

Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy, in their excellent Remaking the American University muse about why it is that despite the fact that tuition costs, especially for elite colleges, have risen fast over the past couple of decades there has been no evidence of improved quality of instruction over the same period. They give what seems to me the most likely explanation:

Critics of higher education, and to some extent higher education itself, have misunderstood the core business of these institutions. Whereas most believe the task of universities and colleges is to supply quality educations at reasonable prices, their real business is to sell competitive advantage at necessarily high prices.

So there simply isn’t much market pressure to improve instruction (the fact that the fruits of growth over that period have largely accrued to the small group of people who are buying this essentially positional good for their children makes it even less puzzling). To illustrate: one of our commenters (sorry, can’t find any links, but I swear it’s true) has complained a number of times that his daughter takes an Economics class at a highly selective state research university for which he pays a fortune in which she learns nothing that she couldn’t have learned from the textbook. If so, I agree that this is shameful behavior on the part of the professor. But if our commenter just wanted the learning for his daughter he could just pay for the textbook – he doesn’t just want the learning, he wants the competitive advantage that she gets from a degree from an elite college.

As ZWM point out in the book, there is more market pressure these days than there used to be on institutions which are non-elite and non-selective: they increasingly have to compete with providers (like the University of Phoenix) which have low costs, high quality control, and are concerned with meeting the demands of workers who have particular learning needs (and, as they don’t point out, while this might have good effects on the quality of teaching it might have not so good effects on exactly what gets taught). But selective, elite institutions (especially the 140 or so colleges and Universities that are most selective) are really selling a credential, not the learning that comes along with it. This could all change of course. ZWM, writing in 2005, conjectured that only a major economic reversal might force change (we’ll see, then!)—but in the ordinary course of events it is hard to see how dramatic change will be come about through the marketplace. An institution which already has prestige could build up its market position over time by focusing on instruction, but it would take a very long time, and a leader taking that strategy would be constantly battling the very people whose efforts he/she was trying to harness to improve instruction. For example, an individual institution is not going to be able to attract faculty members who already have high status by asking them to do more teaching.

Of course, as several of Leiter’s commenters point out, this doesn’t mean that teaching plays no role at all in decisions about hiring, tenure, and promotion. Tenure allows us to act like monopolists. If we decide we want to provide high quality instruction and can figure out how to do so we are completely free to do so, and if we want to offer moderate-to-low quality instruction we are free to do that. And my experience of tenure cases is like Michael Rosen’s – good opinions of teaching can carry the day for a tenure case that is otherwise marginal, and bad opinions of teaching can sink a similar case. And in every discussion of a hire I’ve been in, people have advanced opinions about the likely quality of teaching as relevant to the discussion.

The problem is that those opinions are rarely well-informed. For example, one cannot judge the quality of somebody’s undergraduate teaching from observing them in a standard job talk – different audience, different judgments about what to say and how (and, hence, different misjudgments). The quantitative information in teaching evaluations is very dodgy; the qualitative data, while much more useful in flagging both bad and good qualities of a teacher, cannot yield an all-things-considered judgment about the quality of the teacher. In my three years of being on a divisional committee at my university I have come across just one department that seems to have the kind of high quality mentoring system around teaching that one would want to see—in which many department members have observed a junior colleague teaching, and produce memos about the teaching which are detailed, frank, lacking unnecessary superlatives, and giving what could be really useful feedback.

The problem about teaching is that we do not have good instruments for measuring its quality. If we did, then we might be able to use them. But what we, in fact, do, if we are diligent teachers, is cast around in the dark for ideas and try to put them into practice, with no real evidence about whether they work or not. This is why, although tenure makes us free to offer high quality instruction, even those professors who can resist the incentives of the profession to focus on other things may not be able to offer it. The fundamental problem is that as a profession we have not taken teaching institutionally seriously. We lack common standards, common assessments, the common language and the commitment to spending time learning collaboratively how to be better at it that would be needed for us to make well-informed judgments. I’ve no doubt that there is excellent teaching in my own institution, but I think the only people who really have much of a clue where it is going on are the reflective smart undergraduates, whose comments in evaluations sometimes shine through but have to compete with a lot of noise.

In other words, whether an institution takes teaching seriously or not is not revealed in its treatment of teaching in tenure cases. It is measured by whether it puts serious institutional resources into creating instruments which would allow teachers continuously to improve their instruction and whether the faculty make a lot of use of those resources. My sense is that most research university campuses have pockets of people trying to create and use such resources, some of them institutionalized in Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning offices and the like; but that administrators are timid about pressing faculty too hard. And, as ZWM say, in the absence of market pressure to improve, it is hard to see where things are going to change.

{ 174 comments }

1

ScentOfViolets 05.18.10 at 10:53 pm

This whole notion of tuition costs rising so rapidly is a red herring, I suspect. I can’t speak to every school’s financial situation, but here at UMC costs aren’t really rising that fast; what’s happening is that less and less money is being appropriated at the state level for education and so we have to take the difference out of the hides of the students and their parents. This seems to be the case at many schools where former colleagues have relocated.

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PHB 05.18.10 at 11:11 pm

For several years I wrote an instructor-led course on Information Security. The students (or rather their employers) paid $800/day to attend a five day course in a class of 6-12 people, typically given by a person who was a full time instructor.

All the information in the $4000 course could have been obtained by reading books. I did not do a full crib from a textbook, but plenty in the industry do.

3

Salazar 05.18.10 at 11:12 pm

Why is the “credential” of an undergraduate degree from an “elite” university so important when it’s increasingly apparent that said degree has less and less value on the job market — and that more and more often, you need graduate/professional school to find a job remotely connected to your ambitions?

4

Sebastian 05.18.10 at 11:13 pm

SoV that is the explanation for why costs have gone up so much in the past 2-4 years, not an explanation for why they have gone up so much in the last 20-30 years.

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Colin Danby 05.18.10 at 11:28 pm

I would separate the question of whether an institution values teaching in hiring/promotion/tenure/merit from the question of instruments. Good instruments exist. (As I’m sure somebody will turn up to point out, other industries have to do complex assessments of performance.) As the post briefly affirms, you need a commitment at the department or program level to doing observations. I’d add that you need a good personnel committee to pull *together* data from observations, syllabi, quantitative evals, and qualitative evals. Running through the inadequacies of these instruments individually is misleading.

It’s a lot of work for the personnel committee, but it’s quite do-able. If it is not getting done, the causality runs *from* an absence of institutional interest and resources *to* a failure to commit the resources needed to assess teaching carefully. Again: the problem is not the instruments.

The sentence “The fundamental problem is that as a profession we have not taken teaching institutionally seriously” seems to me quite wrong. The “as a profession” part might be true for some value of “profession,” but people hold jobs, and get assessed, promoted etc. on the basis of performance in those jobs. A vaguely specified “profession” is not what does that.

6

Nick L 05.18.10 at 11:41 pm

Qualification-inflation and the rising demand for degrees has to do with the fact that there are too few professional jobs compared to the number of people willing and able to do them in most advanced industrial societies. Essentially, there is a problem of elite overproduction or, if you like, the knowledge economy has failed to deliver. As an undergrad, I knew many a student who had no interest in their course and were simply itching to be finished and into the job market. Improving teaching quality is unfortunately irrelevant to these people. The really sad thing is that there are those who are both committed to their subject and hope to use a degree as a springboard towards a professional career. Many will be disappointed by low teaching standards and devalued qualifications.

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Nick L 05.18.10 at 11:44 pm

Salazaar – because there is an arms race on and the rise in the numbers of bachelors and postgraduate degrees is devaluing the former and making the latter a necessary ticket into the professional classes.

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Lemuel Pitkin 05.18.10 at 11:51 pm

Seems to me you’ve answered the question. Given that (1) elite American universities have been very successful in recent decades in all the metrics relevant to their survival and growth — income, prestige, etc. — and (2) elite American universities place a very low priority on teaching, it follows that (3) teaching is not an important part of what elite American universities do.

This is a very reasonable conclusion.

The only reason it seems surprising, the deep-seated ideology that says the vast inequalities around us must be somehow necessary or in the best interests of everyone. So we are told that people’s very different access to the good things of life is simply compensation for their separable, quantifiable distinct contributions to production. Rather than what they really are, conventional and more or less arbitrary claims on an irreducibly social product.

Obviously the main convention creating the illusion that social production can be broken up into separate individual contributions is private property, and it’s also the main convention assigning shares of the product unequally to different people. But under capitalism private property tends to concentrate without limit, a process that leads intense class conflict and instability. (That’s Marx, but also history.) So successful capitalist societies end up developing supplemental systems to help allocate claims on the social product and positions of privilege.

Everyone knows in real life that the relationship college-degree -> better-job is direct, there’s no greater-skills term in between. But when we talk about this in the abstract we’re supposed to forget everything we know from our own experience and accept the cant about human capital.

From this point of view, it really doesn’t matter what universities teach, or if they teach at all. It’s pure surplusage. All that’s required is (1) the supply of degrees match up reasonably well, in number and in differentiation, with the privileged positions to be allocated; (2) access to degrees be restricted enough by class to give the currently privileged reasonable confidence that their children will retain their status (this need not be absolute); and (3) be generally accepted as legitimate. That universities ended up filling this role is probably a historical accident, though. One could imagine various other forms of quasi-property that would fulfill the same function. And to be fair, it’s certainly a good thing that research centers turned out to be the ones handing out the rent-collection tickets and not, say, the military or the church.

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ndg 05.18.10 at 11:57 pm

Regarding administrators “timid about pressing faculty too hard”, at my research university, the agreement with the union prohibits distribution of the results of student evaluations to anyone other than the instructor (except at certain high levels of aggregation).

That’s not unreasonable, since (as you say) no-one can agree on instruments for measuring quality, so collectively are rather wary of making the data public. But from an administrative perspective, it means there’s nothing to be done but provide resources (e-learning tools seem to be the big thing at the moment), encourage instructors to use them, and hope it all works out. In an environment of “evidence-based funding”, that’s a really hard sell.

@PHB: In all fairness, at that type of event I always hear people say that yes, they could have gotten the same information from a book, but there was no way they would have had five uninterrupted days to do it.

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y81 05.19.10 at 12:13 am

This critique of various courses, that the classroom (or lecture hall) instruction doesn’t furnish anything that isn’t in the textbook, does not have much validity, for several reasons. First, people learn in different ways: some learn better from solitary reading, some from lectures. Second, each individual will probably learn something more effectively by being exposed to it repeatedly through various media (i.e., both the reading and the lectures). Third, it can be hard to find the spare time, energy, and zeal to learn something thoroughly just from solitary reading. Fourth, even if a person has basically learned the material from the book, it is likely that he or she may have at least one question along the way, which the instructor can answer (remember, for every person who raises his or her hand and asks a question, there are five others who had the same question and are now instructed).

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ScentOfViolets 05.19.10 at 12:32 am

@PHB: In all fairness, at that type of event I always hear people say that yes, they could have gotten the same information from a book, but there was no way they would have had five uninterrupted days to do it.

This speaks to the different types of material to learn, I suppose. In my case, having the book to hand is no guarantee that what’s printed on the page will be understood by the student. And in fact a large part of my job is not to impart understanding to those who simply can’t read grasp the subjects, but rather to correct misunderstandings. In the words of a great man, “It’s not what don’t know, it’s what you do know that’s not so.”

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jim 05.19.10 at 12:49 am

Does teaching matter at (American) research universities?

No. Research does.

This has been another edition of simple answers to simple questions. (And Harry’s contention that teaching quality might affect an otherwise marginal tenure decision doesn’t change anything. Tiebreakers, that which affects only marginal cases, by definition aren’t central.)

SLACs are different, of course. If you want to be taught, go to Williams rather than Harvard. The rationale behind sending someone to Harvard (or any other major research university) is they will rub up against really really smart people and this contact is more important than any formal teaching which might have occurred.

13

Tommaso 05.19.10 at 1:13 am

Thanks for bringing this up. This is very hard for me to figure out (I am a grad student sometimes teaching undergrad course in econ).

I am sure many are already aware of this appalling thing:

http://tinyurl.com/yyjqwlb

Grade inflation is especially hard for me to understand. Think how less would be noise to signal ratio if a university provided the gpa together with the average gpa and standard dev.n of that institution, maybe even adding an adjusted-for-courses gpa. This would be very easy to implement, give the right incentives to teachers (look, do not inflate grade, we will adjust for that) and soothe the concerns of undergrads. Still, nobody does this.

It could be that it is just signaling: an elite institution is more equipped in providing a productivity signal. Its education does not really add any additional skill but to get in that school and to graduate out of that school is harder for less productive kids and so the signal of productivity is less noisy. This is probably part of the truth but very frustrating for a teacher.

Or maybe it is just networking: an elite institution allows to meet (or marry) other smart (rich) people (Brin and Page come to mind) and makes you smarter (more motivated, cocky etc.) because of that but nothing else. Still very frustrating for a teacher.

I do not have a big theory here but I would look into the wrong pattern of post-graduation incentives. Why a B.A. is needed to get into a medical,law, m.b.a. school (the most lucrative professions)? If we took away that rent, then maybe something would change upstream. Just a thought though.

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Tommaso 05.19.10 at 1:20 am

Just another quick point on “tuition costs rising so rapidly”. This statement is correct but should be handled with caution. Many universities in U.S. now offer substantial financial help (together with Fafsa of course). It seems that more and more they are price-discriminating among students, extracting more and more of the surplus from students (buyers). This is actually a great redistributive scheme (conditional on being able to get accepted at a good university). But for this reason it might be a bit misleading to talk about increasing tuition without mentioning this fact.

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Harry 05.19.10 at 1:53 am

Tommaso — yes, that’s right about tuition costs. Nominal tuition (sticker price) has risen much faster than real tuition – but I believe that even average real tuition has risen at a considerably higher rate than inflation (but I’ll check with my colleagues who actually know this).

Our former Chancellor, when he was Provost, tried to implement a scheme not unlike the one you describe. Or, rather, he mentioned it, and was shot down. Van Johnson’s book Grade Inflation is very interesting about this.

16

Bill Gardner 05.19.10 at 1:56 am

Medical schools have adopted a two-track model: there are ‘Professors’ and ‘Clinical Professors’. The former are researchers, often PhDs or MD/PhDs, and evaluated on publications and grants. The latter are teachers and administrators and usually MDs. They are expected to write, but chapters in textbooks are acceptable. They are evaluated on teaching and those evaluations matter for their promotion. There is a status difference favoring the ‘Professors’, but only inside the academy; no one else knows or cares. If there is a pay differential it may favor the clinicians, and their career ladders can lead to prestigious hospital or medical school jobs. On the whole, I think the system works.

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ScentOfViolets 05.19.10 at 2:14 am

Tommaso—yes, that’s right about tuition costs. Nominal tuition (sticker price) has risen much faster than real tuition – but I believe that even average real tuition has risen at a considerably higher rate than inflation (but I’ll check with my colleagues who actually know this).

Per my earlier post, looking at just tuition increases, nominal or otherwise, doesn’t tell you very much about how the costs of attending these institutions have increased.

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christian h. 05.19.10 at 2:19 am

As Lemuel suggests the fundamental problem is that we live under a system in which a “market” decides what educational practice is. I happen to think that rising tuition costs and the consequent debt burden of students strengthens the credentialing function of higher education compared to the learning function.

This is not, of course, only a function of “teaching” (ie the involvement of the teacher in student learning), it is also a function of the expectation and goals the students themselves have. It is sad but undeniable that the majority of students are well aware of the function universities play in this society (as described by Lemuel); as a result in any given non-honours course I teach the majority of students will be concerned about primarily one thing, their grade. (It may well be this is a particular problem in mathematics courses, for various reasons. Note also I’m not blaming the students for this, it is only rational behaviour on their part given societal norms in capitalism.) In other words, “teaching” and “learning” can’t be separated – if we gave a big bonus tomorrow to every professor who teaches well by some miraculously discovered objective standard I doubt it would affect the learning success (whatever that would be, a whole different issue) of the majority of students.

19

dilbert dogbert 05.19.10 at 2:29 am

Someone said: The elite universities are Hedge Funds with a educational sideline.
Sort of like the car manufacturers are finance companies with a manufacturing sideline.
My late wife who attended UC Berkeley in the late 50’s and that teachers college San Jose State said: The difference between the two was the level of the competition. The level of the teachers was comparable.
You pay the price of the elite to test yourself against the best; well maybe not the best of the best but near enough.

20

Tommaso 05.19.10 at 2:52 am

Harry, yes, I am pretty sure real tuition costs, not just the nominal costs, have risen substantially recently, at least in U.S.. My point was different though. Suppose you want to price-discriminate among students. Assume for simplicity you can do this perfectly (this does not really matter to the quality of the argument). Then a student shows up to “buy” a product from your university (i.e. applies) and you can gauge his willingness to pay for it. To the most willingness to pay (usually the richest) you charge the highest amount. To those less willingness to pay, you charge what they are willing to pay and you, as a university, cover the difference b/w that amount and the full tuition costs, i.e. the amount paid by the richest guy. In this model, the “face value” tuition cost is the amount the richest guy pays. In this sense, I thought the statement might be a bit misleading in that, in this model, it is possible that not everyone (or not even the average guy) ends up paying more and more for college.

I thought I had seen Mankiw making this argument. Indeed, see his point 4 here:

http://tinyurl.com/377n3k9

Let me add that I see this as a qualification to your statement, not as a rebuttal.

21

John Quiggin 05.19.10 at 3:09 am

I’d also like to question the idea that an undergraduate text should give students more than what’s in the textbook. Taking Econ 101 as an example, the dominant textbooks have been by people like Samuelson, Nordhaus, Mankiw and so on. I assume they have put at least as much thought and effort into their books as a highly-motivated lecturer in Econ 101 puts into their lectures. So, a student who absorbed and understood everything in the textbook would surely be at least as well off as one who absorbed and understood everything in the lectures.

The point is, of course, that you can’t teach the average 18yo economics, or anything else, by giving them a textbook and telling them to read it. How exactly attending a lecture adds value is rather mysterious, but it does seem to work, and not because there is extra factual content.

22

Clod Levi-Strauss 05.19.10 at 3:21 am

I’ve dated two professors at top tier research universities. They hated teaching and tried to avoid it as much as possible. That was their own preference. They could have chosen otherwise.

23

weichi 05.19.10 at 3:38 am

There’s no economic law that says that the quality of a product has to rise in line with it’s cost, especially when you are talking about long-term trends. Over the long term, technology has led to large productivity improvements in much of the economy, but this has not happened in education. Therefore, the cost of education has risen faster than inflation.

24

Michael Stiber 05.19.10 at 3:42 am

SoV rightly comments on the redistribution of educational costs from society in general to students, as we have collectively decided that there is no such thing as a “common good” (by “we”, I mean the majority of people who vote in most states). @Sebastian, this has been going on for much longer than jut the last 2-4 years.

In addition, schools have been called on to provide more and more services. How many schools put together the infrastructure and planning to be able to respond to a gunman with an assault rifle on campus 20 years ago? To support large numbers of students who had spent most of their development on medication?

Regarding “institutions” like the University of Phoenix, I cannot comment directly on quality of instruction. However, in computing, I can say that their curriculum could at best be described as freshman year repeated four times in four different languages.

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william u. 05.19.10 at 4:28 am

“The quantitative information in teaching evaluations is very dodgy”

I have a friend who insists on giving every professor perfect marks, because Institute Has The Finest Professors. Only once, for a truly atrocious instructor, did he drop a point from an otherwise perfect score. Even I am loathe to give less than average, as if this is Lake Woebegone College. You might suppose this statistical noise averages out, except that statistics are terrible when you have a sample size of 35.

Another problem is that TA positions are allocated politically: less attention is given to the quality or enthusiasm of the potential TA than whether Prof. A or B needs some assistance funding his student. Given that I’m nominally from Department Alpha but work in Department Beta, my advisor can’t get me a position in Beta and no one is working in Alpha to get me a position there.

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Jem 05.19.10 at 4:48 am

Weichi,

I think you touch on an important point. People are making normative claims based on the assumption that the role of educational institutions ought to be primarily focused on teaching. What is the product? Should it be quality of instruction, or quality of economic outcome. I suspect many people are implicitly relying on the assumption that the purpose of college is to teach people to become better thinkers, etc. However, over the past 50 years or so, the purpose of (higher) education has been to track various people into different economic classes.

Now, I don’t quite understand the ultimate point you are trying to make (or maybe I do, but I’m guessing you mean something more than your simple argument). There seems to be missing a premise in your argument , namely, that education is a product, or at least relevantly similar to something that can be improved in the same manner that a computer program can . If I may generalize, educators tend to think of education as a public good that ought to be immunized from the whims of the market, and it’s unclear what quantitative productivity gains can be had from knowing about Socrates, or Locke, or any of the humanities for that matter. I doubt that any technology could be developed that could produce more productive thinkers other than better access to libraries and journals.

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Thomas 05.19.10 at 4:48 am

There’s a difference between teaching having a small impact on tenure and people not caring about it. My department (which is in a school of public health and so teaches only graduate students, of varying backgrounds) historically will certify almost everyone’s teaching as good enough to get tenure — teaching has been raised as an issue a couple of times that I remember, but hasn’t ever been a reason to deny or postpone tenure that I recall. This may be partly because we have lots of non-teaching positions with funding that is in practice as secure as tenure, so people who don’t want to teach don’t have to. Senior faculty who are tired of teaching often give up tenure and teaching well before retirement.

In any case, although teaching quality is effectively not a predictor of tenure, the teaching faculty do worry about teaching. In the past week I’ve probably had three or four discussions with colleagues about curriculum or about examples to illustrate particular issues. This is probably more than average but is not at all atypical.

28

Bloix 05.19.10 at 4:49 am

“Over the long term, technology has led to large productivity improvements in much of the economy, but this has not happened in education.”

But why not? Why hasn’t competition forced the rationalization of higher ed? I believe that the reason is the federally guaranteed student loan program, which makes it possible for schools to extract maximum value from each student’s projected life-long income stream. The federal guarantee means that the lender does not need to care whether the value added by the education is sufficient to justify the investment. Only the student and his or her family have an incentive to do that, and they are completely unqualified, and get no help in doing it. As long as the loan money is there, the schools can continue to raise tuition faster than the rate of inflation. The fact that the student is unwittingly taking on crushing debt that will prevent him or her from starting a family or owning a home for many years is of no concern to the university.

As for teaching, the average professor at a research institution makes a Soviet-style bargain with the students: I will pretend to teach, and you will pretend to study. Grade inflation insures that there are no consequences to not learning, while making life easier on the professor – it is much harder to sort a stack of 10-page papers into five piles, A through F, than it is to sort them into two piles, A and B. The students think this is just fine, not knowing what they don’t know. They persuade themselves that it doesn’t matter, since what they are really after is the credential, not the education, and the easy grading policy gives them more time to drink. It should be the professors’ job to persuade them of the value of a liberal education. Instead, the rampant careerism of the students gives the professors permission in their own minds to sneer at them and to feel justified in not even trying to educate them.

Having written off the students as callow, crass, and stupid, the professor may now devote him or herself to research. The product of this work is, for the vast majority of professors, of no importance to anyone. Out of all the historians and philosophers and literature professors in the US, only a handful will ever produce work of lasting value. And of these, only a very few will write more than one book or article that will be read ten years from now. Most professors are hobbyists, and their scholarship is no different from the output of Sunday painters and community theater enthusiasts. It may be nice work, in a way, but there’s no possible justification for charging students $50,000 a year to subsidize it.

29

kevincure 05.19.10 at 5:04 am

Wait…I just don’t see the problem. We are presumably talking about R1-style research universities here. The social value of these places is massively titled toward research output rather than teaching. The “good teachers” are the ones who understand and synthesize research from the frontier, but clearly without the frontier research, there could be no good teachers!

And even given that teaching directly counts for very little in academia, the mere fact hat someone is an expert in the field allows them to teach better at the upper levels simply because they have a deeper understanding of the relevant issues. I’ve taken courses at non-elite universities, and there is a difference in the knowledge of the professors that affects student learning.

That said, if we want to emphasize teaching, we can: look at business and law schools for a model. Bad teaching there certainly can cause you to lose your job.

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dsquared 05.19.10 at 6:46 am

There is a status difference favoring the ‘Professors’, but only inside the academy; no one else knows or cares.

what oceans of human joy and misery are contained in that little sentence!

31

otto 05.19.10 at 7:22 am

Having taught and researched on both sides of the Atlantic, the quality of teaching and pressures to teach well are vastly higher in the United States, even in institutions where teaching does not ‘count’ for tenure, than in the European institutions I’ve been involved with, not least because of much more demanding American norms for the amount of student reading, written work, the feedback provided on student work, the preparation and participation that students are expected to do for discussion groups, etc etc. All these are part of the institutions background norms and a lot of impact on students’ learning experience.

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Alex 05.19.10 at 8:38 am

Grade inflation insures that there are no consequences to not learning

CITATION NEEDED

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Phil 05.19.10 at 9:05 am

Re: Bill’s two-track system, my old gaff (a Russell Group institution currently in the world top 30 for research) had something similar for humanities posts: a Lecturer (Teaching-Focused) is expected to take 150% of the teaching workload of a plain old Lecturer & not expected to do much publishing. Or rather, on the letter of the job spec (possibly the product of a slow day in HR) a Lecturer (TF) is expected to publish, but about teaching & learning rather than in their own subject area. (In practice this requirement is enforced very selectively, verging on not at all.)

In the post-92 institution where I teach now, on the other hand, a Lecturer’s standard contact hours are rather higher than the Lecturer (TF)’s at my old place, and a lot more work goes into each of those hours – you can’t get away with a seminar plan consisting of “read the following papers and come prepared to discuss”. The quality of discussion is higher over there, but the quality of teaching seems better where I am now. Research, on the other hand, is pretty much on the “fit it in when you get a moment” principle.

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ajay 05.19.10 at 10:13 am

Why is the “credential” of an undergraduate degree from an “elite” university so important when it’s increasingly apparent that said degree has less and less value on the job market—and that more and more often, you need graduate/professional school to find a job remotely connected to your ambitions?

As pointed out today by Yglesias, an undergraduate degree actually has significant and growing value on the US job market, as measured by the average income of graduates and non-graduates.
http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2010/05/the-growing-college-premium.php

Separate issues:
1) jobs that required a BA 30 years ago now require an MA
2) the rising cost of a degree means that there is a lower RoI on a BA now than there was before

— these may or may not be the case, but they don’t alter the fact that an undergraduate degree does not have “less and less” but actually “more and more” value on the job market.

35

Anderson 05.19.10 at 11:19 am

I am not clear that there are any better metrics for measuring the quality of research than of teaching. Teaching may even be easier to measure in some respects.

Just by way of echoing the point above that teaching is not so inchoately quintessential that it can’t practically be measured as well as we measure job performance elsewhere. Universities just don’t care whether their faculty teach well or not, so long as the customers don’t squawk too loudly and FoxNews doesn’t show up to do a segment on what happened in class.

36

kid bitzer 05.19.10 at 12:10 pm

i work at a prestige private r1 that you have all heard of. (in the much-maligned 1995 nrc ranking it was in the top 15).

we talk about teaching all of the time. we talk about it in the department. we hear about it from the dean’s office. we compete with other departments to have better enrollments.

i supervise my ta’s sections, at least once per ta per semester. i sit in on classes taught by junior faculty and write reports for their folders. i have seen excellent teaching save the tenure case of a candidate whose research was very good (one book with oup, a dozen articles) but not quite good enough on its own (some of the referees wrote negative reports about it). i have seen the same difference made for a promotion to full professor. teaching is taken very seriously here, and good teaching is rewarded.

there may be universities where teaching counts for nothing. there may even be departments or programs within my university where teaching counts for nothing. but in my department, and throughout arts and sciences, teaching is taken very seriously.

that’s not to say that we have good metrics for it, or that we do as much training and experimentation as we should. we should definitely do more. but there is a pervasive and emphatic message that teaching matters.

37

alex 05.19.10 at 12:11 pm

One point is that, the better the students, the less you have to teach them; and indeed, for high enough differentials of ability, there is no amount of teaching nor level of excellence in teaching that could get student A to the level of student B. If you can get into an R1 Uni, maybe you don’t need good teaching?

Also to note – if you as a student are mainly concerned with ‘getting a degree’ rather than ‘deep learning’, your preference may actually be for mediocre teaching that does not expect a great deal of you in return for mediocre marks.

38

Bill Gardner 05.19.10 at 12:27 pm

d^2 @ 27:

what oceans of human joy and misery are contained in that little sentence!

And comedy too! You would have loved the College of Medicine debates, with the ‘Clinical Professors’ fighting to drop the adjective from the title, and ‘Professors’ fighting to keep it. All Malvolios, all the way down.

39

Bloix 05.19.10 at 12:57 pm

Alex at 29: I was trying to state a tautology. I don’t think I need a cite to the fact that at many schools the average grade is an A- and some schools up to 2/3rds of all grades are A’s. And grades are the only feedback most students get. Due to grade inflation, a student whose work should put him in the top 10% of the class gets the same feedback as one who is at the 50% level. When a student finds that he’s doing just as well when he studies 3 hours a week as when he studies 10 hours a week, he’s likely to drift down to 3 hours a week. At 3 hours, he’s not learning nearly as much as he could be learning, but his grades don’t reveal that.

40

Steve LaBonne 05.19.10 at 1:09 pm

I taught at a “semi-elite” liberal arts college (perhaps not quite as close to the elite as it likes to think) and the experience convinced me that much of what passes for the storied quality of teaching at such institutions is a mirage. Sucking up to the students and keeping them happy so they coughed up good scores on the all-important evaluation forms (with the inevitably accompanying grade inflation and content deflation) were what was valued, with precious little thought given to how much they were actually learning. I much prefer being a forensic scientist, where I feel like I’m actually doing something socially useful.

I’ll soon be sending my daughter off to the honors program (which enrolls a small number of students with elite-level academic qualifications, houses them together, and gives them lots of goodies not available to “regular” students) at a solid but not “elite” research-intensive state university, on a scholarship that covers everything but food and books for all 4 years. Now THAT is value for money. I’m a single parent on a modest government salary and could only laugh bitterly at the amounts of money private institutions imagined I could cough up (let’s see, do I stop eating or stop paying my mortgage for 4 years?), on top of outrageous amounts of student loans. Screw them.

41

Walt 05.19.10 at 1:11 pm

Lemuel, I thought your comment was very true, and well-put.

42

Bloix 05.19.10 at 1:16 pm

#26 – “If you can get into an R1 Uni, maybe you don’t need good teaching?”

This is so clueless and arrogant that it’s all I can do not to start ranting and raving.

Carnegie doesn’t use the R1/R2 scheme anymore, but the last time it did, the R1 ranking included such shining lights of the intellectual firmament as Arizona State, Wayne State, Rutgers, Temple, U of Cincinnati, and Purdue. Are you really claiming that any student who can gain admission to Cincinnati is a budding Einstein who is too smart to be taught anything? Do you really believe that the social utility of these institutions is in the value of the research their professors do, and not the education of their students?

Well, perhaps you do believe that. I don’t doubt that many professors tell themselves variants of this story: the good students teach themselves and as for the rest, well, they’re getting their credential. And all I can say is that you have no right to demand that teenagers mortgage themselves until middle age to pay you to do your precious research if you don’t intend to provide anything of value to them.

See, I’m ranting.

http://www.washington.edu/tools/universities94.html

43

Harry 05.19.10 at 1:25 pm

I’m with Bloix (#42). And even the students at the very very elite institutions, who have had enormous amounts of investment by other people into developing their human capital, and most of them with parents who have far more money than anyone would have in a just world, even they could benefit from high quality instruction, and would be better able to make the kind of contribution to the world that they bloody well ought to be making given their situation as a result. If a university really thinks that a student cannot benefit from instruction, it should not admit them.

kid bitzer — you owe it to your institution to name it, rather than to remain coy. I guess I could figure it out from the info you’ve given plus IP address etc, but that would require competence I lack, and anyway, you should be proud enough of its practices to pin them on it.

44

Steve LaBonne 05.19.10 at 1:27 pm

Hey, don’t be dissin’ Cincinnati, that the place I’m sending my kid. ;)

Seriously, it’s a top 25 public university in external research funding and yet (non-honors) admission there is not exactly difficult, so what you said. But at least we’ll be getting the upgraded version of their product and not going into hock for it.

45

Ragtime 05.19.10 at 1:29 pm

Is there even any sort of rough approximation of what “good teacher” means? Have you read professor ratings by students?

Professor A gets a lot of “I had always struggled to understand economics, but I finally understand supply and demand! It never made sense to me, but Professor A gave lots of examples from different angles, and there was always at least one that resonated for me.” She also gets a lot of, “Yeah, I get it. Supply goes down, demand goes up, price increases. It was right there in the book. Why does she have to repeat herself four times? If you read the chapter, feel free to skip the lectures.”

Professor B gets a lot of “What an AMAZING prof! I read the chapter on tax and trade policy, and it seemed really dry, until we got to class and he applied it to the U.S. under the Articles of Confederation, and then to European Monetary Union, and suddenly it completely came alive for me. I took this for as a mandatory, but now I’m totally majoring in it!” He also gets a lot of “WTF?!?!? I had to check to door to make sure I was in the right room!!! We read a chapter on tax and trade, and I think I understood some of it, but then we go to class and he spends 90 minutes talking about the Euro! There was NO MENTION of the Euro in the chapter at all! You didn’t need any of it for the final, anyway, so if you read the book, skip the lectures.”

Are either of those Professors “good teachers”? I don’t know.

46

Steve LaBonne 05.19.10 at 1:36 pm

What Ragtime just said, x1000. I saw exactly that kind of thing all the time in an institution that tried to treat these stupid forms as gospel.

47

Harry 05.19.10 at 1:37 pm

A good teacher is one whose students learn a lot from him or her. The evidence in your evals is…ambiguous, as is the way with evals. One observation is that “good teaching” is relational — take Jaime Escalante who clearly was an excellent teacher for the students he taught in LA, and nowhere near as good for the students he taught in Sacramento (lacking, presumably, the deep tacit knowledge and understanding of what it was that excited and motivated those students that he had had relative to the LA students). In a large lecture course I suspect I am a good-ish teacher of some of the students in the room and a lousy teacher of others, and one thing that “taking teaching seriously” would amount to in a university would be developing resources to enable me better to figure out which students I’m lousy with and how to get better with them without getting worse with the others.

48

kid bitzer 05.19.10 at 1:52 pm

@43.2–

it is not my employer’s identity i am trying to conceal, but my own.

for various reasons. you know–we academic mall-ninjas try to stay invisible.

49

Slocum 05.19.10 at 2:01 pm

To illustrate: one of our commenters (sorry, can’t find any links, but I swear it’s true) has complained a number of times that his daughter takes an Economics class at a highly selective state research university for which he pays a fortune in which she learns nothing that she couldn’t have learned from the textbook. But if our commenter just wanted the learning for his daughter he could just pay for the textbook – he doesn’t just want the learning, he wants the competitive advantage that she gets from a degree from an elite college.

I still do wander by here once in a while to see what going on, and will make an exception to my policy of having sworn off commenting. Anyway, that was my daughter. And it was not the highly-selective state university here (Michigan) but rather the selective state university here (Michigan State). It’s true that we did not just want the learning, but it wasn’t the competitive advantage either — it was the credential (the required 4 credits in Econ). She could have gotten the learning for free, and she’s not getting any great competitive advantage for having taken 100-level econ at Michigan State–but paying for it was the only way to get the necessary credits.

Note, too, that as far as cost goes, it really wouldn’t have mattered if that course HAD been taken at Michigan in Ann Arbor or, for that matter, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, etc — tuition, books, fees, room and board really don’t differ much from the regionals to the flagship. UM is only marginally more expensive for in-state students.

So really the only way to get those credits at a discount is to do a year or two at a community college. That IS dramatically cheaper, and the instruction is arguably superior even to what is offered at public ivy (no large lectures), but a detour through community college is a tough decision to make for an academically ambitious 18-year-old who also wants to get out of the house.

John Quiggin: How exactly attending a lecture adds value is rather mysterious, but it does seem to work, and not because there is extra factual content.

Is there ANY data at all to support that mysterious sense of added value? Because Robert Frank talks about some research that seems to indicate that, for Economics, the lasting effects of the whole traditional Econ course including books, lecture, discussion –the whole package–is negligible:

http://files.libertyfund.org/econtalk/y2007/Franknaturalist.mp3

Start about 1:10 into the discussion where he talks about testing students 6 months after the course is over and discovering that they score no better than students who have never taken the course.

50

LFC 05.19.10 at 2:04 pm

@34:As pointed out today by Yglesias, an undergraduate degree actually has significant and growing value on the US job market, as measured by the average income of graduates and non-graduates.

It’s not controversial, I think, that the average lifetime income of BA-holders is higher than that of non-graduates (and that the gap may be widening). But implicit in the comment @3 — to which 34 was responding — is a different question, namely: do graduates of “elite” institutions have higher average incomes than graduates of “non-elite” institutions? The answer to this question is much less intuitively clear, at least to me, and I’d be interested to be pointed in the direction of some evidence on this question (and by evidence I mean hard evidence, as in data, not assertions). I imagine such evidence exists, and presumably someone here knows where it can most easily be located.

51

ScentOfViolets 05.19.10 at 2:16 pm

In a large lecture course I suspect I am a good-ish teacher of some of the students in the room and a lousy teacher of others, and one thing that “taking teaching seriously” would amount to in a university would be developing resources to enable me better to figure out which students I’m lousy with and how to get better with them without getting worse with the others.

This points to one of the problems of student evaluations – the evaluators are not only unreliable, but are all treated exactly alike. In a class of 25, the odds are you’re going to have five unteachables, no matter how good you are (just to put some numbers down.) Further, it has been my experience that these unteachables will be doing poorly in more than one class, and they will blame the teacher every time. Yet their anonymous opinion will count just as much as anyone elses. If professional evaluations are based in part on these student evaluations, is it any wonder that grades get inflated?

52

alex 05.19.10 at 2:21 pm

@42, 43: you seem to have misunderstood me, perhaps I have also misunderstood what ‘R1’ means. Let me rephrase. A student who gets into Oxford is, by definition, brilliant, in the top 0.01%, or possibly 0.001% of any vague distribution of academic ability amongst their cohort. They literally do not need to be ‘taught’ in the way that less-gifted students do; yet their seat of learning is renowned for producing brilliant graduates. Those kids could be locked in the library for 3 years and never see an academic, and still be brighter, and better-informed, when they came out than most of their contemporaries.

The unfairness is that, if as I do you teach students who are far less ‘brilliant’ to begin with, you will never raise them to the standard that Oxford allegedly achieves, because Oxford isn’t achieving it at all, the students are. Which is not to say that bad teaching can’t prevent people achieving their potential, of course it can; but the best teaching can’t get people to surpass their potential.

53

kid bitzer 05.19.10 at 2:27 pm

@52–

right–the model of university as a convenient rendez-vous for people who were already destined to do well.

in this picture, the elite university adds no educational value, it just provides a place for people to converge on, and a competitive admissions process to ensure that only certain people get to converge. they arrive smart and well-informed, they leave smart and well-informed, and the profs didn’t have any significant effect.

this is definitely a possibility that troubles me. i would like to think that i and my colleagues are making a significant difference, but it’s very hard to prove. and i certainly doubt if we are making *such* a significant difference that we could drop our competitive admissions program and turn out graduates who are as well-informed as our current ones are.

54

ajay 05.19.10 at 2:32 pm

50: ah, OK. interesting question. Apparently the answer is yes:
http://www.foxbusiness.com/story/personal-finance/on-topic/education/harvardshmarvard/

While graduates from all types of schools tend to increase their salaries as they progress through life, Ivy Leaguers do get a bump.
Lee offers this example: Right after graduation, the pay difference between Harvard University and University of Washington graduates is $15,000. But when those graduates hit midcareer in their 40s, the pay levels jumps to $85,000 to $125,000 — a difference of $40,000..

55

Steve LaBonne 05.19.10 at 2:38 pm

@54: and don’t forget, that’s probably an arithmetic mean so it’s dragged down by the likes of me. ;)

56

roac 05.19.10 at 2:40 pm

@ 52 & 53: Isn’t it a truism that when you put the top-tail students together, as at Oxford and Harvard, they will teach each other, regardless of variations in the effectiveness of individual faculty?

57

Bloix 05.19.10 at 2:42 pm

Ragtime at #45 – you’re describing two feedback problems, the solutions to which are within the control of the professor, but due to institutional pressures the problems are not solved.

Prof A is failing to get sufficient feedback from her students. She doesn’t know the level of difficulty to pitch the lectures, because she’s not getting enough feedback from the class on their level of comprehension. One way to deal with that is frequent short quizes. Another is to call on two or three students at random in each class with short, targeted questions. Both require more work than straight lecturing. Both will encourage students to come to class prepared, and to attend discussion sections and if necessary to seek out additional help, which will tend to bring preparedness up to a more equal level. Both will antagonize a fair percentage of students and professors may decide that they are not worth the bother and the risk of negative evaluations (ie they would rather pretend to teach and allow the students to pretend to learn.)

Prof B’s problem is the reverse – he is not giving the students enough feedback. He is teaching material in class, but then choosing not to test on it, which tells the students that the material is not important. If Prof B devotes 90 minutes to an illustration using the euro, he should ask about the euro in a quiz. But Prof B doesn’t want to spend a lot of time grading – or genuinely doesn’t have time to spend on grading – so he gives no quizes. He gives only two tests – a midterm and a final – and there’s no room with only two tests to use them to provide the necessary feedback. Of course, just as professors don’t like to give quizes, students don’t like to take them. So again, the professor pretends to teach, etc.

58

kid bitzer 05.19.10 at 2:46 pm

@56–

“truism” in the sense of “lots of people say it and others nod sagely”? sure.

but so far as “truism” in the sense of “true”? once again, we just lack the data.

59

Bloix 05.19.10 at 2:47 pm

Steve Labonne – my apologies for the “shining lights of the intellectual firmament” crack. I told you I was ranting. What I meant was that the students are bright kids but they are not Einsteins who can’t profit from teaching.

60

Steve LaBonne 05.19.10 at 2:52 pm

Bloix- no need to apologize, I was being completely facetious. Many of the regular-admission students at schools like Cincinnati are frankly NOT particularly bright kids. That’s why it was especially important to me that the honors students are housed together and are given other opportunities to congregate with one another.

61

Steve LaBonne 05.19.10 at 2:56 pm

Bloix @ 57, but what do Profs. A and B do about a situation in which they both ARE teaching at the appropriate level- but for only half the students in each case? Teaching classes of very heterogeneous ability / interest / background levels is acknowledged at all levels of education to be a very difficult challenge. I think you’re being a bit hard on both of them.

62

CJColucci 05.19.10 at 3:05 pm

There is a major disconnect between what research universities want to produce and what the rest of society is willing to pay for. Outside of certain applied hard sciences and a few other areas, there is little demand for academic research. If research into Milton’s poetry or sex roles in ancient Assyria had to be funded directly, very little of it would get done. So people who know how to create new knowledge about Milton and Assyrian women have to get funded by offering to use some part of their accumulated intellectual capital to teach undergraduates the rudiments of English literature or ancient history. But these folk advance in their careers by doing what they are not paid to do, rather than what they are paid to do. Which are they more likely to do well, and which ill?
Not that I oppose this system, despite its built-in conflicts of interest and inefficiencies. I have no idea how else to accomplish its goals, and I do want those goals accomplished. Still, it would be prudent to appease the folk who are footing the bill for what we really want to do while hoping we give them something they want in return.

63

Salient 05.19.10 at 3:07 pm

kid bitzer—you owe it to your institution to name it, rather than to remain coy.

Well, shucks. I hope this suggested rule only applies to tenured individuals…

64

Doctor Science 05.19.10 at 3:11 pm

I am reminded of DougJ’s post at Balloon Juice about savviness:

When I first went to college [later revealed to be Harvard], I was surprised by the way the other students viewed everything as a system to try to beat. You didn’t take a class because the subject was interesting, you took it because the subject was fashionable, because the professor was about to become famous, etc. etc. It was important to be savvy, not curious. Curious was for weirdos and wall-flowers, savvy was for the winners.

In the discussion, one point that came out was how strongly this attitude is correlated with the presence of a MBA program at the school. (It may also correlate with a law school, but you’d have to do a multivariate analysis to see if you could separate the two factors.)

To me, it seems as though the conflict isn’t between “teaching” and “research”, it’s between institutions and forces that favor “savvy” credentialism and networking, and those that favor learning. MBA programs are all about the former, and their attitude tends to influence (or infect) the rest of the university — not least because the universities tend to be run by people with MBAs.

Conversely, I have been absolutely staggered by the teaching quality at my offspring’s SLAC-type school — much better across the board than I experienced at Princeton, even though I had some amazing, outstanding teachers and there was no MBA/law school to muddy the waters.

65

Bloix 05.19.10 at 3:19 pm

Steve LaBonne – #61 – I agree it’s a challenge. But it’s something that has to be accepted as a challenge and it’s the professor’s job to try to do something about it.

Look at SoV at #51, who claims that it’s just the way of the world that 25% of all students are ineducable. First of all, if that’s true, they should be flunking, not getting B’s, and the professors are collaborating in a scam by taking their money and passing them along. And second of all, a 25% percent failure rate should be unacceptable in any institution. If it’s really true that 25% of students at an institution are “unteachables” that is a crisis of major proportions. Why are they unteachable? Is college not for them? Then why are we admitting them? Are our admissions procedures so faulty that our tools for distinguishing between teachables and unteachables has a 25% error rate? Or do we admit known unteachables because we like their money and we need their butts to fill chairs and justify our own existences? Or are we failing to reach them? And if it’s our failure, then what should we do differently? But this complacency in the face of a perceived 25% failure rate is simply mind-boggling.

66

Doctor Science 05.19.10 at 3:20 pm

alex@52:

A student who gets into Oxford is, by definition, brilliant, in the top 0.01%, or possibly 0.001% of any vague distribution of academic ability amongst their cohort.

You’re being ironic, right?

Students who get into Oxford (or Harvard) are a carefully-calibrated mixture: those whose wealth and connections mean that they are going to succeed regardless of education, those who are poor-but-talented and will succeed once they develop connections with the first group, and a few who are brilliant enough to be interesting for the professors to talk to.

67

Salient 05.19.10 at 3:23 pm

Bloix is intensely determined to win this thread. +1 to Bloix for that.

68

Bloix 05.19.10 at 3:25 pm

Doctor Science – “My Freshman Year” by anthropologist Cathy Small found the same sort of “savviness” at Northern Arizona University, a place as different from Harvard as you can possibly imagine.

PS- the “we” in #65 is rhetorical. I am not an educator. Also, I did not really serve in Viet Nam.

69

Steve LaBonne 05.19.10 at 3:26 pm

@65, I agree the professors shouldn’t be complacent, but I also think they need and should be getting much more help and support from their institutions than is currently the case in almost any college or university. Just throwing teachers into the classroom to sink or swim works badly, whether it’s in K-12 or higher education.

Also that help and support needs to be well-informed and data-driven, not just the usual nostrums like blind faith in student evaluations.

(But frankly I’m just glad I’m no longer part of the “we” in your comment.)

70

ScentOfViolets 05.19.10 at 3:27 pm

you seem to have misunderstood me, perhaps I have also misunderstood what ‘R1’ means. Let me rephrase. A student who gets into Oxford is, by definition, brilliant, in the top 0.01%, or possibly 0.001% of any vague distribution of academic ability amongst their cohort. They literally do not need to be ‘taught’ in the way that less-gifted students do; yet their seat of learning is renowned for producing brilliant graduates. Those kids could be locked in the library for 3 years and never see an academic, and still be brighter, and better-informed, when they came out than most of their contemporaries.

But doesn’t the traditional argument go towards “achieving potential” or some other such buzz phrase?

I can teach just about everyone “college algebra” (ie, the algebra you would have learned in high school had you been paying attention the four times you took it), and yes, any of these top performers can learn this on their own. Let’s move up to calculus with trigonometry: I couldn’t teach nearly as many of the original crop of students (though I hope I could get across the notions to most of them.) In this case, a lot of these top-performing kids could still learn the subject on their own, but there would be some gaps – not many – and some of the material would be misunderstood.

Let’s jump up to the graduate level: I could talk and wave my arms and make diagrams for eight hours a day, and the odds are that only two or three of those original students would understand more than a very little abstract algebra or could actually ever formally prove a proposition. And at this level even your best of the best are going to need some instruction and guidance. Sure, there’s always those one or two who would get it all by themselves, but that’s not the top one percent or even the top tenth of a percent – that’s more like a hundredth or a thousandth of a percent.

71

Steve LaBonne 05.19.10 at 3:28 pm

Doctor Science. you forgot about the fourth category- just plain admissions-office mistakes, like me. ;)

72

Harry 05.19.10 at 3:33 pm

Doctor Science — Oxbridge is unlike the American elite elites, in that personal wealth and connections can no longer have any direct effects on whether you are admitted — all effects have to be mediated by quite narrow academic achievement and performance in an interview. This has done almost nothing to affect the proportions of posh kids getting in, but probably has done something to affect what happens to them in the previous 13 years. In terms of raw “natural” academic ability, sure, they are probably not in the top 0.x%, but in terms of narrow academic achievement they probably are. This is a change from when Cameron, Clegg and Johnson went to Oxbridge, and even then it was considerably more “meritocratic” than the US equivalents. Illustration of change over time: Prince Charles attended a Cambridge college, but neither of his sons had any prospect of doing so.

73

ScentOfViolets 05.19.10 at 3:38 pm

Look at SoV at #51, who claims that it’s just the way of the world that 25% of all students are ineducable. First of all, if that’s true, they should be flunking, not getting B’s, and the professors are collaborating in a scam by taking their money and passing them along. And second of all, a 25% percent failure rate should be unacceptable in any institution. If it’s really true that 25% of students at an institution are “unteachables” that is a crisis of major proportions. Why are they unteachable? Is college not for them?

Where did I say they weren’t getting poor grades or dropping out? In fact, I would guess that by their junior or senior year, at least 20% (5 out of 25 isn’t 25%, Bloix) of the original class is no longer attending that particular school. That doesn’t mean that the students who have left haven’t already given plenty of poor evaluations. And yes, I do prefer teaching juniors and seniors to incoming freshmen for a variety of reasons. One of which is simply a work ethic. Those 5 out of 25? I can guarantee to nail practically every one of them by the time of the first exam, just by looking at their homework assignments. If say, six have been assigned and they’ve only bothered to turn in two, and those not complete, well, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re not going to do well. Remember, “hard to educate” does not necessarily imply that these people are incapable of grasping the material. Most of the time it simply means that they aren’t even really trying.

imho, of course.

74

Ragtime 05.19.10 at 4:15 pm

do graduates of “elite” institutions have higher average incomes than graduates of “non-elite” institutions? The answer to this question is much less intuitively clear, at least to me, and I’d be interested to be pointed in the direction of some evidence on this question

Yes. Malcolm Gladwell reported in the New Yorker that University of Pennsylvania (an mid-level Ivy) grads make more money than Penn State (a mid-level flagship state school) grads. He also reports that students who were admitted to Penn, but were also admitted and chose to go to Penn State (for whatever reason), made as much money as Penn grads.

So, Penn was not training their students better to make more money (or providing a better credential that allowed them to earn more.) Rather, they were simply good as selecting those students who would eventually earn the most.

http://www.learntoquestion.com/resources/database/archives/001429.html

75

mpowell 05.19.10 at 4:34 pm

I think you are making too much out of this issue. Teaching is an important part of an elite university’s function. But there is a more important function. People talk about credentialing as if you are just paying for the elite degree. But that is not a fair or informative description of what is going on. What is happening is that first, the elite school selects for a group of high performing students by attracting them through it’s prestige and by applying the correct filters. Second, the course work demands a level of performance and understanding from the students that only such a select group of students could actually meet. Finally, the students who fulfill those requirements get a degree that is a substantively meaningful credential. That is the core value that a university delivers to it’s undergraduates. And it’s value is directly related to prestige of the university.

If you are talking about education, sure the school delivers that as well. But that only matters on the margin. Make no mistake, maybe half of those students could get that education by reading the book and doing the problem sets (which they maybe could do without paying tuition), but fewer than 5 percent (even at the best of universities I am very confident of this – and why it is so hard to take advantages of the economic benefits of junior college for most students) of them could make it through that process without being fully emersed in the college environment and being provided with the short term feedback-reward-punishment system of regular grading. So it is worth it to pay the money (and invest the time) to get both the education and the credential together.

76

Doctor Science 05.19.10 at 4:38 pm

Bloix @68:

Actually, it supports my argument: NAS and Harvard are *not* “as different as you can possibly imagine”, they both have Business Schools. IMHO one additional source of savvy infection, not discussed in the Balloon Juice thread, is a big-name athletic program: when the campus celebrities are purely and explicitly at college for the credentials, savvy credentialism gets even more prestige.

Harry @72: I stand corrected. I had no idea that things at Oxbridge had changed so much in the past generation.

Do you think this change has been a factor in the current woes of the British education system? Part of the admissions dance of the American Ivies is to placate wealthy, powerful alumni (and donors) by ensuring that their children continue to benefit. If British higher education doesn’t support the status quo as it used to, perhaps the status quo doesn’t feel like supporting higher ed.

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Doctor Science 05.19.10 at 4:46 pm

mpowell @75: That is the core value that a university delivers to it’s undergraduates

Cynically, I must disagree. The core value of an elite university is the Old Child Network. It is, to an enormous degree, not What You Know but Who You Know — and the latter absolutely cannot be gained by doing the work on your own. “Learning credentials” of the sort U. of Phoenix could (theoretically) give are minor compared to social credentials: the network of friends, associates, teachers, etc., that expands out from a top-ranked university.

I think a large part of the huge pressure to get into the “best” schools comes from parents’ rational calculation that success in America is not “merit-based” but “network-based”, and that access to the most powerful networks is worth a very high price.

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kid bitzer 05.19.10 at 5:00 pm

dr. sci. @77–

“the network of friends, associates, teachers, etc., that expands out from a top-ranked university”

don’t forget spouses. one reason you send your kids to the right schools is so that they’ll marry the right people. even if they don’t marry during college (and the right people generally don’t), they are likely to marry the right person from their school a few years down the road, or the right sibling of their right dorm-mate.

these are mating-age humans. also, marrying age. as you get older, it looks more and more like part of what parents are paying for is a selective dating-service. here again, the connection between the quality of the teaching and the provision of the service that people pay for is pretty indirect.

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chris 05.19.10 at 5:18 pm

So we’ve pretty much agreed that “elite” universities are not really educational institutions, but rather, something more like Almack’s?

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ScentOfViolets 05.19.10 at 5:25 pm

So we’ve pretty much agreed that “elite” universities are not really educational institutions, but rather, something more like Almack’s?

Blink. Well, no, not that I can see. We’re still at the “how do you define added value” stage.

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alex 05.19.10 at 5:29 pm

Note to self: must become posher before attempting to get my kids into elite institutions.

On another subject, is anyone willing to dispute the notion that actual teaching in non-elite institutions may in fact be better?

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Doctor Science 05.19.10 at 5:29 pm

kid bitzer:

This is almost embarrassingly true. It does bring into focus why colleges are (rightly) concerned about deviations from a 50:50 sex ratio: they don’t feel they can *say* “and we offer an ideal marriage market”, but it’s implicit.

chris:

It’s not *all* they are, but the Almack’s-type function — which was always there for women’s liberal arts colleges anyway — has become more generally important. And the fact is that in human history the value of an education comes and goes, but the value of the Right Sort of marriage is universal.

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Lemuel Pitkin 05.19.10 at 5:42 pm

Walt@41,

Thanks! I however think that Doctor Science and kid bitzer have made substantially the same point more pithily.

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mpowell 05.19.10 at 6:21 pm

Doctor Science:

Well, there are a lot of different job markets out there. As an engineer, I can say that this was pretty much irrelevant in the link between my college experience and career. You develop business connections during your career, not as an undergraduate. I can also say with a high level of confidence that it doesn’t really matter in law or medicine either for the vast majority. You just need to get into the right law or med school. Banking, sometimes, maybe. Business… well, that’s really what the MBA is for, not undergrad. I doubt that connections building is all that important at the undergraduate level and I also doubt that it’s a driving factor in applicant decision-making.

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Steve LaBonne 05.19.10 at 6:31 pm

I think what mpowell says in 84 is true of future members of all the learned professions including future academics. College is much too early to do the kind of networking that will really be crucial to such careers.

The “elite” universities make their living by pandering to acute upper-middle-class status anxiety. The reality of what they actually provide to their students is considerably more mundane than the hype, and its cost-effectiveness to heavily indebted non-wealthy students is questionable to say the least.

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Harry 05.19.10 at 6:31 pm

DS (76) — I don;t think its a factor, because private support was a trivial part of the funding for elites even in earlier days, and because, ironically, it seems that Oxbridge is still relatively immune to what is going on right now. I think the roots of the current crisis are in the massive expansion in the 80s and 90s, which was far too quick for institutions to manage, and the long-term financing consequences of which governments were unwilling to face up to. The coming increase in tuition costs (real and nominal) is, I think, the inevitable consequence of those decisions, and will go some way to ameliorating the current situation, but will bring all sorts of unwelcome problems of its own..

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weichi 05.19.10 at 7:39 pm

Jem,

It does seem a bit offensive to try to put a monetary value on learning about, say, political philosophy. But that wasn’t really where I was going.

My point is simply that over the last 40 years there have been no technological advances that allow a professor to teach Socrates and Locke to more students each semester, or any advances that allow a professor to teach Locke more effectively to the same number of students. On the other hand, there have been many technological advances that allow, e.g., an autoworker to produce more cars each year, a computer programmer to produce programs that do more things, that allow doctors to treat diseases better, etc. Therefore the cost of being taught Socrates and Locke by a professors should go up relative to these other things.

I won’t claim this is an airtight argument, or that it explains all of the tuition increases, but I think it has to at least be part of the story.

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mpowell 05.19.10 at 8:27 pm


The reality of what they actually provide to their students is considerably more mundane than the hype, and its cost-effectiveness to heavily indebted non-wealthy students is questionable to say the least.

Well, didn’t Harvard promise that students with family income under 70K would have a free ride? I’m pretty sure that tuition assistance applies further up the income ladder as well. I don’t know what the actual financial burden of different types of education are today, but I don’t really believe that debt is the primary concern here.

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Harry 05.19.10 at 8:40 pm

mpowell – -that’s right, but only about the very high end of the distribution. Nobody becomes burdened with debt at Harvard (unless they have very rich and very unhelpful parents). They do at state flagships (because they rarely get help with living costs, which are the big expense for them).

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Steve LaBonne 05.19.10 at 8:46 pm

Well, didn’t Harvard promise that students with family income under 70K would have a free ride?

Yes, and a few schools have followed suit, but only a few. Debt is still a huge concern even at institutions only a little below Harvard’s prestige (and admissions difficulty) level so this is a quantitatively trivial improvement in the lot of the overall population even just of the most highly-qualified students. Trust me, I know this up close and personal from my daughter’s financial aid offers.

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mpowell 05.19.10 at 9:43 pm

So what is the cost of a state flagship for state residents these days? I guess it might very a lot by state. How about UT or Berkeley?

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y81 05.19.10 at 10:02 pm

“The core value of an elite university is the Old Child Network. “

I disagree strenuously. I know lots of upper middle class professionals (I am one myself), and can fairly claim to be a dull normal son of old New Haven (being a lawyer at a big firm). I have never met a fellow professional who had useful contacts dating from college or even law school. There are several reasons, most notably that the number of people in New York City likely to be professionally useful (i.e., in my case, people who dispose considerable amounts of legal work related to real estate finance) isn’t more than one hundred, and there’s no reason to think that any of them was even at college with me. Meanwhile, the people I did meet in college are doctors, or investment bankers who do something other than real estate finance, or lawyers at other firms who are competitors, or government functionaries, or professors–all of them useless.

What a top college does is guarantee that your resume will always be put on the top of the pile and looked at seriously. That is worth the cost.

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Harry 05.19.10 at 10:47 pm

mpowell — it varies between about $8k on the low end and $13k or so on the high. We’re on the low end but rising pretty fast (UW Madison). Double, or more than double, that for living expenses (which are pretty constant between public and private institutions).

I think people believe that prestige of first degree gives you a big leg up in entry to grad school/professional school. I’ve no idea whether there’s any evidence on that. In my own small experience it definitely doesn’t, but mine may be eccentric (esp because its based largely on what I choose to do).

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ChrisJ 05.19.10 at 10:54 pm

Way back upthread somebody mentioned the importance of learning from fellow students. I think this aspect needs more emphasis. Forty years ago I went to a place that’s perennially in the top ten of the small liberal arts college list. I came from a small town, where I’d been the whiz kid, and had before never met so many smart people in my life. I learned hugely from them. No book-reading could have accomplished that.

That said, the networking aspect was true back then and still is, I think. I know doors were opened to me on account of where I went to college; I sent my daughter to a Seven Sister’s school, and I’m quite certain she’s also reaped benefits from her special bit of parchment. It’s not really fair, I suppose, but there it is.

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y81 05.19.10 at 11:29 pm

@94:

Do you mean “doors were opened” and “special benefits reaped” on account of whom you met at college? Because I actually don’t think that’s very common. Give some examples. Or do you mean that these things happened because of the prestige of a diploma from Williams or wherever? That I think is very common, but it isn’t what I would call “networking”; it’s what I would call “credentialing.”

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Steve LaBonne 05.19.10 at 11:40 pm

The thing about credentialing though is that if you’re headed for any kind of graduate or professional school and your performance and recommendations at a decent but non-upper-crust undergraduate institution are up to snuff, you can get into a top grad school and get your door-opening credential from that. Like my developmental biologist, Northwestern-professor sister who went to Rochester on a full ride and then got her Ph.D. at Harvard and did her postdoc at Caltech. (I refer to her as “the real scientist in the family.”)

So unless your undergrad degree is intended to be terminal there’s still no good reason to go neck-deep in hock for the credential.

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Red 05.19.10 at 11:43 pm

I am with Otto @31. I’ve also been an academic on both sides of the Atlantic and I agree: teaching at the undergraduate level in the US is vastly superior to anything you’ll find in Europe. And I disagree with the contention that it doesn’t count toward tenure. At my place (smallish research U., though) You won’t even come up for tenure if you can’t teach.

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ChrisJ 05.19.10 at 11:45 pm

@94:

I see your distinction. I meant what you’re calling “credentialing.” Things may have changed in the past 20 years, but when I served a couple of tours on medical school admissions committees back then the credential helped. A lot. Again, it’s not completely fair, but it is real.

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bianca steele 05.19.10 at 11:57 pm

It’s interesting that most of the people now commenting on this thread are in the sciences and engineering, though they’re talking about something (class issues, the habitus of academic disciplines) that is more associated with the humanities, and the thread began with a discussion of humanities teaching. Although I would expect there to be a disproportionate representation of people in science and technology fields on the Internet, here on CT the proportions seem to be reversed, so this is somewhat surprising.

What about the humanities? Poor teaching in the sciences isn’t going to do much harm (though it might cause resentment), unless students are being taught something egregious like that their cosmology course will help them cast horoscopes. Students who can’t cope with poor teaching will do poorly on the exams and will drop out. But poor teaching in the humanities will result in huge numbers of students with misconceptions about topics of pretty general importance.

And what is the point of teaching them to undergraduates anyway? They are not preprofessional disciplines, as if you study music history because you decided at the tender age of 17 to become a music critic, or (like in a story by Orson Scott Card) if you were prohibited from reading music criticism because you’d never studied it in school.

My experience with humanities teaching at a second tier Ivy was vastly different from my husband’s at a huge private research university. (IIRC I share with Doctor Science the experience of being among the first women to attend a school that had only just begun to admit women, though Columbia is not as conservative as Princeton and the Reagan era was an interesting time to be in college. And I’d guess my high school is among the very least impressive represented here.)

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Steve LaBonne 05.20.10 at 12:01 am

The credential helps if you’re a somewhat marginal applicant. I was a rather indifferent student at Harvard and being from there certainly got me admitted to Ph.D. programs I wouldn’t have gotten into with a similar track record at Enormous State University or Mediocre Bucolic College. But if you’re really good you’ll get into top grad schools from anywhere. And at least in science at some point you have to start demonstrating that you’re really good or your career is going nowhere, credentials or no credentials.

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Doctor Science 05.20.10 at 1:28 am

I admit that my estimate of the importance of the Old Child Network is influenced by the fact that, at present, *three* Supreme Court nominations in a row have gone to people who attended Princeton as undergraduates. Speaking as an alumna, that is preposterous: we’re good, but we’re not *that* good, no-one is.

I’m not sure how you would distinguish, in these cases, between “networking” and “credentialing”. Partly it’s a matter of meeting the kind of people who can help you get into Yale or Harvard Law, and can help you once you’re there — by showing you the ropes, or just by having done it already. And partly it’s that the Princeton name will, as people have noted above, open doors that might not have been opened so easily, put Alito or Sotomayor or Kagan’s name at the top of a pile of applications instead of in the middle. In all their cases, the Princeton connection will have eased them into being comfortable with people (and having people be comfortable with them) whose parents were of higher social class than theirs. I think of that kind of class transition as “networking”, but y81 may call it “credentialling”; either way, it has a large component that’s touchy-feely and difficult to measure.

I do wonder if it’s possible that such an elite education/credential process might reduce the tendency to Imposter Syndrome, which I’ve seen have horrible, crippling effects on extremely talented people (especially but not only women), but it seems to me less so among Ivy alums. It may just be my coign of vantage, though.

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LFC 05.20.10 at 2:01 am

Ragtime @74: thanks for the reference/link to the Gladwell piece.

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LFC 05.20.10 at 2:06 am

p.s. also thanks to ajay for the earlier link in response to the same question.

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ajay 05.20.10 at 9:09 am

87: My point is simply that over the last 40 years there have been no technological advances that allow a professor to teach Socrates and Locke to more students each semester, or any advances that allow a professor to teach Locke more effectively to the same number of students…Therefore the cost of being taught Socrates and Locke by a professors should go up.

Is this actually true, though? I should say at this point that I didn’t study philosophy, so feel free to shoot these down, but I can think of a few advances that might have helped.

Watching or listening to lectures online
Emailing essays – faster turnaround and better workflow management
Email contact with students – more efficient, faster
Word processing – essays easier to read and faster to produce than typewritten or handwritten
Cheap or free photocopying or scanning of documents
Texts and papers available in electronic form – more robust, faster to look up references by electronically searching the text, not limited by number of available hard copies
Library catalogues available on line – less time spent looking through the shelves for books that may not even be there
Better books! Surely the last 40 years have seen the publication of better-written commentaries etc which explain things more clearly… or is everyone still using sources from the 1960s and earlier?

Though I’m quite ready to agree that technology has had less impact on philosophy than on other questions…

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Chris Williams 05.20.10 at 9:20 am

Ajay is right. I would say that, because I work in the Arts Faculty of the Open University, and we have a fine Philsophy department. But it’s true anyway.

To summarise my understanding of the lessons of 40 years of the OU (not that I had anything to do with the first 30):

Some aspects of higher education – course design access to primary and secondary works, administration, setting examinations – are publication-type industries and it’s possible to benefit from economies of scale.

Some aspects – assignment marking, pastoral support, tutorial teaching, grading examinations – are service industries which do not scale well, or at all. Note also that doing these on a large scale necessitates new levels of management to, for example, brief and monitor tutors and scriptmarkers for consistency.

The move to a digitally-networked society changes this less than you’d think, but it does change it.

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Tommaso 05.20.10 at 10:51 am

@78 kid bitzer:

definitely agree.

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John Quiggin 05.20.10 at 11:50 am

The evidence against credentialism is, in my view, overwhelming, despite the appeal this idea has always had for “savvy” students. Among other things:

* since college performance can be predicted well from entry scores and IQ tests, the hypothesis requires that employers are uniformly stupid. A single smart employer could make offers to successful applicants to good colleges, getting them at a wage that reflects a huge saving in college costs and years wasted. And, that employer would have a credential just as good as the colleges, so their former employees would be competitive in the outside job market
* the college premium rises with time since graduation. So, credentialism only makes sense in the context of a labor market where lifetime chances are determined very early on, with entry to a rigidly fixed career track. US in the 50s and Japan today maybe, but not the US now.
* people who can reasonably expect to be self-employed (for example in a family business) nonetheless go to college at about the same rate as future employees

There is plenty more here.

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kid bitzer 05.20.10 at 12:14 pm

jq@107–

sorry, “credentialism” = which hypothesis?

the fact that goldman sachs does not hire 17-year-olds does indeed raise problems for credentialism, if that is the hypothesis that nothing whatsoever happens to spotty teenagers in the four years until they turn 21. if they were just as immature and spotty four years later, and unchanged in every other emotional and intellectual way, then employers would indeed be irrational to leave them hanging on the vine.

otherwise, employers’ behavior only shows that they think *some* improvement has occurred in their four years in college, not that it is this rather than that improvement.

seriously, i have lost track: i had thought that “credentialism” came into this conversation with a meaning something like, “viewed from the standpoint of a prospective student or parent thereof, the main marginal value that you receive from moving up the prestige food-chain consists in being able to boast about a fancier pedigree, not in being taught more or exposed to better teaching.”

that’s a hypothesis about why and how it is worth more to go to princeton than to arizona state, and it says, “it’s not better teaching. it’s not the increase in learning (from teachers or students). it’s not a better social network, or better spousal selection (those have been hived off as separate hypotheses). it is strictly the difference in value of the phrase “b.a., princeton”, as opposed to “b.a. az state”, attached to you for the rest of your life”.

i have not been one of the advocates of the credentialism-hypothesis. but i somehow feel that you are using it in a slightly different way in your rebuttal than its proponents have been using it.

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chris y 05.20.10 at 1:04 pm

otherwise, employers’ behavior only shows that they think some improvement has occurred in their four years in college, not that it is this rather than that improvement.

However, if it’s true, as JQ suggests that college performance can be predicted well from entry scores and IQ tests, and if the content of the degree is immaterial, it would be mutually beneficial if the 17 year olds spent four years working in retail to get the corners rubbed off them, and also acquiring a degree of financial independence and better life skills than they’re likely to pick up in universities; and then GS could still get them for a snip at the end of that, since they’re not paying a premium for the credential.

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kid bitzer 05.20.10 at 1:19 pm

@109–

but here again, chrisy, i feel like i have lost track of the hypothesis under consideration.
“college performance can be predicted well from entry scores and iq tests” is usually a claim about *grades*, i.e. whether johnny will get a 4.0 or a 2.8, a first or a third. notice that we have not yet said whether johnny is attending princeton or paducah.

i don’t think anyone upthread was arguing that the important credential in credentialism is your grade point average. quite the opposite: i thought the credentialists were claiming that a gentleman’s c from yale will get you further (in the city, or higher academics, or however) than straight a’s from yuma.

so i just don’t know what “credentialism” jq is rebutting.

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ScentOfViolets 05.20.10 at 2:01 pm

My point is simply that over the last 40 years there have been no technological advances that allow a professor to teach Socrates and Locke to more students each semester, or any advances that allow a professor to teach Locke more effectively to the same number of students. On the other hand, there have been many technological advances that allow, e.g., an autoworker to produce more cars each year, a computer programmer to produce programs that do more things, that allow doctors to treat diseases better, etc. Therefore the cost of being taught Socrates and Locke by a professors should go up relative to these other things.

What about other professions like nursing? My impression is that pay in that area hasn’t risen proportionately.

I won’t claim this is an airtight argument, or that it explains all of the tuition increases, but I think it has to at least be part of the story.

Again, this is complicated. Ironically, this is also a problem I have when talking to fanatical voucher advocates: the cost of educating a student is different from what the student pays for that education. Just as public school opponents like to cite the fact that the district spends, say, $9,000/yr per student doesn’t mean that it costs $9,000 to educate that student for a year, a tuition increase of $1,000 from one year to the next doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s costing an extra $1,000.

A better way of looking at increased costs, imho, is to see how the salaries of the various personnel associated with the university fluctuate (iirc, this is the biggest single cost, though I could easily be wrong), then go down the list and look at the costs of various capital improvements, equipment upgrades and depreciation, etc. I think you’ll find that to the first cut, costs really haven’t risen much – if any – faster than inflation.

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ScentOfViolets 05.20.10 at 2:16 pm

Library catalogues available on line – less time spent looking through the shelves for books that may not even be there
Better books! Surely the last 40 years have seen the publication of better-written commentaries etc which explain things more clearly… or is everyone still using sources from the 1960s and earlier?

While it may be true that there is some improvement in the presentation of the material over time, I don’t think it’s really that much of a factor. In fact, many of my colleagues have bemoaned the fact that we can’t just choose one book for algebra, one book for calculus, etc, and then stick with it. In undergraduate mathematics, at least, things just change that fast.

Many people have already brought up the fact that a college education exposes you to other people and that this promotes an atmosphere of sorts that is valuable in and of itself. I would like to be more specific in this regard and tell my students that the very best thing they can do to get good grades is to consistently study (and that includes doing homework) together in groups of two or three. More than four and it gets really hard to get everyone together. Further, I say, don’t study with people making straight A’s if you’re a C student, as you’ll end up just copying their work, and will be totally at sea during exams, and contrariwise, don’t study with people who are doing much worse than you; the key is to help each other out at about the same rate (for the under-20 set, I privately advise the girls not to include any guys unless they already know them fairly well.)

Now, this is the sort of advice I give to math students and I think the collegial atmosphere really helps in this regard. The same would pertain to chemistry, engineering, etc, or so I would imagine. My question, since there seem to be so many humanities people here, is, does this sort of situation also apply to political science, history, literature, etc?

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Harry 05.20.10 at 2:28 pm

SofV — I think that question’s worth a thread to itself. I can only speak for philosophy. I have taken to encouraging students to study in groups (because enough of them don’t do it voluntarily that they need to be ecnouraged). I’ve also started allowing them to write assignments together, which I know is very unusual. I did it first with a very small group of students I knew well and felt ok experimenting on. The results were terrific — both in terms of what they wrote and, more importantly, what they learned.

The influence on me doing this was Derek Bok, who reports that this is how the sciences do it and that weaker students in particular gain from it.

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chris y 05.20.10 at 2:39 pm

The influence on me doing this was Derek Bok, who reports that this is how the sciences do it and that weaker students in particular gain from it.

It can be so, but the downside is when the strongest student (me, in the instance I’m thinking of) gets so frustrated by the lack of input from the rest of the group and the looming deadline that they just do the damn assignment and hand it in with everybody’s name on it.

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Harry 05.20.10 at 2:44 pm

Right. I’ve not required co-authoring, only permitted it, with strong advice that you pick a partner that you have good reason to believe you can work with: especially because I know that many of my students do a lot of forced group work in classes in their major, and welcome the chance to write alone.

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ScentOfViolets 05.20.10 at 3:15 pm

The influence on me doing this was Derek Bok, who reports that this is how the sciences do it and that weaker students in particular gain from it.

It can be so, but the downside is when the strongest student (me, in the instance I’m thinking of) gets so frustrated by the lack of input from the rest of the group and the looming deadline that they just do the damn assignment and hand it in with everybody’s name on it.

That is certainly a problem we have in the sciences as well. One of the things that helps in this regard is to keep the groups small. I’ve found that when you have groups of more than four, meeting times are constrained and often what happens is that people just end up copying off the most diligent students in the group. It gets their homework done, but they don’t tend to do nearly as well when exam time rolls around. Also, students in my classes tend not to have an idea of where they stand until after the first exam; it’s only after they get their grades back that they ask what they can do to improve and I reiterate what I’ve said the first day. At this point though, I can usually make fairly good recommendations on how to partner up.

I suspect this might be harder to do in the humanities where subjects tend not to be quite so modular.

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Heur 05.20.10 at 3:34 pm

I’d like to propose a counterintuitive solution to the problem. Currently, the primary incentive to attend an elite institution is for the signal value of a credential from that institution. This removes much economic incentive for these institutions to focus on teaching. The students will come, and will pay, regardless of the teaching (leaving extremes aside).

So, fine. Let’s degrade the signal value of the credential. Let us encourage the development and use of comprehensive, and better, standardized tests to assess fitness and aptitude for a given profession, allowing students from all institutions to compete against one another. This will not remove entirely the signal value of a credential from an elite institution, but it will certainly remove a large part of it.

Let’s administer them more frequently. Let’s have standardized tests designed for college freshmen thinking of majoring in the social sciences, in physics, in math, in English literature. And let’s have them for sophomores, juniors, and seniors as well. Let’s enable any student to build a significant record of his progress that does not depend at all upon the signal value of the institution which he attended.

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Lemuel Pitkin 05.20.10 at 4:34 pm

The evidence against credentialism is, in my view, overwhelming

There seems to be some disagreement about the meaning of credentialism, so let me spell out version I’m arguing for (I think others here would say something similar, but maybe not.)

1.There are fewer privileged (high-paying, etc.) positions than people capable of filling them.
2.People who occupy those positions want security of tenure and, more importantly, a good chance of seeing their children in similar positions.
3.This can be achieved by making the right to hold a privileged position a form of quasi-property, inalienable but effectively more or less heritable.
4.College degrees are to a first approximation such quasi-property (the main form of it in the US.)
5.Therefore, the education one receives in the course of getting the degree has no relationship to its value.

This might be all wrong but your arguments don’t help show that.

since college performance can be predicted well from entry scores and IQ tests, the hypothesis requires that employers are uniformly stupid. A single smart employer could make offers to successful applicants to good colleges, getting them at a wage that reflects a huge saving in college costs and years wasted.

So is it also impossible that executives at American companies are overpaid? Being an economist, you seem to be using “stupid” mean “failing to act like rational profit maximizers in a world where employees are simply inputs to a production function.” In that sense, yes, absolutely employers are stupid – or as I would prefer to put it, are social organisms, not just instances of minimizing a derivative, and are run by human beings from a particular culture. The interests of the shareholders qua shareholders is to minimize labor costs, including the wages of managers and professionals. The interest of managers and professionals is to limit access to their positions to people like themselves. The idea that the former wins out over the latter invariably and completely seems like one of those zombie ideas somebody should write a book about.

the college premium rises with time since graduation. So, credentialism only makes sense in the context of a labor market where lifetime chances are determined very early on, with entry to a rigidly fixed career track. US in the 50s and Japan today maybe, but not the US now.

I’m pretty sure that even in Tom Peters’ America, the jobs you have held previously exert a pretty strong influence on the job you will get next.

people who can reasonably expect to be self-employed (for example in a family business) nonetheless go to college at about the same rate as future employees

This, on the other hand, is a valid point. There’s no need for credentialism when status is inherited directly in the form of private property. But people employed in a family business are such a small proportion of the population that it’s plausible they are just being passively carried along by the culture around them. Now, if you could point to a case where most middle-class jobs were in family businesses but the cost, prevalence and content of college education was similar to that in the contemporary US, then credentialism would be in real trouble. But in my view, the declining importance of family businesses and the rising importance of college degrees and other credentials are two sides of the same process. As indeed C. Wright Mills argued 50 years ago.

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Doctor Science 05.20.10 at 5:42 pm

Lemuel:

Generally speaking, I agree with your analysis. However, I find this transition:

4.College degrees are to a first approximation such quasi-property (the main form of it in the US.)
5.Therefore, the education one receives in the course of getting the degree has no relationship to its value.

*obscure*, shall we say. How does it follow from the quasi-property quality of elite college degrees that the education involved has *no* relationship to its value?

Indeed, the case of “The Supreme Court Tigers” can be used to argue otherwise.

Alito, Sotomayor and Kagan’s successes appear purely meritocratic: they inherited *nothing* in the way of power and position, yet Princeton enabled their transition all the way to the top of the US power structure. They *earned* their positions, and the education (formal and social) that they worked for at Princeton was a key part of how they earned it.

The fact that these three people worked in college to get their positions gives college learning a good name — it makes everyone who went to Princeton look like someone who learned important things. It gives a meritocratic gloss to even the most slacker preppy “legacy”; and conversely, putting the sprigs of the upper classes next to people like these three might (hopefully) encourage the sprigs to actually learn something, too.

In short, I think there’s a pressure to have an elite school actually *educate* to maintain the illusion that US society — which is essentially a plutocratic aristocracy — is really a meritocracy. And so that those who’ve inherited their priviledged positions can say, “I worked for what I got, I did it myself” without too large a sense of dissonance.

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y81 05.20.10 at 9:19 pm

There are several discussions going on, in only one of which, relating to credentialism, am I qualified to participate.

Lemuel Pritikin’s formulation is not very persuasive to me. I would put it this way:

1. It is very difficult to identify, a priori, good employees for jobs that involve reading, analysis, and judgment (what I believe Robert Reich called “symbol manipulation”).
2. Those jobs generally pay better than jobs that don’t involve such skills, so everyone wants such jobs, both for themselves and for their children.
3. Empirically, we observe that employers tend to prefer, in hiring for those sorts of jobs, people with degrees from fancy colleges and universities.
4. Therefore, people want degrees from fancy universities, not because of anything that happens at the universities in question, but for extrinsic reasons. (Of course, there might be intrinsic reasons too, but the credentialist theory says that they are less important drivers of demand.)

A question arises as to why item 3 is true. Is it because something happens at fancy universities that makes their graduates better symbol manipulators? Or is it because those universities admitted people who were better symbol manipulators already? Or, if both factors are operating, which is more important? Malcolm Gladwell references some studies suggesting that there is no empirical evidence supporting the first theory. Prof. Quiggin suggests that the second theory cannot be the whole story, because employers could figure out who are the best employees by measuring the attributes at issue directly, rather than outsourcing the job to college admissions officers.

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Anthony 05.20.10 at 9:58 pm

If Pritikin is right that: It is very difficult to identify, a priori, good employees for jobs that involve reading, analysis, and judgment

How could Prof. Quiggin be right that employers could figure out who are the best employees by measuring the attributes at issue directly?

In my experience, there is a difference in symbol manipulators’ capacities for (job-useful) symbol manipulation which has some dependence on where they went to college, but the line is drawn much further below Harvard and Yale, or even Stanford and Georgetown, than people from the more elite institutions often believe.

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Lemuel Pitkin 05.20.10 at 10:32 pm

Doctor Science,

Yeah, my last step could have been put better. What I was trying to say was that there is no useful sense in which the content of a college education constitutes a set of skills that, transferred to the student through the process of teaching, increase their contribution to the production process. The premium paid to (elite) college graduates has entirely other origins.

But you are absolutely right that it doesn’t follow from that that the content of the education doesn’t support the value of the degree by other routes. And I think the particular route you describe is very persuasive.

So, right.

123

John Quiggin 05.21.10 at 10:29 am

OK, let’s go through it again.

Claim 1: Given the information that 17yo X has been accepted at, say, Princeton + some low cost tests, we can accurately predict X’s final grade at Princeton

Claim 2: (Credentialism) X learns nothing at Princeton that could not be learned at Paducah (or working in retail).

Claim 3: At least one employer, Z, wants to make profits and likes hiring productive workers at the lowest possible cost

Then, relative to X going to Princeton and getting a job from an employer who cares about the credential, Z and X can reach a mutually beneficial deal where X goes to Paducah, and Z and X share the savings in tuition etc.

The evidence for (1) is quite strong (I’ll try and dig up some links). So, following LP, the alternative is that employers (all employers of graduate labour, at all times in the last two centuries at least, in all countries) are stupid, and all stupid in the same way.

Otherwise, the credentialism story only stands up if completing a degree at Princeton provides information about ability that isn’t contained in the fact of admission to Princeton.

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chris 05.21.10 at 2:23 pm

Then, relative to X going to Princeton and getting a job from an employer who cares about the credential, Z and X can reach a mutually beneficial deal where X goes to Paducah, and Z and X share the savings in tuition etc.

I think this is harder than you seem to think. Suppose I am X and have just received my acceptance letter from Princeton, when I receive a phone call from a hiring officer of Z Corp. Since Z wants to capture part of the savings, they’re going to pay me less than they would pay a Princeton grad, but I can start earning it now and avoid/reduce the student loans.

This looks good, at first (as long as the expected salary difference isn’t too big, which incidentally means that Z Corp. isn’t saving all that much). But what if Z Corp. goes out of business, I just can’t stand the boss or other coworkers, etc.? Then I’m back on the street with no degree (or a Paducah degree) and I probably have to reapply to Princeton to see if I can get in.

If I have the Paducah degree then I may or may not even be able to get in to Princeton — would they accept someone who has already graduated somewhere else? — let alone the cost of two sets of student loans, one of which is Princeton-sized. Being path-dependency-locked into a degree that is perceived as inferior by all employers except Z is a very serious risk.

If I work for Z for 10 years and then it goes under, or if I just want the prospect of being headhunted to use as leverage in my recurring salary negotiations with Z, then the Princeton degree is still valuable to me — since, ex hypothesi, most employers do not behave like Z.

In order for the deal to be as secure as you seem to think, I would need Z to guarantee my *entire future career* in a way that would make the Princeton degree worthless to me — which they can’t possibly credibly do, because it’s too far in the future. (Put my entire future salary in escrow so I’ll get it even if Z goes bankrupt? Guarantee that even against the prospect that I may be fired by Z? Even if that’s legal, I bet it won’t be cost-effective for Z.)

And even that is only considering the easily quantified economic factors — if universities provide a social credential as well as an economic one, then X is sacrificing the prestige of a Princeton degree as well as the economic value, and will probably need to be compensated for that too, which further eats into Z’s potential profit from this strategy.

Otherwise, the credentialism story only stands up if completing a degree at Princeton provides information about ability that isn’t contained in the fact of admission to Princeton.

Well, if Princeton has a graduation rate less than 100%, of course it does. Some people will drop out, some will develop alcohol or drug problems and then drop out, some may flunk out (with or without alcohol and drug problems), a few may even commit suicide. An employer who waits for graduation isn’t getting any of those, so if those outcomes are due to anything other than pure chance, then the graduate’s demonstrated ability to avoid them provides information. Which *still* has nothing to do with the quality of the teaching.

125

ABELARD, ANTIMETAPHYSICIAN AND HIGH PROFESSOR OF ELOQUENCE AND POSTMODERNY DECONSTRUCTIONISMS 05.21.10 at 2:36 pm

“If you can get into an R1 Uni, maybe you don’t need good teaching?”

Even Shakespeare had to read.

126

AcademicLurker 05.21.10 at 2:45 pm

Putting aside the issue of elite vs non-elite universities for the moment, I once heard a person who runs his own business and thus is involved in a lot of hiring decisions talk about the value of a college degree.

He said that he was basically looking for evidence that a potential employee could start something and see it through to the finish, could meet deadlines, could work without constant supervision & etc.

In high school, everything is compulsory, and you’re constantly monitored by teachers, parents & etc. College, on the other hand, provides you with copious opportunities to flake out and slack off. If you manage to graduate in 4 years that’s evidence that, to a first approximation, you’re a responsible and reliable person.

127

kid bitzer 05.21.10 at 3:23 pm

chris @124–

that was my reaction on reading “john quiggin’s” comment at 123–this ignores the possibility that we are locked into a sub-optimal system which arose for historic reasons and is now very hard to break out of because of penalties for first-movers (e.g. your student considering the offer from z-corp).

i put “john quiggin” into quotes, because i have to assume that 123 was written by some commenter stealing the ct-author’s name. the real john quiggin just wrote an interesting post on the front page about ratchet mechanisms, which shows that he fully understands how a society can work itself incrementally into sub-optimal situations that are locally stable even though far from the optimal stable point in the map.

whereas the author of 123 reads like the kind of freakonomics clone who claims that if it is a suboptimal outcome, it must not exist. it would be an entertaining exercise to modify his premises to show that the institution of african slavery never existed in america, either.

you’d think ct would exercise more control over the use of pseuds.

128

Lemuel Pitkin 05.21.10 at 3:44 pm

John, you do realize your argument is the same one often deployed to show that racial discrimination can’t exist in hiring? Not similar to, it’s the exact same argument. So let me ask you straight out: do you think that non-whites have ever faced discrimination in the workplace, or is it a priori impossible that employers have been systematically “stupid” in that way?

Claim 1: Given the information that 17yo X has been accepted at, say, Princeton + some low cost tests, we can accurately predict X’s final grade at Princeton

I don’t see what this has to do with anything. How would the credentialism argument be stronger if grades were not correlated with standardized test scores?

Claim 3: At least one employer, Z, wants to make profits and likes hiring productive workers at the lowest possible cost

Well of course there is. Lots of them. This is only a problem if you add Claim 4, which you haven’t but which is implicit in your whole argument: that over time the Z firms will outcompete the others until they constitute the whole labor market. The only reason you keep saying credentialism requires all firms to be “stupid” in the same way is that you are assuming a fairly strong form of perfect competition in which only a single profit-maximizing solution to the firm’s hiring decision is possible. As a card-carrying neoclassical economist, you are supposed to think that, I guess, but you need to spell it out for your argument to work. (And seriously — you might not run into so many zombies if you didn’t insist on living in the haunted graveyard.)

And of course you didn’t respond to my argument that the desire of firm owners to lower labor costs is counterbalanced by the desire of privileged groups of workers to restrict entry to their jobs. How come? Again, do you think it’s literally impossible that there could be any systematic forces on the labor market except for profit maximization? if so, that’s a much stronger — and less plausible — assumption than anything we credentialists are guilty of.

And your “all times in the last two centuries at least, in all countries” is just bluster. No one thinks the social function of higher education was the same in, let’s say, the UK in 1840 as it is in the US today. Not even you — you’re just being silly here.

129

piglet 05.21.10 at 4:03 pm

126 and 127 well put!

130

piglet 05.21.10 at 4:07 pm

There was, way back, some mention of student debt and somebody claimed that “nobody becomes burdened with debt at Harvard (unless they have very rich and very unhelpful parents)”. That kind of claim is very surprising but maybe the people posting here have little connection to that part of the US education experience. I read about this some years ago and can’t give you the reference right away but studies of student indebtedness showed not only a huge increase in the student debt of low-income students, but an even bigger increase in the debt burden of middle-class including upper-middle class students. Some of you here must be living in fantasy land.

131

Lemuel Pitkin 05.21.10 at 4:15 pm

Chris at 124 also makes a very good point.

132

piglet 05.21.10 at 4:22 pm

109: “if the content of the degree is immaterial, it would be mutually beneficial if the 17 year olds spent four years working in retail to get the corners rubbed off them, and also acquiring a degree of financial independence and better life skills than they’re likely to pick up in universities;”

Despite JQs comments, this thread has been heavily US-centered. It might help to remind people that the US system is not the only one existing. It is a pecularity of the US-type education/credentialing system that college is regarded as the single, and mandatory, entry ticket to better paying jobs. In Germany it would be not at all unusual that a bank would hire a young Gymnasium or even Realschule graduate directly and give them the training they think appropriate, in the form of an apprenticeship. That apprenticeship is accepted as a credential by all employers so there is no concern that the individual would be bonded to the employer. It is also worth reminding the US commenters here (and JQ) that the correlation observed in the US between the cost of the education (whether subsidized or not) and the earnings of the graduate is not a universal law. There is no such correlation in Germany and I believe France and many other countries. In many countries, there is also no distinction conferred by attending so-called elite institutions. Many of these observations are really US specific (although there seems to be a tendency towards copying certain aspects of the US system in other countries) and this seems to be in need of an explanation.

133

Sebastian 05.21.10 at 4:40 pm

“The evidence for (1) is quite strong (I’ll try and dig up some links). So, following LP, the alternative is that employers (all employers of graduate labour, at all times in the last two centuries at least, in all countries) are stupid, and all stupid in the same way.”

Well in the US, if an employer gave a test very much like the SAT (the predictor you are talking about) they would be opening themselves up to potentially firm-destroying racial discrimination lawsuits. They *might* win in the long run, but they also might not, and it is almost never wise to take that kind of gamble in the court system.

So the fact that they make someone else do it, isn’t stupid.

134

Harry 05.21.10 at 4:49 pm

piglet — I said that. I stand by it. Follow what I say, and you’ll see that it I restrict it to a very small number of students. It may be that you and I are operating with different definitions of very rich and very unhelpful. But, basically, if you are paying anything close to sticker price at Harvard your parents can afford to pay it out of pocket, so if you get into debt its because they’re not helping (or because you are spending money on something else). But, as I emphasize, that’s not true elsewhere.

Also, everything you say in 131 is true. I relativised the entire post to the US….

135

piglet 05.21.10 at 5:01 pm

Harry, what do you make of the fact that the debt burden of upper middle class students in the US has increased over the past decades? Do you think that parents have become less helpful historically? Why would that be the case?

Harvard may be generous to some low-income students but they can’t survive on the top 0.1% alone. Those in between have to pay something close to the sticker price or the numbers wouldn’t add up.

136

piglet 05.21.10 at 5:11 pm

P.S. I’m not shedding tears for the upper middle class, just pointing out the fact. The surge in education cost contributes greatly to the middle class squeeze, there’s no denying it.

137

kid bitzer 05.21.10 at 5:13 pm

i believe the answer, piglet, is that harvard is deeply anomalous.

when the stock market was high and endowments were flush, a handful of universities (harvard, princeton? amherst? not many, and i don’t remember which) started offering more generous financial aid packages to middle-class students.

it was partly an admission that, at that point, their endowments were paying out so handsomely, that they could have entirely forgone tuition income and still stayed in the black.

but the number of students that go to harvard, or even five more schools capable of offering the same packages, is so small that it does not register in nation-wide statistics.

the main driver of the debt-burden, as i understand it, is the fact that state legislatures stopped subsidizing state institutions as generously as they once had. this shifted the costs onto the parents, and up went the debt.

138

praisegod barebones 05.21.10 at 5:20 pm

In many countries, there is also no distinction conferred by attending so-called elite institutions.

You mention France in the previous sentence. I doubt that what you say in this sentence is true of France (bearing in mind that the elite institutions there are not universities, but hautes ecoles.)

139

Lemuel Pitkin 05.21.10 at 7:18 pm

Ah, here we go:

“the discrepancy in wages between equally productive blacks and whites, or women and men, would be much smaller than the degree of prejudice against blacks and women when many companies can efficiently specialize in employing mainly blacks or women. Indeed, in a world with constant returns to scale in production, two segregated economies with the same distribution of skills would completely bypass discrimination and would have equal wages and equal returns to other resources, regardless of the desire to discriminate against the segregated minorities.”

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piglet 05.21.10 at 7:56 pm

kid bitzer, you are obviously right that Harvard alone won’t change the national statistic either way. You are also right about reduced support for state institutions. Still, the statistic that I referred to noted an increasing student debt burden for all income groups, especially middle class and including upper middle class. And I just did the google trick to come up with this:
The Burden of Borrowing: A Report on the Rising Rates of Student Loan Debt
March 2002, By Tracey King and Ellynne Bannon
http://www.pirg.org/highered/BurdenofBorrowing.pdf

Thirty-nine percent (39%) of student borrowers now graduate with unmanageable levels of debt, meaning that their monthly payments are more than 8% of their monthly incomes. According to new data from the Department of Education’s National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), not only are the majority of students turning to loans to finance college, but debt levels are also escalating. In 1999-2000, 64% of students graduated with student loan debt, and the average student loan debt has nearly doubled over the past eight years to $16,928.

Seventy-one percent (71%) of all dependent student borrowers from families with incomes less than $20,000 graduated with student loan debt, compared to 44% of students from families with incomes more than $100,000. … Over the last eight years, there has been a rapid increase in the percentage of wealthier students who borrow. The percentage of dependent students with incomes of $100,000 or more who borrowed student loans quadrupled from 1992-93 to 1999-2000, and the percentage of those with incomes between $80,000 and $99,999 who borrowed more than doubled over the same time period.

The report doesn’t differentiate within the $100,000+ income group. $100,000 may be a low threshold for upper middle class but I believe that those have to pay full at Harvard.

141

Harry 05.21.10 at 8:14 pm

piglet — I need to talk to people who really know but I’d be amazed — really astonished – -if families earning exactly $100k were paying anything close to sticker price at Harvard. As kid bitzer says, the Harvard and the very top (10-20 or so) private schools are anomolous in this respect. Several of them announced a number of years back that tuition would be free for any families earning under $75k. Even $100k is low family income relative to the mean or median of those who attend these schools, so we’re not talking about lots of kids. In other words, Harvard can survive on the top 0.1% alone, because that constitutes a very large part of their clientele (but even then, very few actually pay the sticker price). I was, as I tend to be, pretty careful in what I actually said.

What do I make of the increasing debt burden on upper-middle class students? I don’t make anything of it, but you’ve got me curious. I’ll talk to my friends who study this.

Notice by the way that the groups of students from households with $20k or less income is a tiny proportion of all students (I don’t know exactly, but we’re talking about less than 5%), and that their debt is probably more due to borrowing for living expenses than tuition, because if they are going to public schools they are not paying high tuition (those students are not going to Harvard, or even to UW Madison). There is, I understand, a growing issue about students taking on debt to attend private technical colleges etc, which are not directly subsidized by the state, only indirectly (through what is effectively a loan voucher for tuition).

142

piglet 05.21.10 at 8:39 pm

“I’d be amazed—really astonished – if families earning exactly $100k were paying anything close to sticker price at Harvard”

Can anybody clarify what the income cutoff is for paying full at Harvard? Couldn’t find that in a quick google. Is there data about the income distribution of Harvard students?

143

chris 05.21.10 at 8:46 pm

@126, 127: Under the assumption that it was the real Quiggin, I wasn’t inclined to jump down his throat *too* hard about implicit assumptions of rationality or that rational beings will outperform the competition in the market until they replace them. But yours certainly do seem to be valid critiques of an attempt to apply the more abstract-mathematical branch of economics to the messiness of assemblages of human beings (not only are very few thoroughly rational, but a lot of the irrational ones are systematically irrational in the same sorts of ways, *and* some of those irrationalities statistically persist even after their inferiority is demonstrated; this can screw up a Hayekian optimization pretty thoroughly, depending on how human psychology happens to line up with the question “posed” to the market).

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kid bitzer 05.21.10 at 9:00 pm

@142–

i agree that there is no need for jumping down throats, and i’m sorry if i came off that harshly. it’s intended only as gentle teasing. (and, yes, i assume it was the real quiggin).

i should also reiterate that i am not a proponent of the “credentialist” hypothesis myself. i have quite a lot of my professional self-esteem tied up in the pretense that professors at princeton (and the like) are imparting wisdom to their students unattainable elsewhere. it’s why my own training was so unapproachably superb, and why my own teaching is worth all of the hard-earned money of those hard-pressed middle-class parents.

145

Harry 05.21.10 at 9:01 pm

It doesn’t really work like that, because of the complex array of merit and need-based aid available. If they think you might go to Yale, they’ll charge you less than if they think you are sure to come to Harvard, regardless of your parents income level, and regardless of your merit, etc. I’ll ask my colleagues who know about this sort of thing for some approximations. Not immediately though.

146

mpowell 05.21.10 at 9:52 pm

The best evidence against credentialism probably comes from the study of Penn St graduates who were also accepted at Penn but chose not to attend doing similarly well in the market place as graduates of Penn. It was referenced somewhere earlier in the thread. Of course, if that result is truly robust, there is nothing elite colleges are offering that is worth the cost.

But I think people pay for the higher prestige school primarily because they think the education will be better (whether that is true or not). If students do think this way, they still may not care much about the teaching. An elite school is presumed to have a better course catalogue (people who are up to it take honors courses for a reason) and getting the degree is presumed to demonstrate a superior mastery of the material.

On a separate line, I don’t think quasi-property in the sense that Lemuel is thinking is really part of the equation. Rich parents have rich kids because they guide them down the right path and provide assistance where needed. There are mechanisms to limit social mobility while appearing to have a meritocracy without having to rely on quasi-property rights.

147

LFC 05.21.10 at 10:21 pm

Re piglet’s question:
not a complete answer, but from an April 1 Harvard Gazette article:

“More than 60 percent of the admitted students [in the Class of 2014] will receive need-based scholarships averaging $40,000 [presumably this means: averaging $40,000 per year], benefiting from a record $158 million in financial aid. Families with students on [need-based] scholarship[s] are expected to contribute an average of $11,500 annually toward the cost of a Harvard education.”

Here is the link.

148

John Quiggin 05.21.10 at 11:12 pm

LP, the Chicago-style discrimination argument needs Claim 4, but I don’t. In the absence of Claim 4, the outcome (assuming no state intervention either to enforce or prevent discrimination) will be that some employers will discriminate and others won’t, and that, on the whole, those who don’t will do better. Regions where discrimination is more extensive will do worse than those where it is rare. Blacks will do worse than equally qualified whites, but not as badly as under legally (or extra-legally) enforced segregation. That seems to me to be a reasonably accurate description of how things went in the US before the Civil Rights Act.

I only want to argue that, if college education is really useless except as a (redundant) measure of ability*, at least some employers should be cashing in on the opportunity to hire workers more cheaply, just as some employers were willing to break the color line, often against the resistance of their existing employees. So, where are the examples?

* This is the version of credentialism with which I’m familiar in Australia, since the big distinction is between those with and without degrees, rather than between universities. I don’t think the extension to “Paducah gives as good an education as Princeton” changes the argument much, but I admit that I’m on unfamiliar territory here.

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Sebastian 05.22.10 at 1:30 am

“I only want to argue that, if college education is really useless except as a (redundant) measure of ability*, at least some employers should be cashing in on the opportunity to hire workers more cheaply, just as some employers were willing to break the color line, often against the resistance of their existing employees. So, where are the examples?”

They’ve been sued out of existence for racial discrimination and other companies are loathe to risk it.

150

Jake 05.22.10 at 4:02 am

So, where are the examples?

Every company that hires from somewhere other than top-tier schools, that is to say, most of them.

What am I missing?

151

John Quiggin 05.22.10 at 4:42 am

Jake, the point is that companies should encourage students who qualify for top-tier schools to go to cheap places instead, or get a retail job, or sign up for an internal training program.

Sebastian, I doubt that your litigation story is true even for the US, but very similar claims about credentialism are made in Australia and other countries where such litigation is not possible.

To LP and others, it’s the universality[1] among developed capitalist countries of (a) high returns to university education abd (b) claims about credentialism
that makes me doubt that there a historically conditioned low-level credentialist equilibrium.

fn1. Maybe Germany is a counterexample, but I don’t think so.

152

John Quiggin 05.22.10 at 7:56 am

I think Doctor Science @119 has it about right. To firm this up, I’d say that, on average the value of the credential is about equal to the value added in education[1], but since this is hard to measure, there is a labor market cross-subsidy from Sotomayers (those who work hard and learn a lot, but don’t, at least initially capture the full labor market return) to Bushes (those who slide through on minimum effort, but still get OK grades). Since Bushes generally pay more, the institutions don’t have an incentive to grade very accurately (and in fact, grade inflation has been led by private institutions).

Note that this is almost exactly opposite to the usual credentialist story, where the college acts as a screen for inherent ability.

fn1. Here I mean “market value added”, and bracket the question of how this relates to social values.

153

Bloix 05.22.10 at 3:56 pm

Harvard is a bad example to use for evidence of financial aid policies. Harvard is effectively a hedge fund with a mom-and-pop-sized school attached to it for tax avoidance purposes. A few years ago, when the endowment topped $30 billion, some state and federal legislators started looking into whether Harvard actually qualified as a charitable institution (charities are supposed to spend at least 5% of assets annually on their stated purpose). Harvard got worried — to quiet the criticism. it decided to dump some cash out the door by increasing financial aid to middle-class customers.

But Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford are very unusual in their ability to attract large contributions, and their outsized endowments (which they hoard for no purpose other than pleasure of the glitter of the gold) are not typical of American private education. Most wealthy private universities (e.g., Columbia, Chicago, Wash U, Duke) have endowments in the $5 billion range, and they don’t feel the need to increase financial aid for political purposes.

154

bianca steele 05.22.10 at 4:36 pm

I admit I don’t know what credentialism means. If it means an MBA is a better candidate for managing a group of experienced software developers than another experienced software developer, it’s wrong. If it means a newly minted Ph.D. ought to be brought in to supervise the work of an M.S. with 25 successful years on similar projects, it’s wrong. True, a 1981 B.S.E.E. with some programming work is less impressive than the same person with a 1988 M.S. from Clark, but if credentialism says he’s preferable (on grounds other than being a “good fit”) to a 1985 computer science B.S. from MIT, then it’s wrong. Similarly, a graduate of a program that produces really good corporate employees but assumes they will never take on more responsibility may be great for some people, but if they fail when they are asked to take on more responsibility, there is something wrong there–I would prefer someone who might be a difficult employee at times but doesn’t expect everything to be done for her.

155

Landru 05.22.10 at 5:41 pm

@ bianca steele at #99

I’m surprised to see 50 comments go by without anyone (else) twitching on this:

“Poor teaching in the sciences isn’t going to do much harm (though it might cause resentment), unless students are being taught something egregious like that their cosmology course will help them cast horoscopes. Students who can’t cope with poor teaching will do poorly on the exams and will drop out. But poor teaching in the humanities will result in huge numbers of students with misconceptions about topics of pretty general importance.”

My, but aren’t we all parochial for our own spheres? As a credentialed scientist this seems absurdly inverted to me (tell me you’re surprised).

Giving students some kind of grounding in the quantitative analysis of the physical world is central, not optional, to a successful future of humankind — no joke. People who will be making decisions and setting examples need to understand how and why natural laws constrain what we can do, and how much it costs to do it. They also need sufficient grounding in how quantitative reasoning from physical evidence works, so they can tell an honest expert from a paid charlatan and not be snowed by either.

Meanwhile, as to the contention that humanities education is the important tool for avoiding misconceptions, let’s go to the videotape, shall we? Looking at the performance of the people who, presumably, got a good humanities education and are now successful in law, business, politics and journalism, I think we’d all be better off if they’d gone to trade schools instead. What I see over the past decade — tell me if your mileage varied — is a wholesale, proud denial that reality should be respected, or that it even exists. Politicians and CEO’s don’t even pretend anymore that they’re trying to tell the truth, they’re completely unembarrassed to lie flat-out in public. They are assisted in this, of course, by the entire journalism and reporting establishment that abjectly refuses to call them out on it. “Experts” are derided, while publicly flouted ignorance is strength. From all sides of those in power who were educated in the humanities, the same message is sent: objective reality is for suckers, only human power relationships really exist.

Now, where do you suppose they all got that orientation from? Well, isn’t this exactly the mantra of po-mo relativism? It’s not hard to imagine exactly this outlook seeping like a toxin through the groundwater of academic humanities throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, exactly when today’s elites were being educated and now impacting us all. Other CTer’s more knowledgeable than me will argue the point, or at least pull rank to disagree. But, whatever the cause might have been, I feel confident in saying that, judging by its products humanities education has horribly failed in the last generation in the US.

In short, I’m not really willing to sit and be lectured about how important humanities education is relative to science. Seems to me, the reverse is actually true.

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Clod Levi-Strauss 05.22.10 at 6:35 pm

“Alito, Sotomayor and Kagan’s successes appear purely meritocratic:”

Not in the least. Each benefitted from the role as representatives or defenders of specific positions. The number of intellectually qualified candidates is very large, including a number much more qualified intellectually if not politically. Justices of the Supreme Court are rarely geniuses. I thought that was understood by now. Alito is a conservative whose interests fit well with those who chose him. Sotomayor’s and Kagan’s positions parallel Obama’s: a stronger executive and what’s now called moderate law and order policy.
Sotomayor and Kagan both benefitted in terms of gender and ethnicity, as Thomas and, as we know now, Scalia did: Reagan thought an Italian-American was a great idea. Kagan is more a politician than a scholar, which is no sin. Jack Balkin called it early for her.

#152 “I’d say that, on average the value of the credential is about equal to the value added in education” That’s incredibly self-serving from an academic among other academics invested in the moral and intellectual authority of simple elitism within a bureaucratic regime. I think again it was Balkin who pointed out that you don’t want geniuses on Supreme Court precisely because geniuses are outliers and you want a court whose conflicts match those of society at large. All bureaucracies are political before intellectual. To see otherwise is to ignore their weakness and their strength: their importance as representative of the community at large rather than as some sort of “truth” producing machine.

As it stands now the academy is a bubble economy precisely because of the confusion between idealism and functionalism. Academics now talk about ideas and “ideal” functions as a way to stay both superior and up-to-date, while the un-ideal world beats them at every turn. At the same time they measure absolute brilliance in the terms of functional bureaucracy so they dumb themselves down even more. Brilliance is now more likely to appear outside the academy because preconceptions are a hindrance in a crisis, and what is the academy teaching these days but preconceptions, not the least of its own authority?

To end where this post began: teaching may not be self-interest but it’s noble. The sense that nobility or the choice to help others is not even discussed is a mark of how far we’ve come to mark the mediocre as the inevitable and the mastery of the mediocre by intellectuals as the ideal.

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Clod Levi-Strauss 05.22.10 at 7:01 pm

Oddly enough though I still like my argument, I glossed some of the comments here too quickly. I should follow my own advice.

“To firm this up, I’d say that, on average the value of the credential is about equal to the value added in education”
So together they double your value to the plutocracy, yes.

158

Doctor Science 05.23.10 at 3:05 am

Clod:

In saying that the Supreme Tigers successes “appears purely meritocratic”, I meant that they rose through the class system substantially on their merits. They were all well to the bottom of their Princeton classes economically and got through largely on scholarships (plus loans, but Sotomayor’s family couldn’t even have paid those). They were all in the top of their classes academically, and Sotomayor was one of the outstanding students of her year. She has said that she thinks she got in via “Affirmative Action”, but I think she’s wrong.

I think Sotomayor is a great example of a process Jerome Karabel described in his book The Chosen: the elite universities knew that change was coming, and it was important for the new faces in the American power structure have some of the old labels: “Bottled at Princeton” or “Bottled at Harvard”. The strength of the Expensive Higher Education brand, as it were, depended both on helping those who *should* succeed, and making sure that those who *would* succeed regardless (because of their inherited money and family) still passed through their gates. And they had to make these decisions 20-30 years in advance.

What is also clear in retrospect is how close the Expensive Higher Education brand came to catastrophic failure. Think of what these people have in common: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Paul Allen, Steve Wozniak, Michael Dell, Ted Waitt & Mike Hammond (founders of Gateway).

Three things: a. they now have great heaping steaming piles of first-generation money, b. which they got in a technical/intellectual industry, and c. they were *college drop-outs* (Woz eventually went back under a pseudonym to get his, but that was after the great heaping steaming piles). There is no “Bottled By” label on some of the greatest American fortunes, and it’s not because they couldn’t go to college, it’s because they tried it and rejected it.

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Clod Levi-Strauss 05.23.10 at 4:17 am

Dr. Science,
So then we can say that the world order is made up of greedy assholes who made it big without a degree and bureaucratic minders who stayed in school who serve them. Nothing new. But the minders are more multi-culti than they used to be.

“they rose through the class system substantially”… by mastering personal politics and intellectual mediocrity.

My mother’s first husband, who came from not much as far as I know, is remembered by experts in his field for selling two things to the American public: The Great Society and the Vietnam war. He served the White House. My mother considered him a sell-out and a shyster. and his boss a war criminal. She also considered him an intellectual lightweight.

“Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result.” I was raised to expect more of those who called themselves intellectuals: between success and moral integrity I choose the latter. But if success is a science and science is objective truth, then science is morality.
I disagree.

160

LFC 05.23.10 at 4:39 am

@153:A few years ago, when the endowment topped $30 billion, some state and federal legislators started looking into whether Harvard actually qualified as a charitable institution (charities are supposed to spend at least 5% of assets annually on their stated purpose). Harvard got worried — to quiet the criticism it decided to dump some cash out the door by increasing financial aid to middle-class customers.

Harvard’s financial aid initiatives probably had more than one motive. Quieting criticism about hoarding the endowment might have been a factor, but Summers at the time issued a long letter sounding an alarm about the growing underrepresentation of students from low and moderate-income families at expensive/selective/elite (choose your adjective) institutions. Whatever the sources of this concern — and the basically self-interested considerations mentioned in 158 no doubt played a role — there is no reason to think the concern itself was not real. Otherwise they could have just shoveled some cash out the door (to use Bloix’s phrase) to quiet the critical legislators and not bothered with the accompanying lengthy statement about the deleterious consequences of increasing inequality in access, etc.

161

Alex Bartik 05.23.10 at 1:23 pm

I think it’s important when thinking about the value of college education (by whatever metrics chosen) it’s important to understand that when you buy a college education you’re buying a very packaged product. The product you’re purchasing includes:

1) The direct classroom instruction delivered by the Professors/teachers in the university.
2) Credentials from the university through grades and degrees.
3) Access to learning resources (libraries, labs, books, and now access to online resources like J-STOR, etc…)
4) Research Assistants and other opportunities to work directly with faculty (I had the opportunity to work with some really great professors while at university and these represented some of the best learning experiences in colllege, although they are nowhere on my transcript).
5) A commitment device – Having classes and grades forces people to learn (or try to learn).
6) Peer learning effects through interacting with other students in school related setttings (I’m thinking of problem set groups and study groups that I still consider one of my biggest sources of learning in college.
7) Peer Learning effects through interacting with other students in the university in non-class related settings (think late night conversations in the dorms, etc…)
8) Peer networking effects (i.e. meeting people who will be helpful to have in your social network later in life).
9) Extracurricular involvement – Many universities (especially “elite” ones) have a vibrant extraccuricular scene, with activities ranging from political groups to investment clubs to engineering clubs. These activities essentially allow students to “play adult” and learn important organizational and teamwork skills.
10) Career Advising and job placement services.

I understand the emphasis on the quality of teaching, but it’s important to understand that american universities are really selling a bundled package and its important to think about the whole bundle when discussing the merits/value added of american universities.

There is a serious question about whether some parts of this package could be delivered for efficiently un-bundled, but that requires careful discussion of each component of the bundle.

162

bianca steele 05.23.10 at 6:20 pm

Landru,
You misunderstood me re. the natural sciences. It seems to me a student who doesn’t learn anything in a science class simply hasn’t learned anything new. She hasn’t learned a lot of things that aren’t so (that g=800 m/s^2, for instance). And non-majors don’t take, for example, math-heavy courses and simply flunk, but rather take suitable courses that teach the same material simplified, or teach about the same material.

Whereas if a student being taught by a poor teacher hears someone say, as LP did above, that the US is an aristocracy, and believes it is literally true, harm has been done. Are you arguing that this kind of thing is really what goes on? Because I did not encounter anything like this from any humanities instructor I ever had, and I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t consider claims from angry-sounding Internet people with silly pseudonyms (and no specifics) to be especially terrific evidence.

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bianca steele 05.23.10 at 6:23 pm

OK, I reread Landru’s post, and see you were not claiming that academics in the late twentieth century were teaching relativism and lack of respect for Truth, only that you think it’s obvious that our political leaders are relativistic and truth-disrespecting, and that it’s also obvious that the only place they could have acquired such despicable morals is the university.

Those young “postmodern conservatives” would probably agree.

164

Bloix 05.24.10 at 12:35 am

Bianca Steele – some years ago, when I was a law clerk to a federal judge, we had a summer intern who was a law student from a reasonably good 2nd tier law school, and we gave her a habeas petition to work on. So she told me all about how habeas really didn’t make any difference and it was a liberal manipulation that simply disguised the true power relationships in society. I don’t remember the jargon precisely but this was what her left-wing critical legal studies criminal law professor was teaching her – that habeas didn’t make any difference. Now, I suppose in some sense, habeas doesn’t make any difference: the prisons are filled with non-violent drug offenders who don’t belong there. But in another sense habeas is the only thing that stands between us and fascism. And the teacher was not communicating the bedrock protection that habeas guarantees. This was all well before 9/11, but this student had been rendered incapable of defending liberalism from the attacks from the right because she had been instructed only in attacks on liberalism from the left . This wasn’t merely poor teaching – it was pernicious, and the instructor in that class was in my view an evil person.

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Steve LaBonne 05.24.10 at 2:16 am

Bianca @ 163:

OK, I reread Landru’s post, and see you were not claiming that academics in the late twentieth century were teaching relativism and lack of respect for Truth

But some of them certainly were, and as Bloix’s anecdote illustrates, this has had real and harmful consequences. I can well understand why people nowadays are sick and tired of the overblown Science Wars, but it was often and rightly pointed out at the time that the disdain for the very concepts of objectivity and truth that was fashionable in some quarters was bound to migrate from Left to Right with disagreeable results.

166

john c. halasz 05.24.10 at 5:24 am

@155:

Two questions. 1) Have you ever actually thought hard about power relations (and the way that specialized physical sciences might be caught up or contribute to them)? 2) Did you fail to notice how “familiarity with quantitative methods” contributed to the fundamental failures involved in the GFC?

167

Steve LaBonne 05.24.10 at 10:31 am

John, it’s precisely the power relations that make this stuff important. If you want to change the world- as all of us on the left do- you of all people are most vulnerable to erosion of the concepts of objectivity and truth, concepts which are indispensable to getting a cognitive foothold from which to persuasively criticize the existing order. And for that very reason, and as we’ve seen vividly demonstrated in the US, contempt for truth is very convenient for the right.

168

bianca steele 05.24.10 at 1:51 pm

Steve:
You say some professors were teaching–undergraduates–disrespect for truth and objectivity. Who? I’m not talking about incommensurability between two different models for light (who cares), or cultural anthropologists saying the differences between cultures are important to recognize, or late night bull sessions about “existentialism” with the kind of people who put bandannas on their dorm room ceilings, and I’m not talking about trawling the journals and finding analyses that seem absurd. At best I can find a few references (not quite gushing but close), say in the “further reading” sections of books that are often by scholars about as solidly on the left as it’s possible to be, to broad overviews by people with no discernible philosophical or political commitments, claiming that science is emotionally unstable or something and modern objectivity is about to collapse.

I get annoyed, too, by humanities scholars who burnish their claims to “right” thinking by insisting that only Steven Jay Gould can teach the politically correct truth about evolutionary thinking, or who write biographies of scientific figures that confuse individuals’ intelligence with the morality of the future use to which their work would be put. But that is absolutely not relativism.

169

Steve LaBonne 05.24.10 at 1:56 pm

Bianca, don’t just take it from me, take it from an insider.

170

Landru 05.24.10 at 2:09 pm

@ john.c.halasz at #166

I certainly know something about how physical sciences are caught up with our internal power relations, and it’s not a pretty picture. Scientists being comparatively vulgar (and I mean that in a nice way) our power relations are relatively easy to decode. Today, you need only follow the circuitry of money. The subject of the original post here was, how does a research department or administration evaluate faculty performance, and how is teaching valued relative to other kinds of ratings of scholarship? In physical sciences, I would say that this whole process has been very efficiently boiled down: as a faculty at a research school, your status goes with how much overhead funding you’ve pulled in, plain and simple. It’s not that teaching doesn’t register very highly, it’s that it isn’t even connected to the meter. All important judgements about research faculty have effectively been outsourced to the funding agencies. (I exaggerate a bit for brevity, but not nearly as much as you might hope.) I can’t speak for life sciences first hand, but have no reason to believe that the same isn’t true there.

So I agree that human power relations are important, and that studying, appreciating and understanding them is also important. But I think these efforts should be in service to the main goal of getting at reality as best we can; as opposed to (what I think of as) the po-mo view that access to reality will always be so hopelessly compromised that one would be foolish/naive even to try.

Re: realists and the GFC, it’s an interesting question and I will try to address it later. All I will say for the moment is that for financiers, the primary objects they consider are not the patterns of Nature but the behaviors of other people; not “what is this thing’s utility?” but “what will someone else pay for it?”.

171

AcademicLurker 05.24.10 at 2:22 pm

As a faculty member in a science department at a research university, I will stipulate that the picture Landru paints in 170 is fully accurate.

172

bianca steele 05.24.10 at 3:36 pm

@169
Undergraduates and practitioners of the physical sciences and engineering read Critical Inquiry? Surely in our modern, liberal era we are more specialized than that.

Seriously, I doubt Latour writes the same way for the Polytechnique students he teaches some practical sociology, for teachers of sociology to engineering students, or for his colleagues who are philosophers. What is the significance of the fact that an issue on “criticism” can include Latour as well as Wayne Booth and Sander Gilman?

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Clod Levi-Strauss 05.24.10 at 4:31 pm

“So I agree that human power relations are important, and that studying, appreciating and understanding them is also important. But I think these efforts should be in service to the main goal of getting at reality as best we can; as opposed to (what I think of as) the po-mo view that access to reality will always be so hopelessly compromised that one would be foolish/naive even to try.”

Democracy is a formal system of decision-making not a system of truth production. Idealists either know this and are therefore opposed to democracy or lie to themselves and pretend democracy is something it’s not. The academy is full of idealists of both sorts, complimented by third: anti-idealists who call black white and white black. But negative idealism is still idealism. Ideas are taught and learned by rote and the fostering of the capacity for critical judgement is eschewed for knowledge of ideas and concepts, that can be learned from books. But teaching is a function of social life. One of the things taught and learned in a classroom is an understanding of the subtleties of social exchange. You learn not just about the subject but about people, and how they behave.
Unfortunately, a focus on individualism reduces the awareness of individual experience.

Also Landru should mention the amount of academic collaboration among research faculty that is strictly quid pro quo. My ex says in her field it’s close to 100%

174

piglet 05.24.10 at 5:19 pm

JQ:

To LP and others, it’s the universality[1] among developed capitalist countries of (a) high returns to university education and (b) claims about credentialism that makes me doubt that there a historically conditioned low-level credentialist equilibrium. fn1. Maybe Germany is a counterexample, but I don’t think so.

Part of the problem is that your hypothesis isn’t that well defined. Are you arguing for an objective value of university education per se, or for the objective value of “elite” education, or both? Let me try a concrete example. A law degree does provide high returns, especially in the US. It does so both because law practitioners need the specialized training, and because they need the credential to be allowed to practice. A law firm could not hire somebody without a degree but they could, in line with your argument, approach individuals that have been admitted to a high prestige law school and persuade them to attend a cheaper, lower prestige institution. The problems are obvious: first, the high prestige degree represents a portable and lasting value to the candidate that the law firm cannot compensate for. Second, it also represents a value to the law firm, which can boast the qualification of its attorneys vis a vis its high-paying clients. Once a culture of credentialism is deeply entrenched, it becomes self-propagating. I would argue that in most real-world cases, there is little or no upside for a business to try to ignore the cultural bias and swim against the tide. You are underestimating the degree to which the cultural and institutional framework determines these outcomes. And I would argue that there ARE counterexamples based on different institutional frameworks (and I doubt that Germany is the outlier here and the US the norm).

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