The Game of Wrong, and Moral Psychology

by John Holbo on March 28, 2014

Apologies for extended absence, due to me teaching a Coursera MOOC, “Reason and Persuasion”.

I’m moderately MOOC-positive, coming out the other end of the rabbit hole. (It’s the final week of the course. I can see light!) I will surely have to write a ‘final reflections’ post some time in the near future. I’ve learned important life lessons, such as: don’t teach a MOOC if there is anything else whatsoever that you are planning to do with your life for the next several months. (Bathroom breaks are ok! But hurry back!)

We’re done with Plato and I’m doing a couple weeks on contemporary moral psychology. The idea being: relate Plato to that stuff.

So this post is mostly to alert folks that if they have some interest in my MOOC, they should probably sign up now. (It’s free!) I’m a bit unclear about Coursera norms for access, after courses are over. But if you enroll, you still have access after the course is over. (I have access to my old Coursera courses, anyway. Maybe it differs, course by course.) So it’s not like you have to gorge yourself on the whole course in a single week.

We finished up the Plato portion of the course with Glaucon’s challenge, some thoughts about the game theory and the psychology of justice.

They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just. (358e-9a)

So I whipped up some appropriate graphics (click for larger).




Point being: first game looks more fun. Gets good and hot! But the second, despite it’s apparently dull pattern of play, is really a remarkable achievement in the history of game design.

I like to have fun, in short. (I also did some good theory of justice as IKEA instructions parodies.)

For the final two weeks we’re reading some Jonathan Haidt, followed by bits from Joshua Greene’s new book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them [amazon]. My line is basically that Greene, as a forthright utilitarian, is a philosophically improved Jonathan Haidt – who is also a utilitarian, but reluctantly and, therefore, schizophrenically. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt spends a great deal of time abusing utilitarianism as a symptom of intellectual error – even of personal autism. Utilitarians are described as the sort of people who would open a restaurant serving only sugar. And then, more than halfway through the book we get this:

I don’t know what the best normative ethical theory is for individuals in their private lives. But when we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism. I think Jeremy Bentham was right that laws and public policies should aim, as a first approximation, to produce the greatest total good.

This contains the sum total of Haidt’s official argument for utilitarianism, and it puts his earlier attacks on utilitarianism in a strange light. He says he just wants utilitarians – rationalists generally – to be more open to appreciating human complexity. But, for the most part, his evidence that they are bad anthropologists and bad psychologists just is that they are utilitarians. Which he is himself.

Greene straights all this out by being much clearer about the following: if you accept Haidt’s basic picture of human nature; if you are a utilitarian; what should you advocate?

I’m not very trolley problem-positive, as a rule. I think it tends to get a bit silly. But Greene’s book is good. I was substantially won over as to the utility of these silly stories, not so much for thought-experimental purposes, but for actual cognitive science experimental purposes. I’m now convinced that asking people this stuff probably does show some stuff about how the brain works. (Of course, we don’t really know how the brain works. But you have to try, if that’s your job.) Anyway, the lesson for course purposes is: if you actually subscribe to a basically rationalistic ethical philosophy in which you think everyone should be pursuing the Form of the Good – that’s Plato, Haidt and Greene – you need to be clear that this is what you are doing, and how and why. That’s Plato (sort of) and Greene (sort of) but not Haidt.

I’m not just negative about Haidt, however. His first book, The Happiness Hypothesis, is a good example of how to do popular stuff right, I think. The Righteous Mind … I didn’t like so much. The politics stuff takes the author too much out of his areas of competence. But I didn’t end up really talking about the liberals vs. conservatives stuff much in my course. So I won’t go into that now.



Lew Dog 03.28.14 at 6:39 am

What is this “justice” you speak of?


Anders Widebrant 03.28.14 at 9:18 am

I’ll take this opportunity to say that I’ve really, really enjoyed the course! I didn’t make time for the essay, but the lectures and the book are absolutely awesome.

The smallest of nitpicks: The course book was only just readable on my Kindle (without converting it, which both improved and reduced readability, and put a real dent in the justification bits). A point or two larger typeface would have made a huge difference.


John Holbo 03.28.14 at 11:53 am

Thanks. Yeah, I need to redo that old PDF, which was made before the days of Kindle or anything fancy like that.


mattski 03.28.14 at 12:57 pm

@ 1

Go to Kollege. Fine doubt.


Donald A. Coffin 03.28.14 at 2:28 pm

Looking forward to your reflections on teaching a MOOC. I suspect that they might be publishable in an actual peer-reviewed journal thingee, too.


TM 03.28.14 at 3:54 pm

According to Harper’s Index (3/2014), only 4% of MOOC students complete the course and 49% view no more than one lecture. Would you mind sharing your numbers?


Manta 03.28.14 at 5:10 pm

Shouldn’t the games of right and wrong have strangers as players, and not family members?
I would also like to read on your MOOC experience.

Maybe there will be a duel at dawn with Eric Loomis?


Main Street Muse 03.28.14 at 10:46 pm

MOOC question – how many students and how do you grade? Do the students participate in online discussion forums? Do you moderate those discussions? I am intrigued by the concept but cannot fathom how assessments can be done on student work.


jeffreyw 03.28.14 at 10:48 pm

Is there any way to download just the audio portion of the videos?


GiT 03.29.14 at 1:08 am


If I recall correctly, John’s using peer grading.


John Holbo 03.29.14 at 1:56 am

“Is there any way to download just the audio portion of the videos?”

Unfortunately not. You’ll have to use Handbrake or something like that.

“According to Harper’s Index (3/2014), only 4% of MOOC students complete the course and 49% view no more than one lecture.”

As of this morning my numbers go something like this:

enrolled ever: 43966
accessed ever: 19526
accessed last week: 3415

I could dig out more details but that should do. In our first week we peaked at about 10,000 individual visitors. That fell off steady until finally plateauing around 3400.

I don’t know how many students will ‘complete the course’ yet, i.e. pass, but it will surely be in the hundreds, not thousands.

The Harper statistic is alarming because we have an immediate sense that these statistics would be very very bad in an ordinary university context. But this isn’t that. ‘Enrolling’ in a Coursera course is just signing up to get an email when the course starts. Or, if it’s started, clicking a box that let’s you look and see whether it’s interesting. Calling that ‘enrollment’ is misleading. It isn’t even conditional commitment, so if it fails to lead to real commitment much of the time, that’s hardly surprising, and not obviously a problem. And, once you are in, it’s obviously going to be normal for people to access only some of the content. How many people who visit Crooked Timber read our entire archive? 0%, right? Is that a problem? Not obviously. I’ve literally never heard anyone say that getting as many visitors to read your entire site as possible is important.

Half of the people who visit view only one lecture? I’m sure that half the people who click on ‘more product information’, or put stuff in their basket, don’t end up hitting ‘check out’. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and if some gung ho capitalist were to sound the alarm: people aren’t serious about consuming! Many of them put things in their shopping basket and then don’t check out! … Well, that would be rather silly.

Some people won’t like the course well enough to want to watch very much of it. That’s natural. Some people will like it but not be up for 16 hours of viewing. Maybe they only want to watch 4 hours. Not to get all the-future-of-education-is-iTunes, students-will-buy-only-the-singles-not-a-whole-album, but if someone tells me they only watched my Euthyphro lectures, and liked them, but didn’t finish the course, I’m not too upset. There are reasons to force university students to take a whole course for credit. But that doesn’t mean that ‘did you take THE WHOLE COURSE?’ therefore becomes some sort of hallowed standard for seriousness, or an indicator of whether johnny is learning.

As to finishing the course, Anders says he liked it. I’m glad. Suppose he watched all 16 hours and read the book and all that stuff. But he decided not to take my little auto-graded mcq quizzes or write the peer-assessed essay? Well, then he doesn’t pass. Is that a problem? Does it show a lack of commitment on his part, or a failure on my part to engage him as a learner? Not really.

Suppose I tried to prove that MOOC’s rule and traditional university courses drool by citing just average enrollments. MOOC’s get 10 times the average enrollments, I’m sure. That doesn’t mean MOOC’s are, on average, 10 times better than traditional classes, because MOOC enrollments aren’t comparable. We aren’t comparing apples to apples. But the same goes for completion rates. The logic of MOOC completion just isn’t the same as for a traditional university course. We aren’t comparing apples to apples here.

This is not to say MOOC skepticism is unwarranted. There is a lot of edupreneurial bullshit and hype about MOOC’s. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense to fling equal and opposite bullshit, as that Harper’s statistic does.


Clay Shirky 03.29.14 at 3:55 pm

Just want to add a bit to John’s excellent answer #11 to @TM #6, especially this bit:

“There are reasons to force university students to take a whole course for credit. But that doesn’t mean that ‘did you take THE WHOLE COURSE?’ therefore becomes some sort of hallowed standard for seriousness, or an indicator of whether johnny is learning.”

For things like the ‘only 49% watch more than one lecture’ figure, you don’t even need to go as far afield as John does with the bail-out rate on shopping carts and more product information. Our own academic practice often includes both a ‘wish list’ of courses the student might like to enroll in (registation in a MOOC is nothing more than an item on a wish list) as well as a shopping period (which is analogous to watching the first lecture, to see how you like it. No one calculates their course enrollment as “The Number of Students Who Ever Sat In One One Lecture”, much less “The Number of Students Who Ever Thought About Taking My Course.”

The stock-keeping units we traffic in — course, credit, grade, department, major, and degree — aren’t traditions, they are just habits. There is nothing about them that shouldn’t be up for re-consideration, especially if it means generating a clearer idea of what it is we think the students should get out of our attempts to help them learn.

As a good CT reader would, I favor a capabilities approach to learning, which is to say that learning can be assessed on two dimensions — does the student leave class with capabilities they did not have when they entered, and do those capabilities turn into freedoms to do things in the world that benefit them, by their own lights. (As an aside, I read Paying for the Party on Harry’s recommendation, and was startled at how little the university in question cared about the answer to that second question, in advising those students about their university careers.

As John notes, many of the current attempts to answer that question in new ways suffer from undue early excitement. The thing that’s likely to be most worthwhile about the current wave of experimentation, though, is not that it is Teh Future. (2014-model MOOCs are no likelier to remain the norm by 2020 than Gopher remained the norm of info-finding in the 1990s.) The thing most likely to be worthwhile is that the Harper’s school of “Lets use the old units to measure the new models” is so obviously a bad fit for thinking about education that they are provoking a real conversation about how structured attempts to help other people learn should be designed and measured.


Main Street Muse 03.29.14 at 3:56 pm

John – “But that doesn’t mean that ‘did you take THE WHOLE COURSE?’ therefore becomes some sort of hallowed standard for seriousness, or an indicator of whether johnny is learning.”

How do MOOCs determine if Johnny and Jenny are learning? That’s what I wonder about these massive courses.

Who pays your salary as you do this? Your university? It’s free, right? So no skin in the game/no debt to accrue to learn this way. But how does Coursera make the $$ needed to invest in teachers, technology, etc.? Or is there the idea that once a course is developed, no further investment needs to be made?

There are stats about brick and mortar colleges that are alarming – among them being the stat that about 60% of those who enroll in four year colleges graduate – in six years. That’s a lot of $$ and a lot of time – and a lot of people who drop out with a huge debt load without ever getting a degree.


John Holbo 03.29.14 at 4:20 pm

“How do MOOCs determine if Johnny and Jenny are learning?”

That’s a tough one. So far I’m only objecting to the heavy hint that people must not be learning (because the drop-out and drop-off rates are so precipitous, compared to university courses.)

“Who pays your salary as you do this? Your university? It’s free, right? So no skin in the game/no debt to accrue to learn this way. But how does Coursera make the $$ needed to invest in teachers, technology, etc.? Or is there the idea that once a course is developed, no further investment needs to be made?”

Complicated. Yes, my university is paying me to do it, in effect. It’s free for the students. No debt and no real credit. Just ‘for fun’ – and a certificate at the end that is really just a gold star. Coursera makes money by licensing the platform to my university for internal use. There are also making money from some pay courses at the end of which a more serious credential is offered. The logic of course development is that you work hard to prepare once and then a lot is in the can next time. If the course doesn’t run at least a few times, after you record it, the production effort doesn’t make much sense. But that doesn’t mean the idea is that the course runs without an instructor, just without someone doing the lectures fresh each time.

The future is most uncertain.


Main Street Muse 03.29.14 at 4:39 pm

Thanks John. I appreciate the info about your experience.

“It’s free for the students. No debt and no real credit. Just ‘for fun’ – and a certificate at the end that is really just a gold star.”

Sounds better than the student athletes at UNC-CH who got “As” just for signing up for no-show courses… flagship public university that makes millions on its student athletes fails to deliver its side of the deal.

As I’ve said on other posts, I’m new to higher ed, after many years in the private sector – it has been an utterly fascinating experience. I’m doubtful that MOOCs can deliver what college students need, in that so many students seem to need the specter of an “F” to be fully motivated to engage with the materials (and that works not at all for some students!) But I also feel that the stat that only 60% of students graduate in six years is a huge failure on the part of brick and mortar institutions. And the skyrocketing costs have reached a tipping point. Something’s got to change.


John Holbo 03.29.14 at 4:42 pm

Hi Clay, thanks for the supportive comments.


Clay Shirky 03.30.14 at 1:17 am

Main Street #15, I think you’ve hit the biggest area of failure for MOOCs as constituted, which is motivation.

I’ve spent the last couple of years immersed in both the literature of complaint and renewal of higher education (Bok, Bowen, Gray, Christiansen, Menand, et al) and in the studies of the system as it exists today (Archibald and Feldman, Pascarella, Ginsburg, Tuchman, Armstrong, et al), and if I had to synthesize both into a sentence, I’d say this:

The core question in all forms of education is Who cares?, as in “who cares that the student learns?”

There are three possible answers: I care. We care. They care.

I care is personal motivation, usually expressed in its positive form: “I like to learn. I like the feeling of autonomy, and competence.”

We care is one form of social motivation, usually expressed as “My friends are also studious, and respect the effort it takes to learn.” (One finding from the Pascarella reviews is that being around studious peers creates a significant boost in learning.)

They care is another form of social motivation, usually expressed as “I want to impress the teacher/my parents/mentor/authority figure.”

In addition to the three usual ways of expressing these characteristics, each form has a negative version (though we don’t like to talk about this much in the US since the 1960s.) The negative versions of the three answers to Who cares? are “I don’t want to feel dumb”, “I don’t want my friends to look down on me”, and “I don’t want to disappoint my parents.”

And in addition to that, each form has an extrinsic version (though we don’t like to talk about extrinsic motivations in the US academy either, having inherited the British academics’ horror of working for a living.) The extrinsic forms of I care are “I would like a better job than I could get with just a high school diploma” or “I am afraid I will be suck in a dead-end job without a diploma.” The extrinsic version of We care is that same logic applied to the ability to support a family, and They care is about social or financial position.

So there are a dozen or so levers we can use to motivate students, but right now, MOOCs et alia mainly rely on just one of that dozen: personal, positive and intrinsic motivation. Reliance on this type of motivation assumes that learning can be made just so gosh darn awesome that people will do what they need to do with a song in their heart. This is a weird mix of Silicon Valley upbeat libertarianism and “Each child is a special flower who will grow in the right soil” educational theory. (The shadow version of relying on personal, positive and intrinsic motivation is that people who fail to learn on their own when given high-quality materials in a ‘go at your own pace’ format can be safely ignored, because they clearly failed to be members in good standing of the Church of Awesome.)

When MOOCs suck for student completion, they suck mainly in assuming that positive, personal motivation is enough. This certainly works for the one person in twenty for whom the love of learning is enough (these are people whose fit with learning is analogous to gym rats’ fit with exercise), but the other 95% of use need something other than ‘Woo hoo!’ to keep us focussed.

However, when traditional forms of higher education suck (which they do at a rate that we practitioners do not like to admit), they suck mainly in assuming that personal, positive and intrinsic motivation is irrelevant, and can be substituted with either fear of bad outcomes or respect for us, their wonderful teachers.

Like you, Main Street, I came into the academy sideways from industry, so I never internalized the sense that we professors are magic, or that the world owes us a living. We’re just workers, we have a job to do, we are visibly doing that job worse with each passing year, given the return on our students’ respective investments.

One of the reasons I am betting that experiments like the one Holbo is just finishing will transform the academy is that I am betting that new experiments in scalable education will be able to expand the number of relevant answers to the question “Who cares?” faster and more cheaply than traditional education will be able to trigger the intrinsic motivations of the students.


Anders Widebrant 03.30.14 at 1:48 am

To maybe do a little bit better than just saying that I liked the course, I will note that it compares favourably to when I read Plato in a physical school environment (first year political science). Not a fair comparison, necessarily, but John’s material reached much deeper into Plato’s philosophical framework than what I recall from my university class.

Clearly, one of the major advantages of the MOOCs is that they allow specialized and experienced teachers to reach a much larger audience. The lecturing component gets way better compared to schools that can’t afford, say, a serious dedicated philosophy department. And just as clearly, most of the opportunities for student engagement and discussion are lost to MOOCs, and it’s not clear that the MOOC vendors are really interested in addressing that problem.

Doesn’t it seem at least plausible that the standard MOOC template could include a set of best practices for organizing local study groups, perhaps led by people who have already taken the course once, plus perhaps an additional “TA guide”?


mdc 03.30.14 at 2:01 am

“though we don’t like to talk about extrinsic motivations in the US academy either, having inherited the British academics’ horror of working for a living.”

The only people I’ve ever heard talk about “extrinsic motivations” are the Department of Education, the President, every college president ever, the accreditation world, all guidance counselors, and the entire US media. Every time education is described as an “investment” (blech)- which is every time education is written about anywhere- the universal assumption that education is mercenary or instrumental is entrenched.


John Holbo 03.30.14 at 2:17 am

I know that I was personally so preoccupied just with getting the material produced that I didn’t do nearly enough on the motivation side. That is, I’m basically relying on people finding it interesting, counting on that being 1 in 20 people, and counting on there being enough people so 1 in 20 adds up. Next time around, when I’m not so fussed just to get the videos in the can, I’ll try to do a bit better.


John Holbo 03.30.14 at 2:20 am

Actually, I’m being too hard on myself there. I did one major thing, besides just canning videos. I showed up regularly with announcements and have participated in the forums. That’s not a lot, but it’s worth saying that the benefit of the teacher being a live person who who participates is motivational, as much as informationally instructive.


John Holbo 03.30.14 at 2:22 am

Clay is right that motivational issues are really the unsolved problem and about the best that can be said is that traditional university methods aren’t so great either, so if MOOC’s turn out to have a moderately crappy solution to the motivation problem, it’s worth remembering that all known solutions are moderately crappy.


Soren Kerk 03.30.14 at 4:30 am

You were great. The style was refreshing. The drawings are brilliant. I wish I had something intelligent to say, but I have only these compliments.


John Holbo 03.30.14 at 4:47 am



Maynard Handley 03.30.14 at 5:17 am

Two points.
On MOOCs: you have to ask yourself (as the “lecturer” for the course) what it is you are trying to achieve.
IF you are trying to replicate the college experience, MOOCs do that (to some extent, modulo interaction with other people, blah blah). BUT is replicating the college experience a sensible goal?

Speaking from my own experience, and that of my cadre of friends (university educated, in their thirties or forties) we are very interested in learning new things — but in a loose “get the big ideas” fashion, not in a detailed become an expert fashion. Rail against that all you like, but this is the reality of the human condition. I’ve reached 45 years old, I am a minor expert in my university discipline and my job discipline, AND I want to know something about history — all the history of all the world. And about biology — all the different facets of biology. And all the social sciences. And how petroleum is cracked. And what’s happening in nano tech. And paleontology. And … … …
The ONLY way to learn something about ALL these fields is to acquire what is admittedly a shallow quick knowledge.

But if that is the goal, MOOCs are now not an especially helpful system. They put way too much friction in between me and my goals. Something like iTunesU (especially iTunesU as it was five years ago, not the newer ever more MOOC’d version) is vastly preferable — I download the lectures as a podcast, I listen to them when I like on my schedule, when I’m rave enthusiastically to my friends, and we have interesting discussions on what new I’ve learned.
Basically this is the Teaching Company model of lectures.

It’s not my place to tell you how and where to put your lecturers. But I do think there is value in understanding (FULLY understanding) the audience for this material, so that you can decide exactly which part of that audience you feel it is you want to provide for.


Maynard Handley 03.30.14 at 5:30 am

As for my second point, I want to raise my personal bete noir every time I see utilitarianism mentioned.
“laws and public policies should aim, as a first approximation, to produce the greatest total good.”
Really? Is that EXACTLY the definition you want? Or should the definition be
“laws and public policies should aim, as a first approximation, to produce the greatest MEAN good.”

These are VERY different statements, with very different consequences.
Maximizing TOTAL good means you keep breeding humans until the planet is so overcrowded that each new human baby is GUARANTEED to have no more total happiness than total misery during its life.
Maximizing MEAN good means you stop as soon as the next human baby will have LESS happiness than the one born just before it.
One leads you to a planet of, I don’t know, maybe 300 million, humans all living like kings; the other leads you to a planet of 20 billion humans all living like animals. VERY different outcomes.

If people are not willing to be precise in what they are saying when careless words can imply either of two such different outcomes, this suggests that they are simply not worth listening to. They clearly have not thought through the FULL implications of what they profess to believe, which suggests that they’re either not too smart, or are using utilitarianism like “originalism” — as a way to justify whatever it is they already want to believe.


John Holbo 03.30.14 at 5:35 am

“These are VERY different statements, with very different consequences.
Maximizing TOTAL good means you keep breeding humans until the planet is so overcrowded that each new human baby is GUARANTEED to have no more total happiness than total misery during its life.”

I’m actually talking about that this week. Last week of the course. The moral of the story: Haidt’s rather belated turn to utilitarianism – though welcome! – is ultimately unclear.


Main Street Muse 03.30.14 at 11:59 am

Clay @ 17 “Like you, Main Street, I came into the academy sideways from industry, so I never internalized the sense that we professors are magic, or that the world owes us a living. We’re just workers, we have a job to do, we are visibly doing that job worse with each passing year, given the return on our students’ respective investments.”


I am most troubled by how ill-prepared my students are for college (and even though I’m at a state school, I have enough out-of-state students to generalize that the lack of preparation is not just isolated to students from my state.

That’s why I think MOOCs will be great for older people needed a refresher or have curiosity about a particular topic, but not good at all for the 18-year-old who has not a clue about what this information is supposed to mean in the big scheme of things.

But again, floundering in the classroom and partying excessively while racking up enormous debt is a very poor way to start adulthood.

I am not familiar with the massive lecture course. My largest class has been one with 40 students. I cannot imagine assessing the performance of 1000s or 100s of students. I hate bubble tests with a particular passion.


Clay Shirky 03.30.14 at 12:42 pm

MDC @19, fair enough. I was trying to make a narrower point than the one I wrote.

What I should have said was that the members of my tribe (tenured professors at well-off colleges and universities) do not like to talk about extrinsic motivation, a point I think is reinforced not once but twice by your list. The first, minor point, is that none of the people you describe talking about extrinsic motivation are faculty.

The more serious underlining of my point comes in your own horror of even considering that education might be an investment. Yet what else could it be? If the expenditure of time, money and effort is not an investment, what is it? And if the outcome of the students’ investment of time, money and effort can’t be assessed in their increased capabilities, how can it be assessed? And if weighing present cost against expected future value isn’t amenable to instrumental calculations, why not?

Indeed, we don’t just invite students to make instrumental calculations, we require them to do so, from the moment they first have to decide which colleges to apply to, all the way through their assessment of the last elective they take in their final semester.

These measurements are complex, and as with all institutional goods, include incommensurable kinds of value. (“I learned how to solve differential equations” is hard to measure vs. “I discovered a lifelong love of the visual arts” vs. “I met my closest friends there.”) But the people we are paid to help are making decisions based on the effect they hope we will have on their lives.

We (me and my tenured tribe) don’t like to talk about this, because it hurts our feelings. (Like many institutions whose organizational model predates democracy, we never really got over the conviction that we are secretly priests.) But does it not strike you as curious that college presidents, included on your list of the feckless and faithless, are drawn from the ranks of faculty? What do you think happens to them, these former faculty members, that they fairly uniformly abandon the idea that our institutions should provide no value that could be called instrumental?


Main Street Muse 03.30.14 at 1:36 pm

To MDC – what is the point of spending all that money on a college education, if it is not an investment?

Even at “cheap” state schools, it’s about an $80,000 investment of funds to get a degree – in four years, which, apparently, is out of realm of possibility for many students. (60% of those who enroll at a four-year institution graduate in six years – and less than 40% graduate in four years.)


mdc 03.30.14 at 4:19 pm

“what is the point of spending all that money on a college education, if it is not an investment?”

” If the expenditure of time, money and effort is not an investment, what is it? ”

At its best, a deeply valuable consumable, a high pleasure, a constituent of human flourishing. What if one’s studies afford insight into important truths? This would be intrinsically worthwhile. I’ll concede that many students don’t get this kind of experience. But I think were a wealthy enough society that we should be able to offer it to those who want it.


bianca steele 03.30.14 at 5:29 pm

Here are two possible analogies to a college education:

1. The piano lesson model. Only some kids take piano lessons. They’re one on one and require significant money and effort over a long period of time. Some people advance quickly and some don’t. Anyone can quit at any time if they are happy with how much they’ve learned or can’t afford the money and time anymore. Most people who take lessons do so for their own enjoyment. Classwork can be reproduced at home, or anywhere, and can be observed by parents and friends at any time.

2. The gymnastics class model. There are lots of gymnastics classes, and for little kids, these are advertised as teaching important skills, values, and abilities for every kid, unrelated to advanced gymnastics competition–there’s no other place to engage in those activities outside of gymnastics classes, either, especially for small kids. Classes are relatively large and parents can’t really see what’s going on, observe work outside class, or help their kids learn. But general gymnastics classes are generally also attached to advanced classes that are restricted to the most talented, and to very competitive teams. The little-kid classes accept unusually talented kids, as well as the average and below-average. But there isn’t time to teach them, and in the worst cases, they’re just ignored and subtly told they’re not good (in traditional gym-teacher fashion), so they’ll decide to stop attending. So only the very best end up learning those skills, and this suits the gyms fairly well, because what they’re really interested in is high-level performance.

It seems that in many ways and for many people, college is more like the latter experience. Education, like gymnastics performance, is viewed as an intrinsic good. Its collateral benefits are played up because there’s community interest in them. But it doesn’t work for many people, and they’re often embarrassed both to admit that they failed in that setting, and that they haven’t found a way to turn the failure into a learning experience for themselves but are still “blaming others.” I’m not sure MOOCs are the answer, but I think my analogy is more specific than Clay Shirky’s “priests” or the dichotomy “high pleasure”/”investment.”


bianca steele 03.30.14 at 5:46 pm

I suppose there’s also:

3. The soccer model. For little kids, you show them some skills implicitly, and then let them run around and play (the balance between these depending on the program). Some will take the opportunity to get better, slowly or quickly, and some won’t really. At some point, they get sorted into talented and less talented (although for a while there are still plenty of opportunities for the less talented to keep participating), and this is pretty much going to happen according to skill- and interest-level, but it’s the kids themselves who do the sorting.

The soccer model seems like an ideal-type of how education tends to actually happen when there’s a general belief that no one’s really going to be told they’ll never kick a soccer ball around again, and there’s little desire for an ultra-elitist piano-lesson model.


bianca steele 03.30.14 at 5:46 pm

implicitly -> explicitly


Harold 03.30.14 at 6:54 pm

I think there is a lot of sense in education as a societal investment because our system needs a lot of redundancy in order not to have to keep re-inventing the wheel with every generation (about 20-30 years?). There may not be so much sense in higher education as an individual investment.

As far as music instruction, Kodaly’s method was developed to work in group lessons, though he devised it as a preparation for supplementary individual piano, or other instrument lessons to be taken later. It is a cumulative method, based on folk music, that begins in nursery school with hand gestures taught to accompany very simplest musical intervals, gradually becoming more complex as the grades advance and adding harmony and rhythm. This is a video of Hungarian primary school children sight-singing a choral piece by Mendelssohnn that they have never seen before.

I understand that to learn solfège, it really needs to be done on a daily basis, preferably in a classroom, over a period of years. There is a lot to be said for group lessons, IMO, because they are much more fun. There are several videos about the Kodaly method on the web.


Clay Shirky 03.30.14 at 9:50 pm

Working backwards.

Harold @35, I’ll contend that exactly the opposite thing has happened. Education used to be a social good, back when the basic bargain of US society was that the college educated created or managed the jobs that would be done by the high school educated, and those jobs would pay well and last for life.

Since 1975, however, US productivity gains have continued, but the link between productivity and wages was decisively severed. (

Since the mid-1970s, holders of Associates Degrees and higher have well outperformed high school degree holders in almost every measurable category of income or well-being. Higher education is now mainly a private good, whose value is principally captured by the degree holder.

@Bianca #33, your soccer model maps really nicely to the Paying for the Party thread a week or so ago. ( Like your naively self-sorting soccer players, the women studied were allowed to make disastrous choices about their college careers, including switching to less stressful majors in order to join the dominant party culture of their university, without anyone telling them that they were sacrificing the very instruction that would enable them to do the things they wanted to do after college.

Indeed, one of the most consistent themes of PftP is how little the employees of that university, nominally advising these women, were interested in offering any useful advice at all. In this vacuum, the biggest predictor of success seemed to be having parents who understood what was required of college students and who could help sort good from bad choices from afar.

@MDC #31, there are so many reasons to reject that model, starting with the fact that it is not true. A vast majority of freshman understand themselves to be going to college to learn things that will aid them in the world of work, and the willingness of both their parents and the state to either incur or subsidize significant debt is directly tied to the pursuit of that goal. (

The next reason to reject your model is that we, the faculty, know that it is not true. College in the US has always had an explicitly vocational component, starting with the training of ministers in the 1600s, and the period immediately after WWII transformed that into the dominant theme of both our organizational forms and our funding.

The states did not suddenly increase our subsidies in the 1960s because the good people of Ohio and Alabama and Montana wanted to see “human flourishing.” They jacked up our funds because the Russkies had a bird in the sky and we did not, and for 15 years, we treated education like a Cold War imperative, and funded it at military rather than civilian levels.

For the last two generations, our revenue has been fairly explicitly tied to us producing an effective ticket to a stable, middle-class job. For us to pretend that this is not the source of our income would be like the good folk at Ceasar’s Palace insisting that US citizens flocked to the casino floor wanting an encounter with the ineffable pleasures of stochastic processes, and that any hint that people might be looking for a payout was pure slander.

But the most important reason to reject it is that it doesn’t make any sense even on it’s own terms. If you want to talk about “human flourishing”, that’s pretty obviously going to include people’s jobs, given that that is what they will do with a big chunk of their waking hours, and will present the environment in which they face significant challenges of both skill and character, and that remuneration from said jobs will have an effect on their ability to support a family, as well as supporting, say, an appreciation of various forms of art, or travel.

The only possible case in which human flourishing wouldn’t include such a central fact about people’s lives would be if the people in question were wealthy enough not to need a job, or if the mere fact of being ‘college educated’ was enough to secure them a job with little regard for the particularities of school, major, or performance. That first condition corresponds to the state of US higher education prior to 1940 (when the high-water mark for college attendance was 5%, virtually all well-off white men), while the second corresponds to the state of the US economy during its managerial and sub/urbanizing phase, from WWII to the mid-1970s. Neither case exists today, nor has for 40 years.

Your sense that most students do not get the pure ethereal experience you valorize is correct, but the cause is not some moral failing of either the students or the institutions. It is because most students expect higher education to do a different job than this, and most institutions of higher education are set up for that job.

There are a handful of English and History departments, at a single-digit fraction of institutions of higher education, that have the luxury of continuing to produce a credential of such basic value (a degree from Stanford, say, or Johns Hopkins) that they can comport themselves as if their students are independently wealthy, and thus can regard anything as demeaning as employment as being beneath discussion inside the classroom, but this is such a minority of faculty at such a minority of institutions that they are completely unrepresentative of any truth more significant than “When you have a lot of money, you are free to do as you like.”

@Main Street #28, I know I’m all “Blah blah blah Paying for the Party blah blah” in this thread, but when you say “…floundering in the classroom and partying excessively while racking up enormous debt is a very poor way to start adulthood,” one of the eye-opening things for me about that book was the ways in which what Armstrong and Hamilton call the Party Pathway is a great way to start adulthood if you are a) well-off and b) connected and c) outgoing.

The university in question (Indiana, I think) goes out of their way to make the party pathway work for those students, even as it creates an attractive nuisance for students not suited for it. (The merely middle-class students who thought that joining the party pathway would allow them to achieve the same outcomes as the socialites all come to grief.) That pathway also creates negative externalities for students not interested in partying but being on a campus dominated by it. (Armstrong and Hamilton’s most surprising discovery was that several women who quit the flagship campus and went to poorer regional campuses, and did better, by being away from the distractions.)


mdc 03.31.14 at 2:01 am

“it doesn’t make any sense even on it’s own terms”

Huh? Because if it’s not mercenary, it’s not worth doing? Sounds incoherent to me. We make money in order to live, right? We don’t live in order to make money.

I like Bianca’s analogies. Here’s another: one thing that has contributed much to my happiness is the National Park system. It hasn’t put food on the table or paid the bills, it has simply allowed me and my family to spend time in beautiful nature. I’ve counted that as intrinsically good. In the absence of our park system, it would be easy to say that the only people who can afford to lounge about in the choicest parcels of nature are the (decadent) wealthy, so we shouldn’t care about those sorts of goods. But in fact, thanks to the parks, many working class families like my own were able to enjoy views previously available only to the Rockefellers.

The pleasures of education rank higher, I think, than the pleasures of natural beauty. But they both are forms of leisure. You’re right that most colleges aren’t set up for the job of serious leisure (which, in this case, has nothing to do with partying). I don’t vouch for whatever racket they’re running.


Main Street Muse 03.31.14 at 2:05 am

Clay Shirky @36 “The university in question (Indiana, I think) goes out of their way to make the party pathway work for those students, even as it creates an attractive nuisance for students not suited for it. (The merely middle-class students who thought that joining the party pathway would allow them to achieve the same outcomes as the socialites all come to grief.)”

I am getting this book this week to read it. However, it was my understanding from the synopsis that the education was less relevant than the background – that the parents were the relevant piece in the success of the students, not the college educational experience. Is that not true? The party pathway actually helps well-connected students with careers, not the parental connections?


John Holbo 03.31.14 at 2:38 am

“Huh? Because if it’s not mercenary, it’s not worth doing? Sounds incoherent to me.”

mdc, surely you recognize that Clay is not saying that if it isn’t mercenary, it isn’t worth doing.

in effect, you are proposing that higher education should be a public leisure good, like a national park that is free to all. But you also recognize, surely, that most (or at least some) students go to college to get jobs after they get out of college. (When Clay points this out you feign shock that he could be so ignorant of the ideal of liberal arts education. But obviously he’s not. He’s drawing attention to the realities of liberal arts education.) If you have an idea for turning higher education into a free, public leisure good – well, we’d all love to see the plans.

“I don’t vouch for whatever racket they’re running.”

If you aren’t vouching for their racket, then what is your point?

Don’t say you are pointing out that, if you had a magic wand, you would choose to make education more perfect than anything anyone is proposing could ever achieve. Because I rather imagine that Clay would use the magic wand, too, if he had one. (Why wouldn’t he?)


Harold 03.31.14 at 2:52 am

It is not a good private investment for graduates with hundreds of thousands of $$ debt and no job prospects. Up until the 1970s there was a labor shortage. Now college seems to be a way to keep people out of the labor market. Jobs that used to require a college degree (and formerly just a high school degree, which used to mean something) now require additional graduate degrees in business as well. But it is still arguably good for the society to have an educated populace (up to a point), and it would be a social good if people could have access to adult ed throughout their lives.

It is not good to have an unemployed and debt burdened populace.



John Holbo 03.31.14 at 4:10 am

Not to yet further break the butterfly of mdc’s objections on the wheel of what Clay was actually saying, but it’s worth noting that the ideal of liberal arts education as spiritual good in itself is a kind of four-year program of assisted auto-didacticism. One problem with holding up this ideal, to reproach MOOC’s, is that MOOC’s are actually good at assisted auto-didacticism, for those capable of it. (If there’s a problem, it is that MOOC’s are only good for this, not that they are not good at this.) If you are the sort of student who could get the spiritual benefit of going to Harvard, and taking philosophy, you are probably the sort of student who would benefit from a philosophy MOOC. I’m not saying Harvard isn’t better. But the MOOC is a lot cheaper and less rivalrous, as goods go.


Main Street Muse 03.31.14 at 9:39 am

John @41 – I don’t think people go to Harvard for the spiritual benefits.


John Holbo 03.31.14 at 9:45 am

“I don’t think people go to Harvard for the spiritual benefits.”

It’s a fair cop, guv.


mdc 03.31.14 at 12:50 pm

” I don’t think people go to Harvard for the spiritual benefits.” Not in general. Not sure I would recommend Harvard for someone interested in such “ethereal” goods.

John @41, I wasn’t objecting to MOOCs, only to the claim that the problem in higher education is faculty’s belief in the intrinsic good of education. I wasn’t vouching for the status quo either, but critiquing it from the other direction.

But if we all agree that education is not only an “investment,” and that learning is good in itself, then the rest is just tactics. Maybe MOOCs could even be part of the “magic wand”!


bianca steele 03.31.14 at 1:26 pm

Clay Shirky @ 36 (The merely middle-class students who thought that joining the party pathway would allow them to achieve the same outcomes as the socialites all come to grief.)

However, this is the plot of The Great Gatsby, and in fact of all Fitzgerald’s life, which seems to suggest that it isn’t new and isn’t outcome-driven.


Random Lurker 03.31.14 at 2:48 pm

A modest proposal from a non academic to create a model of education where people do not get in for mercenary interest, but for interest in higer goods.

1) Provide full employment for everyone, regardless of educational results.
2) Reduce the workweek to 20h. This might help to reach step (1). If someone tries to work for more than 20h/week, send him to the gulag as a would-be kulack.
3) Divide education between “liberal” and “vocational”.
4) When people take up vocational education, they are paid for it by the government. This count towards the limit of 20h of work they are allowed to do. The government pays a living wage for this, and this substitutes all form of govenment help for the unemployed. People CAN live all their life on this if they want (but since the wage is low, once they have the skills they are likely to go in some other job).
5) When people take up liberal education, this is somewhat subsidized but counts as leisure, and it doesn’t count as “work”. If it happens that people with some liberal education knowledge get on average higer wages than the rest of the population, those courses are changed in “vocational”.

Vote for me in the next presidential elections, and I promise this will become reality. Random Lurker for president!

PS: While on some level I agree with mdc’s ideal, it seems to me that this idea of the “free intellectual” was born in a period when very few people could actually have a good education, so that liberal education was a class marker, and in some way legitimized the class structure (as people in the ruling class looked on average more “spiritual” than their lessers).
There is clearly a similarity to piano lessons, so that daughters of the lower middle classes could look fine and get a good husband (even if “music” in itself can be seen as a consumption good).
So this is something quite difficult to obtain in a more democratic world, where a “free” education can’t grant you a good job, and of course if you get that education you aren’t already on the job market or are missing more profitable career paths.
On the other hand, the degree only makes sense as an investment as a positional good, so that the idea that if you academics only worked better all your students would get nice jobs is also impossible.


TM 03.31.14 at 2:58 pm

Thanks for the response John. I’m all in favor of putting learning materials out there for free (I actually do that myself, wink wink) but obviously I am suspicious of the MOOC/e-learning hype. The fundamental problem with present-day education debate is that while the status quo is highly problematic, the “reform” direction pushed by the corporate and political mainstream (which are all touting the panacea of e-learning) is fairly certain to make things worse. What is lacking is a visible progressive reform agenda.


Clay Shirky 03.31.14 at 3:42 pm

About MDC’s contention that the ideal college experience is a leisure good, #37 et passim, Holbo posts for me.

About Paying for the Party and the party pathway:

@Bianca#45, that’s right, it’s an old story. But it’s not a consistent story either. It was true in Fitzgerald’s time, and it’s true today, but it was not nearly as true in the three decades after the second world war.

That was an era in which much new money was made, and, towards the end of that period, old money lost the ability for their policing of the boundaries of membership to mean as much. (Have you, by the way, read George Trow’s In the Context of No Context? It’s an odd little book, but one of the great themes is how the one-two punch of the 60s and 70s spelled the end of the US mainstream, East Coast/Mainline Protestant division.) What Armstrong and Hamilton point out about the sort of replication of privilege is not “T’was ever thus” but rather “It’s baaaack.”

At Indiana, neither the students nor parents were conditioned to assume (or even, frankly, consider) the idea that certain forms of training for future work would be off-limits because of class (seemingly because that was the way the US worked when the parents were young.)

And IU, who actively supports the Party Pathway, also provides no mechanism for telling, say, a working class student that she should not study to be a wedding planner unless she visibly fits into the class to which the bride aspires, or that some kids can get away with partying because ordinary consequences for their actions to not apply to them.

There has always been an aspect of this in US life, of course, but I think the Fitzgerald parallel is interesting precisely because class reproduction was reduced in living memory, and college had previously been one of the mechanisms of such reduction.

As an aside, one theme that Armstrong and Hamilton take for granted, but jumped out at me, was the ways that delayed engagements reduce the ability for women to ‘marry up’. Because college, even now, compresses class distinctions and assortative living arrangements somewhat, working and lower-middle-class women have more access to college-educated men during college than they will after (because the neighborhoods where degree holders cluster will tend to be too expensive.)

So there used to be a certain ‘double-blind’ logic to college engagements — the women had a hard time assessing the men’s likely employment trajectories, and the men couldn’t as easily select women from a narrow class pool.

Not saying we should go back to getting engaged at 21, just that the delaying of the age of engagement is one of the drivers of assortative mating, which hadn’t occurred to me before.

@Main Street #38, the book makes clear that the educational experience is not entirely irrelevant, on two grounds. First, the women in question do major in things like tourism and broadcasting, so there is some familiarity about the content, and job requirements and categories, in those fields. Then, two, the educational component of college is not confined to the classroom, and for many of these women, the parties were training for a particular sort of career.

Where I went to school, working on the school newspaper and putting on plays and musicals were both well-oiled means of getting jobs in publishing and theater after graduation, even though neither activity was supported by the curriculum. Holding your liquor, keeping up your end of the conversation, and remaining upbeat while dealing with drunk frat boys all turn out to be life skills needed for a variety of careers in media and tourism.


Harold 03.31.14 at 3:54 pm

I have heard (can’t verify) that the ability to play the piano used to be a requirement for being an elementary school teacher. My grandmother went back to work just before the depression so they could buy a piano and her daughters could have piano lessons, something my grandfather didn’t think necessary. It was a good thing, too, because my grandfather lost everything in the crash and my grandmother’s teaching job saved the family from being thrown out on the street. Her job meant they were even able to help other relatives who weren’t so lucky.


bianca steele 03.31.14 at 6:15 pm

Clay Shirky @ 48

Haven’t read Context of No Context, though I’ve read snippets, and I’ve read “E Unibus Pluram,” so I feel like I’ve read it. But wasn’t the thread running all through Trow’s book the Problem of Feminism (didn’t get that from DFW, I’m sure, but I don’t remember where I did)? And most of those books tend to be The Golden Age Is Over (except for me, because I’m super-fantastic, but definitely for you), or The Golden Age Is Over (and that’s pretty much why I admittedly suck, just like you). I didn’t realize for Trow the golden age was the welfare-state consensus era, however.

I’m waiting for my copy of the book, but I’m surprised by some of the details I’ve heard so far. Thirty years ago, communications was considered obviously a direct-to-job major, and there are still lots of people in marketing, communications, and related fields who are making decent money but aren’t upper-class in the way suggested by these discussions. The only communications major I know who didn’t get a job had AFAICT intentions of “going into radio” and might even have been better off in English or sociology. Schools of Communications aren’t exactly bastions of ivory-tower intellectuals.


LFC 03.31.14 at 6:52 pm

Haven’t read every word in the thread, but re the “spiritual benefits” stuff:
The notion that there is one kind of U.S. university, Type X, where one goes to make connections, become a member of the power elite etc etc, and another, Type Y, where one goes if one is mainly interested in getting a good liberal education, is really bullshit. It’s too clear a demarcation for what exists in reality. And by extension the picking out of a third type, Type Z, as a ‘party school’ is also prob. a bit overdone.

Not to say there aren’t significant differences betw institutions, of course, but they don’t fall neatly into these stereotypical, stupid categories, imho.


LFC 03.31.14 at 6:58 pm

clarification: ‘liberal’ in the sense of ‘liberal arts’


Clay Shirky 03.31.14 at 7:51 pm

@Bianca #50:

The Trow is too weird to fit any one narrative (including mine, of course), so yes, The Problem of Feminism is in there, as is, sub-rosa, The Problem of Jews, both of which forces helped weaken the Anglo Old-Boy network Trow’s family rests in.

The oddest part of the book (well, an oddest part) is that it is elegiac for the East Coast publishing mainstream without the author’s actually having liked that mainstream very much, which brings in the even more sub rosa issue, The Problem of The Gays (the one problematic class of which Trow was a member.) There’s an odd reminiscence of New York after the 60s broke everything, nights at Studio 54 with a kind of fun-house version of Lady Astor’s list, all of which the author participated in.

Yet by the 1980s, he seems disoriented by the fact that his own participation in that scene helped weaken the mainstream. Like a gentrifier who is mystified that gentrification didn’t stop when he moved to the neighborhood, the book reads to me like Trow’s grappling with the idea that Studio 54 (and The Factory and Max’s Kansas City etc etc) weren’t actually counter-culture anymore, they were the culture of New York City (the center of his world), and that the bacchanal that took place in the 1970s wasn’t oppositional so much as corrosive, and that he was part of the corrosion.

The book is one of these rare instances where, when the author says “The Golden Age is Over”, he really means it as a flat description of what happened, rather than as a jeremiad, and he even includes himself in that change.

But the real reason to read it is that it weirdly hypnotic, if you are in the right mood. For months after I read it, I wanted to write like that, until I realized that (as with, say, Bill Burroughs and Naked Lunch) the writing style was suited to exactly one book, and couldn’t be easily re-used, even by Trow himself.

As for IU, those girls mostly weren’t upper class, not in the way you’d describe such a thing in NYC or SF or LA. Their parents were doctors and lawyers and, in the most notable case, a CFO. They were not venture capitalists, hedge fund partners, or CEO’s of multi-nationals or post-IPO internet firms. So the language gets a bit confusing, because she’s talking about children of the 10%, not the 1%. They were still getting drunk in parking lots in the Midwest, not in private houses in Aspen.


Shatterface 03.31.14 at 9:04 pm

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt spends a great deal of time abusing utilitarianism as a symptom of intellectual error – even of personal autism.

Pointing out that Bentham, based on the reports of his contemporaries, quite likely had Aspergers is not abuse.


novakant 04.01.14 at 1:25 pm

If you have an idea for turning higher education into a free, public leisure good – well, we’d all love to see the plans.

I don’t know about leisure but tertiary education is free (or almost free) in many countries – and it should be. I find the idea of spending $80.000


novakant 04.01.14 at 1:27 pm


I find the idea of spending $80.000 or whatever and being saddled with student loans perverse. Education should be funded by the state.


AcademicLurker 04.01.14 at 2:04 pm

I don’t know about leisure but tertiary education is free (or almost free) in many countries

This. Much of the discussion of Higher Ed. by self-styled reformers, especially those of the “we must destroy the village in order to save it!” persuasion, reminds me of discussions of health care. It pointedly ignores the fact that other societies seem to have figured out a way to manage it in a way that is, while not perfect, at least reasonably functional.

It’s not inevitable that post-secondary education leaves people with crippling debt loads. It happened that way in the U.S. for a reason.


AcademicLurker 04.01.14 at 2:05 pm

“a way to manage it in a way”

Department of redundancy department. Maybe I should sign up for a MOOC teaching composition.


Chatham 04.01.14 at 2:46 pm

The simplest and easiest solution would be to expand the free public education system another 4 years. I ran some rough numbers and it looks like it could be done fairly cheaply. 3 states (Oregon, Tennessee, and Mississippi) are currently working on making community colleges free; both California and NYC had free colleges in the past.


bianca steele 04.01.14 at 2:56 pm

Just saw this from Random Lurker @ 46: There is clearly a similarity to piano lessons, so that daughters of the lower middle classes could look fine and get a good husband (even if “music” in itself can be seen as a consumption good).

If so, this would be an example of an activity that once was expected of the daughters of the upper middle class, is now considered an activity only of the most strenuously striving members of the lower middle class, and just happens to be suited to introverts and the non-athletic–similar to the way education is perceived (vocational or otherwise) in some of the places similar to the university described in the book.

This could be different in different places, of course.


mdc 04.01.14 at 3:45 pm


Not sure about the “introvert” part. Anyway, the analogous case against leisure would be that since music lessons can’t get you a husband anymore, we should abandon music instruction for those who can’t already pay for it. Because what else could it be good for, if it’s not an investment?


Clay Shirky 04.01.14 at 3:59 pm

@AcademicLurker #57, it did indeed happen that way for a reason, and the reason is that half a century ago we American academics accepted a degree of Cold War funding that committed us to a mode of organization we could not support but would not dismantle when that funding ended.

Fun fact, via Louis Menand: More faculty were hired in the 1960s than in the entire period from 1636 to 1959, a boom accompanied by a totally uncharacteristic boost in state funding, largely driven by fears of an “education gap” with the Soviet Union. When that funding reverted back towards the mean, it was still far higher than it had been in the 1950s, but because it was lower than its peak, we academics have felt aggrieved ever since.

The fact that, averaged across 50 states and 20 electoral cycles, the consensus answer to the question “Can we have a lot more money?” has been No is always regarded, in the academy, as a temporary injustice. Our strategy has been to assure ourselves that once taxpayers and legislators understand that a failure to vastly increase our subsidies would force us to change the way we do business (which no thinking person could possibly expect us to do) they will reverse 40 years of practice and write us a blank check for 7% annual increases in income into the distant future.

Meanwhile, since we’ve actually had to continue working during those 40 years, we have become majority-contingent institutions. The positions of the AAUP, AFT , et al have been completely incoherent on the subject of contingent labor, because the one obvious solution — share the benefits of college employment more equitably — is anathema to their core commitment, which is that me and my tenured peers should not suffer at all, no matter what happens in the broader hiring landscape or economy.

And because we and our unions committed ourselves to preservation of the structure of the go-go years for us we have been willing to accept a dualized labor market, where tenure is kept for all past holders, but almost completely withdrawn for present and future hires. (Something like 9 out of 10 teaching positions on offer in any give year are not on the tenure track; it has been removed as a primary characteristic of academic hiring, and remains only as a tool for recruiting star faculty to relatively well-off institutions.)

So, as you might expect, I regard all forms of Norway-porn as being descriptive or predictive of little that is possible in the US, but as you might not expect, I do not believe that this is because of some inherent weakness in our political system. The principal obstacle to moving towards a more Continental model of education is we ourselves.

To move to a Continental system of higher education would make faculty fairly uniformly employees of the state, and would make teaching, not research, the central preoccupation of both the legislators and the administration. Senior faculty would have to take pay cuts of around a quarter of our current salaries, and see our teaching load go up by about that same amount, to make the economics work out.

The look of destroying the village in order to save it really depends on what you think of as ‘the village.’ If, like me, you think that we take our money in order to educate our students, and that the research prestige-ladder has led to gross (and soon unsupportable) economics for institutions of middling quality, than destruction looks like a pretty good strategy for re-aligning our resources and goals.

If, however, you regard the high average salaries and historically and globally remarkable low teaching loads in the US as the thing that needs protecting, moving to a Continental system will destroy what you are trying to preserve more completely and more swiftly than a victory of, say, the recently accredited University of the People will.


Clay Shirky 04.01.14 at 4:22 pm

@mdc #61, I think you’re using the word ‘investment’ in a funny way. Learning to play the piano is always an investment, as in “to use, give, or devote (time, talent, etc.), as for a purpose or to achieve something.”

It’s mostly not an investment with a monetary payoff, but that doesn’t stop it’s being an investment, and it doesn’t stop the calculation of the student and their parents being “Will present investment of time and energy be worth the future increase in capabilities?”

To take one of the famous arguments about higher ed, when Harvard stopped forcing its students to study Greek, the president of Princeton wrote a fairly epic rant complaining about the change, but what charles Eliot had understood was that knowing a bit of Greek was simply less valuable, as an acquired capability, than it used to be, and that this decrease was significant enough to be worth clawing back the time and energy previously devoted to it.

You seem to want every calculation of present effort against future value to be about money, but many such calculations are not, including learning to play the piano. The fact that those calculations are not mercenary does not make them any less about investment and payoff.

There is no abstract sense in which it is “good” to play the piano (or speak Greek or be able to solve differential equations.) Those capabilities are good only inasmuch as they increase your freedom to do things you need or want to do in your life.

So of course if playing the piano now has a less useful effect on, say, finding a mate, that means that, without some compensating improvement elsewhere, that playing the piano has become less valuable.


AcademicLurker 04.01.14 at 5:00 pm

@Clay Shirky#62:

A quick look around brings up this example data, showing that UC system fees remained remarkably flat from 1970-1990. If the bubble burst around ’70, as conventional wisdom seems to hold, what was going on during those 20 years. Did the nature of higher education in CA undergo some sort of radical change ~2002, requiring fees to skyrocket?


bianca steele 04.01.14 at 5:16 pm

I don’t understand your “introvert” comment, and I think you’re arguing with Random Lurker, who I quoted, not with me.


Harold 04.01.14 at 5:49 pm

I’m on board with Clay Shirky except for the reference to “we and our unions” — I don’t know if the academic guild can be called a union.


LFC 04.01.14 at 5:59 pm

Clay Shirky @63
There is no abstract sense in which it is “good” to play the piano (or speak Greek or be able to solve differential equations.) Those capabilities are good only inasmuch as they increase your freedom to do things you need or want to do in your life.

There is a tension between this statement and one of the stated or implicit justifications for distribution requirements (or ‘general education’ etc), namely that it’s good, in an ‘abstract’ sense, to have some acquaintance with a range of subjects or to be minimally culturally and/or scientifically literate (whether such requirements succeed in accomplishing that goal is a separate question, to which the answer, I suppose, very often might be no). While I’m sure it’s possible to justify such requirements in terms of valuable (for whatever reason) ‘capabilities,’ my impression is that that is only one of the ways in which U.S. universities justify them now.

Btw, the other day I was walking on a street and saw an ad on the side of a busstop for a local (i.e., in the general region) university which was all about how the analytical skills imparted by this place were valued by employers. So I recognize that the ‘abstract’ justifications for higher ed., to the extent they still exist, are prob. fading away or eroding under the pressure of various, obvious forces. But the abstract justifications aren’t quite extinct yet, istm.


Harold 04.01.14 at 6:47 pm

Piano, if the sages ask thee why …


mdc 04.01.14 at 6:55 pm

“Those capabilities are good only inasmuch as they increase your freedom to do things you need or want to do in your life.”

I don’t think any capability can be good unless exercising it is good. Some activities are good in themselves, and for some of these, you acquire capability on them by doing them. But the point of learning to play the piano is not ‘to be good at playing the piano’, it is to play piano well.

You really seem to be presupposing that no activity is intrinsically valuable.

And Bianca, I didn’t think I was arguing w you at all.


Harold 04.01.14 at 7:08 pm

“My piano is to me what a frigate is to a seaman, his horse is to an Arabian, and much more! Up to now it has been my essence, my language, my life! ..” Franz Liszt, “Travel Letters”, 1837.

The following, if not true, is a good story:

“The following story about Albert Einstein was told to Charlie Chaplin by Mrs. Einstein: ‘The Doctor came down in his dressing-gown as usual for breakfast but he hardly touched a thing. I thought something was wrong, so I asked what was troubling him. ‘Darling’, he said, ‘I have a wonderful idea.’ And after drinking his coffee, he went to the piano and started playing. Now and again he would stop, making a few notes then repeat: ‘I’ve got a wonderful idea, a marvelous idea!’

I said: ‘Then for goodness’ sake tell me what it is, don’t keep me in suspense.’ He said: ‘It’s difficult, I still have to work it out.'” She told me he continued playing the piano and making notes for about half an hour, then went upstairs to his study, telling her that he did not wish to be disturbed, and remained there for two weeks. …. Eventually he came down from his study looking very pale. ‘That’s it’, he told me, wearily putting two sheets of paper on the table. And that was his theory of relativity.’ ” from My Autobiography, by Charles Chaplin.


Clay Shirky 04.01.14 at 10:55 pm

@Academic Lurker #64,

Archibald and Feldman have the most complete accounting for the cost dynamics of higher education I know of, in Why Does College Cost So Much (, and capsule summary:

They follow the rising cost (not price) of higher education, and they note that colleges, like any institution that used skilled labor as a non-tradeable input and measures its output in terms of time invested (e.g. the credit-hour), will suffer from Baumol’s cost disease. It costs more to go to Ball State this year than last, and will cost more again next year than this, for the same reason those dynamics apply to seeing a Twins game or attending the Santa Fe opera.

So A+F says three different things about UC price (not cost) over the decades you show. The first is that in 1975, the year in which state subsidy peaked and began falling rapidly (, inflation had dealt such a blow to tradeable-sector productivity that college costs remained flat, and didn’t begin rising until 1979. So for the earliest part of the chart you, point to, price was relatively flat because cost was flat.

Then, from 1982-1990 or so, college prices stayed relatively flat because, after a sharp increase in price during the recession of the early 1980s, colleges subsidized the price with other adaptations, principally increasing contingent labor and student:teacher ratio. These adaptations kept cost disease temporarily at bay by changing the underlying product to be less reliant on tenured faculty in small classes.

(When the US News college list, which is highly dependent on S:T ratio, launched, there were two UC universities in the top 10 — Berkeley and UCLA. Now there are no UC — or even public — schools in the top 25. This is emphatically not to say that US News measures educational quality, just that, given the things it does measure, the total evacuation of public institutions from the top of its list gives you an idea of the cost-saving dynamics at work.)

And then Phase III, starting in 1990s, where, as you note, the price dam burst. What happened to public schools, whose price rise has been later but more dramatic than private schools, is that state legislatures, even California’s, gave up on the idea that it could continually subsidize costs out of either tax base or increasing class sizes, so they allowed price to began converging towards cost.

Against the thought that this is mere politics and could easily be reversed, it’s worth noting that cost (not price) is increasing throughout 4 year colleges at a compound rate of a bit over 7%, which means it is doubling about every 10 years. Even if California were to commit to reset tuition and fees to status quo ante for some recent year, cost disease would reverse most of that relief in relatively short order.


Clay Shirky 04.01.14 at 11:22 pm

@mdc #69:

“You really seem to be presupposing that no activity is intrinsically valuable.


I’m with Rorty and (sorry John) against Plato in believing that there isn’t anything even approximating a summum bonum in human life. Falsifying thought experiments are a desert island away: Imagine transferring all the knowledge in Leon Fleischer’s brain and fingers to someone living on a remote desert island, someone who will never even see a piano in their life. “Intrinsic” is mainly used to me “so deeply embedded in the world I am familiar with that I fantasize that it is a universal”, while the few things that are universal like eating and sex and waste disposal aren’t great candidates for a core curriculum.

@LFC #67, you are correct that academics like to justify our labors based on some claim of intrinsic good. Like all professionals, we have a deep need to bullshit the public, lest they have the temerity to regard us as mere workers, so we dress up distribution requirements as some sentiment more lofty than “It would be good if the undergrads had some sense of how scientific inquiry differs from the profit motive as a proving ground for ideas.”

If the things we’ve asserted were intrinsically valuable actually were intrinsically valuable, though, then we would all be living in a state of sin since dropping Greek from the curriculum (substitute rhetoric, Marvell, Proust, or mandatory chapel to taste), and any place that proposed a return to such teachings should see significant benefits in being one of the few such institutions to offer things of such obvious and unchanging value. (Spoiler: This does not happen. St. John’s College is beloved by many, but mainly from afar.)

The reality (as always in the academy) is far more workaday. As Derek Bok likes to point out, the fervor which different models of distribution requirements are defended are in inverse proportion to their actual implementation. The people claiming some sort of universalist justification for long-form European fiction and poetry written between The Long War and World War I are the most het up and the least successful, while the one widely adopted model, distribution requirements, has as it’s principal rationale no sentiment more lofty than “Fuck it, is this committee winding down yet?” (Louis Menand, in Marketplace of Ideas, dryly notes that Harvard went through a decade of paroxysm around “general education” and ended up with…distribution requirements.)


Harold 04.01.14 at 11:54 pm

St. Johns does not require books to be read in the original languages, as far as I know. I gathered it was professors and not students and their families that first rebelled against being made to demonstrate reading competence in languages other than English in order to earn a doctorate, if Gerald Graff is to be believed (though admittedly this is a horrible simplification, based on my imperfect memory). I don’t think language requirements have been dropped in other countries, though. I would like to read Marketplace of Ideas.


LFC 04.02.14 at 12:35 am

Harold @73
Language requirements depend to a sizable extent on the subject(s) one is studying. This I think is somewhat obvious so I’m not taking the time to go into it.


Harold 04.02.14 at 12:54 am

If one is studying “great books” (based on Oxford “greats”), most were not written in English.


LFC 04.02.14 at 1:20 am

Clay Shirky @72

Louis Menand, in Marketplace of Ideas, dryly notes that Harvard went through a decade of paroxysm around “general education” and ended up with…distribution requirements.

I haven’t read Marketplace of Ideas, but Menand was deeply involved in the most recent revamp of this aspect of Harvard’s curriculum, so he knows very well that what preceded the latest iteration was distribution requirements, and what preceded that was also distribution requirements, all the way back at least to the 1948 ‘redbook’ (the grandiosely titled General Education in a Free Society).

Thus if Menand implies that it’s somehow surprising that the end result was distribution requirements (albeit repackaged and redescribed), then it seems he’s being disingenuous. What he presumably means is that there was a decade of philosophical discussion and high-minded windbaggery and the result was not all that radically different from its predecessor (though the surrounding rhetoric, I believe, did change). But if that’s what he means, then I think he must bear a part of the blame for that outcome (along with the administration and the rest of the faculty and all the committees etc.). [I followed this v. casually from afar, so take it fwiw.]


LFC 04.02.14 at 1:25 am

If one is studying “great books” (based on Oxford “greats”), most were not written in English.

Of course, but St. John’s is mostly (or entirely) an undergraduate college, and it’s not going to require all its undergraduates to read Homer in Greek, Hegel in German, Tolstoy in Russian, etc. But graduate school is a different matter, and, for example, if you’re getting a PhD in history you have to know the relevant languages for your research. You made it sound as if all language requirements for everyone had been abolished, which isn’t the case.


LFC 04.02.14 at 1:36 am

For that matter, I recall B. Waring mentioning in an earlier thread the rigors of the language comp exams in her ancient philosophy program.


Harold 04.02.14 at 1:58 am

@77 I have no prescription to suggest as far as undergrad requirements. The more I read about it, the more baffling it seems. However, if students are going to spend their entire undergrad career reading “Great Books”, then you’d think they would be entitled to have a tiny little taste at least of the real deal and not be offered a fake. It seems a little sad to restrict this knowledge to the professorial class.

(Ok. I confess that deep down in my heart of hearts I secretly feel omitting the study of languages is a sin. But that’s just me. If people don’t want to and don’t feel they need to it’s useless to force them.)


LFC 04.02.14 at 2:28 am

I agree generally about the importance of languages, and one of my main regrets about my own education is that I should have done more of that. No one in authority forced me or even advised me to. I went to college in the late ’70s, and I think there is somewhat more emphasis on languages now than there was then, but still not enough. (Like a lot of kids of that era, I studied French in jr. high and high school, not Spanish, which would have made more ‘practical’ sense, but we weren’t v. prescient about that.) The other thing is that the global spread of English has had the unfortunate effect of making languages seem less necessary for many native English speakers.

All that said, it’s not realistic to suppose that St. John’s is going to make undergrads read in the original languages. Probably the most they could realistically do is require reading proficiency in one language other than English, and they may do that already, though I don’t know. Btw, I’ve known a couple of people who went to St. John’s and both of them were positive about their experiences there (and in one of those cases “positive” is too weak a word).


mdc 04.02.14 at 2:48 am


I don’t follow the point of the thought experiment. My point was just that the capability for piano playing is only good if piano playing is good. The latter might be good for turning a buck on the concert circuit, or catching a husband, but these aren’t the only possible reasons it is valued. Many people like it (cf the Liszt quote above) in itself!

“Intrinsically” good means good in itself. It doesn’t mean unconditionally good (good under any condition), or universally good (good for all), or most highly or completely good (summum bonum). Socrates’ first example of an intrinsic good in the Republic (the OP!) is, I believe, good smells.

I recently saved up to go to a fancy lunch, and it was one of the best afternoons I’ve had for a while. It wasn’t unconditionally good (there’s lots I wouldn’t have sacrificed for it- it wasn’t priceless), nor universally good (the bread pudding with whiskey sauce would be bad for a diabetic, and the martinis would be bad for an alcoholic), nor was it the highest good, to say the least (it didn’t fulfill me completely, alas). But I didn’t value it for the sake of something else- it was intrinsically good.

Also, purveying intrinsic goods does not prevent the teaching academics who do so from being mere workers, anymore than the chef who made my meal. Those teachers are high-end service workers.


Harold 04.02.14 at 3:10 am

Yes, I too met someone who had loved St. Johns. It says something when people have such a positive experience.

I had the advantage of learning a second language as a child, which made other languages easier – or I thought they were easier, but as I grew older, the more I realized how little I had really known and how little I still know — and the more I wished I had been less distracted and studied harder — or had known how to study (famous last words). We were not given a choice, but had to take Latin and French. I guess the idea is that with some of those, one can always pick up Spanish and Italian on one’s own. Which is basically true. I actually took a course in Old Provençal in college. Not that I learned Old Provençal, but enough to read some poetry, which really is better in the original.


geo 04.02.14 at 5:29 am

Clay @72:

I think you’ve misunderstood Rorty. Yes, he says there’s no summum bonum nor anything intrinsically valuable. But he doesn’t mean, as you seem to suggest, that that means he thinks nothing is more valuable than anything (or everything) else, nor even that there’s no point in trying to persuade another person that something is valuable, or even supremely valuable. What he means is that there is no difference in meaning between “valuable” and “intrinsically valuable,” since nothing (bracketing our biological endowment) is intrinsic, ie, embedded in or deducible from “human nature.”

Rorty’s is a verbal and epistemological point. As he never tired of pointing out (or rather, as he kept pointing out even though he found it very tiresome to keep having to), he was not a relativist. He thought Marvell and Tolstoy and Proust and Nabokov and Orwell and wild orchids and (at least in his youth) Trotsky were all supremely valuable. He would certainly have said at the age of, say, thirty or forty that if he were given a choice of being changed by neurosurgery into 1) someone who had to shovel shit eight hours a day for subsistence wages and could then go home and read Tolstoy, Proust, etc. or 2) someone who made an extremely comfortable living “persuading children to eat Crunchies rather than Krispies” (as Dwight Macdonald described the 1940s version of the vocational aspirations of those college freshmen you cite who think the most important thing college will do for them is increase their earning power), he would unhesitatingly choose 1.

Which is to say, I think he would find your breezy dismissal of the notion that the purpose of a college education should be liberal learning rather than vocational training as irritating as I do. I think he would agree entirely with Random Lurker @46 that the first step toward any education reform worth the name is a societal commitment to full employment, and more generally, to a vastly more egalitarian and cooperative society. Of course, in a drastically unequal, insecure, competitive society, it’s understandable that students will gravitate toward business economics, pre-law, hotel administration, and other majors with a clearer prospect of monetary payoff, and will never discover what they’ve missed. Practically speaking, there will be no way of convincing them that they’ve missed anything — this is what Rorty meant by there not being any intrinsic — ie, rigorously demonstrable — good. But he would have been appalled by the notion that they hadn’t missed something invaluable.

By the way, you might be a little casual in flaunting your apparent certainty that the virtual disappearance of classical Greek from the college curriculum is no great loss. I can’t (alas) read Greek, but a lot of writers whose judgment I trust (Johnson, Arnold, Eliot, Wilson) seemed to think that it was one of life’s keenest pleasures.


mdc 04.02.14 at 1:00 pm

‘What he means is that there is no difference in meaning between “valuable” and “intrinsically valuable,” ‘

Ok, so some terminological confusion. I’ve been using “intrinsic” only as a contrast with “extrinsic”, without assuming anything about demonstrability or human nature. How would Rorty (or you) express the distinction between what is liked or chosen for itself, and what is chosen only because it is a means to something else?


bianca steele 04.02.14 at 1:30 pm

Not to hijack the thread, but looking back at the OP, I wonder, if there was a form of the Wrong, would it be worth studying?


UserGoogol 04.02.14 at 5:26 pm

What’s life like in those crazy far-off lands where college is free, anyway? Are you expected to make reasonable academic progress towards a specific major and then leave, or are people allowed to pursue intellectual enrichment at a more flexible pace?


geo 04.02.14 at 5:59 pm

me@83: “you might be a little casual” should be “you might be a little less casual.”

mdc@84: He’d probably say “instrumental,” but he might well say “intrinsic,” if it were clear from the context that he meant “for its own sake,” just as he’d use “essential” in the same way we normally do without believing in essences as they’ve been conceived in the philosophical tradition. Not so long ago, the majority of philosophers used to believe in an invariant, immaterial “human nature,” in virtue of which all human beings had certain “intrinsic” or “essential” characteristics. This is the sense of “intrinsic” that pragmatists consider mischievous. I think Rorty would agree with you @81. I do, anyway.

In the case at hand, when Clay scoffs at “people claiming some sort of universalist justification for long-form European fiction and poetry written between The Long War and World War I,” Rorty would agree with him only for certain values of “universalist.” If what’s meant is that everyone endowed with human nature of the above-mentioned description will or at least should find reading 19th-century novels to be one of life’s great experiences, then Rorty would politely point out that human nature of the above-mentioned description is a metaphysical fiction. But he would certainly then go on to say that just about everyone, given average intelligence, a decent pre-school and primary-school education, and a minimum of leisure and economic security, would indeed find reading 19th-century novels one of life’s great experiences, especially if they were sensitively introduced to them in high school or college.

And that’s what I think too. I think it’s a damned rotten shame that a large and growing proportion of the young are so scared of not making a living that they choose dull courses in the desperate hope of someday getting dull jobs and paying off their crushing debts. Of course it’s not their fault. The level of insecurity and competitiveness in American society is pathologically high. That’s the fault of those who own the economy and have no use for an economically secure workforce that feels entitled to creative and autonomous, or at any rate not soul-sapping, work.

Of course this is idle prattle to free-market enthusiasts and techno-utopians. I’m not sure exactly where Clay stands, except that I’m sure he would ask who’s going to pay for all this creativity and autonomy. That’s another conversation, which unfortunately can’t begin until enough students understand what the increasingly business-oriented educational system is cheating them out of. They won’t find out from reading Wired.


Chatham 04.02.14 at 7:01 pm

You may think that reading novels is something that most people should derive enjoyment from. That’s fine. I may think the same thing about dancing, while others may think the same thing about playing videogames.

I think the question is – given that the majority of people wouldn’t (and don’t) take classes about any of these things one their own, is it correct to coerce them into doing so by dangling a certificate they need for employment in front of them? And if such coercion is appropriate, should the sort of enrichment experiences they’re required to participate in be decided by the whims of the faculty?


geo 04.02.14 at 7:45 pm

Chatham: is it correct to coerce them into doing so by dangling a certificate they need for employment in front of them?

No, people shouldn’t need a liberal education in order to get a better job. That’s what professional and vocational education are for. They need a liberal education in order to have a better life, full of aesthetic and intellectual bliss. And why should everyone pay to make this better life available to everyone? Well, because … but we shouldn’t derail the thread.


Chatham 04.02.14 at 8:49 pm

Fair enough, but then there shouldn’t be so much concern about MOOCification or schools becoming more vocationally focused. It merely gives the students (probably the majority) who seek to attain a college degree for vocational reasons the opportunity to do so without being coerced to take other courses.

Having said that, I’m all in favor of providing free tertiary education that includes “enrichment”-type classes. In an earlier post I mentioned a fairly cheap and egalitarian way of doing that (state-run tertiary education through an expansion of the current public education systems).


geo 04.02.14 at 9:36 pm

Chatham: Fair enough in turn, except that MOOCs, while better than nothing, are not the best way to teach philosophy, humanities, and the arts. Teaching the latter is far more difficult and important than teaching vocational/professional skills, which employers ought to pay for anyway, rather than us taxpayers training their workforce for them free of charge. Besides, it sends the wrong message to make vocational training the main, default purpose of college and humanities the optional, online curriculum. A culture is something you need to be socialized into, unlike a corporation.

Besides, the extraordinary surge in productivity we can expect (according to Wired et al) from information technology surely means that work for mere survival will become less and less important. Soon we’ll only need to work four hours a day. After all, the large, IT-driven productivity increases of recent decades have already resulted in a more secure and leisurely life for most American workforce, haven’t they?


geo 04.02.14 at 9:37 pm

Sorry, that should be “most of the American workforce.”


Clay Shirky 04.02.14 at 9:54 pm

George #83:

“I think he would find your breezy dismissal of the notion that the purpose of a college education should be liberal learning rather than vocational training as irritating as I do.”

I doubt that, if only on the grounds that I don’t think anyone is ever as irritated about that sort of thing as you.

And the wonderful thing about the death of a prophet (strong poet, if you prefer) is that after the funeral, everyone gets their own version to take home. So while your Rorty agrees with you (because he did love those orchids), mine agrees with me (because he abandoned his quest for certainty and eternity.) And as even your Rorty would tell you, there’s no way to get language in one hand and reality in the other and line them up, so we’re both just left with our readings of the material at hand.

So rather than pit our respective Rorty sockpuppets against one another, let me propose a more direct thought experiment, having to do with a conviction our Rortys share, which is that ‘intrinsically valuable’ is just a synonym for valuable.

You have the intuition that maybe Eliot’s abandoning mandatory Greek instruction at Harvard all those years ago was a great loss. So start with this (admittedly improbable) scenario: what if the world were actually the way it is? What if a world where societal commitment to full employment was not in the offing for anyone in high school in 2014, maybe even anyone currently in junior high either, and those graduates were given a short window of opportunity for education after high school.

In that world, you have a story to tell about how learning to read Greek will be more valuable than…what? What other activity does it displace, and what value will those students see in their lives? And given that those arguments were presumably in circulation when you were 18 as well, what makes you willing to recommend a path you didn’t take?


Chatham 04.02.14 at 10:20 pm

Vocational training is probably the wrong term; vocational credentialism would be better. The main impetus for going to college at the moment is the understanding that a college degree works as a filter for HR departments.

There’s an easy way to remove the vocational credential focus from higher education if one wishes to do so; simply remove the credentials. If you have a non-credit philosophy class, almost everyone there will be there for personal edification. However, I imagine far, far fewer students will show up. Since the enrollment in these and other courses is currently driven by vocational motives, it’s not exactly outrageous when the schools treat it as such. “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here” and all that.

Having said all that – there’s no easy line we can draw between “enrichment” and “vocational” courses. I’ve had polisci and philosophy professors tell me that certain classes were designed to help me think in new ways, when math/science courses were actually much more successful in doing so. In terms of vocational skills, I seem to use the skills I developed in humanities classes (writing and conveying information at least somewhat clearly) far more than any of the ones I developed in STEM classes.


LFC 04.02.14 at 11:05 pm

I think it’s somewhat unfortunate that this thread has polarized into two positions: C. Shirky’s on one side, mdc’s and geo’s on the other. Neither is quite right, imo.

Clay S. wrote @36:
College in the US has always had an explicitly vocational component, starting with the training of ministers in the 1600s, and the period immediately after WWII transformed that into the dominant theme of both our organizational forms and our funding.
It may be the dominant theme, but it’s not the only theme. There is room for more than one theme. It makes things messy and uncomfortable, but so what. And no one is proposing to revive mandatory Greek. That’s a strawman. Eliot was not only opposed to mandatory Greek but to mandatory anything (see his ‘free elective system’). Of course it caused controversy when he scrapped it b/c the classics had long been a big part of the education of the British (and to a lesser extent) American elites. That’s no longer true.

Clay S. has apparently been reading all the contemp. literature on U.S. higher education. What about A. Delbanco — read his? (I haven’t, but then I have no particular reason to.)


geo 04.03.14 at 2:10 am

Sorry, Clay, but I can’t accept your genial offer of compromise. You’re right that Rorty “abandoned his quest for certainty and eternity” and that “there’s no way to get language in one hand and reality in the other and line them up.” Only, that’s not just “your version.” It’s what I said (or thought I said) in other terms @83 and again @87 (and many other times on many threads, until I and everyone else on CT are tired of my saying it). You seem to think there’s something incompatible in being both a radical pragmatist and being all het up because in a very rich country (or at least a country with a very big GDP), an awful lot of people don’t have the attention span to read Tolstoy, Proust, or George Eliot. I’m pretty sure Rorty would disagree with you.

But OK, let’s leave him out of this. You ask, as if confronting me with a novel though: “What if the world were actually the way it is? What if a world where societal commitment to full employment was not in the offing for anyone in high school in 2014, maybe even anyone currently in junior high either, and those graduates were given a short window of opportunity for education after high school?” Another misunderstanding. I thought it was clear that the lack of a societal commitment to full employment was exactly what I was complaining about. Of course the poor little sods have only a short window of opportunity; that’s why I said it wasn’t their fault that they treated their college years as job training. It’s our fault, at least insofar as we acquiesce in the socioeconomic arrangements that present them (except for the lucky, very gifted few) with a choice between economic hardship with at least a foundation of literacy and a dreary, insecure white-collar job without it. You surely have some idea, Clay, to what degree the world of work in contemporary America, outside the magic kingdoms of academia and Silicon Valley, shrivels the soul. (If anyone doesn’t, see, for example, Simon Head’s Mindless: How Smart Machines Are Making Dumber Humans.) One can, as you seem resolved to do, help students and educators make the best feasible adjustment to that world. There certainly are far worse things one can do. Or one can try to help people understand what political arrangements shape that world and account for the fact that their choices are so restricted. But that would mean getting ideological, and I fully understand that some people are allergic to ideology.

You ask about my own tragic history of Greek-deprivation. Just bad luck: I had a not very good high-school education, burdensome and time-consuming commitments to a religious order while in college, and a distracting combination of subsistence work, writing deadlines, and affective disorder throughout adulthood. I may yet, though, like my hero I.F. Stone, take up Greek in retirement.


geo 04.03.14 at 3:15 am

Sorry again: first line of second paragraph should be “… confronting me with a novel thought.”


Timothy Burke 04.03.14 at 12:16 pm

Coming in very late to the party, let me just say first that this is one of the better discussions of MOOCs/the future of higher education that I’ve seen recently.

But I just wanted to chime in a bit on Haidt’s book, which we used as a focus for a series of public interdisciplinary conversations last year here. I ended up finding the book very disappointing and then was a bit more disappointed that the collective disappointment of many of the faculty here was treated by Haidt himself and several of his strongest defenders as evidence for our collective hostility to popularizing writing by academics. That’s not the problem at all–it is that it is such a Rube Goldberg machine designed to produce a relatively narrow conclusion, that American liberals and leftists should pay more sympathetic attention to the internal coherence and logic of contemporary American conservatism. This is a perfectly acceptable argument that can be defended in a variety of ways but it doesn’t require Haidt’s complicated version of “Because! Science!” I was also really nettled in the end by his total inability during his visit to the college to even hazard a guess about why what he calls “WEIRD” morality is so highly integrated into modern political and social institutions, given that he’s also arguing that in sociobiological/evo-psych terms it’s effectively a recessive or isolated trait. Some of it is surely trying to stretch so casually into areas beyond his expertise (political analysis, modern global history) but that kind of stretching is really only a big issue when it’s done to sustain this kind of analytic juryrigging, where the infrastructure of the argument is needlessly complex at the same time that the top-level soundbite isn’t much more than “Liberals Should be More Conservative! Because! Science!”.

This is some of what I had to say about the book back when we did the event:


John Holbo 04.03.14 at 12:30 pm

I agree that with you about the basic problem with Haidt on liberals and conservatives, Tim. I ended up not talking about that much because what I would have said would have been ‘grumble grumble grumble’. I ended up focusing more on the parts of Haidt’s research that I think have more merit.


TM 04.03.14 at 3:26 pm

62: It would be helpful if you would be so good to spell out what you actually mean by “a (more) Continental model of education”. I don’t find your brief description particularly fitting for say the German higher education model (the teaching load of senior faculty is not I think very high in comparison) but maybe you had something other in mind. International comparison is always enlightening but we actually need to do it, not just throw around buzzwords.


geo 04.03.14 at 3:36 pm


TM 04.03.14 at 3:49 pm

As a brief expansion on 100, let me note that the US college has many (semi-)officially recognized functions (in no particular order): liberal education, partying, vocational training, credentialing, athletic competition, research (I may have missed a few). It is funny how higher education debate often revolves around discussing what the “true” function of college is. Well all of them are true functions. And this particular mixture I think is quite uniquely American.


Clay Shirky 04.03.14 at 9:11 pm

George #96:

Yes, it was clear that you were complaining about the debilitating effects of the American circumstance. I’d wrongly thought my tongue-in-cheek reply signaled that my response was not a particularly original thought, just one I wanted to hear you answer. (Also, I wrote a reply to #83 on a plane, and so hadn’t read #87 when I posted.)

So now, a more serious reply. You say:

“You surely have some idea, Clay, to what degree the world of work in contemporary America, outside the magic kingdoms of academia and Silicon Valley, shrivels the soul.”

I’m fortunate enough to live in the Ivory Tower (aka subsidized faculty housing in Manhattan), but I do have some sense of life outside it. I have one cousin who is a pig farmer and another who works manufacturing hubcaps, and a brother-in-law who’s lost his job twice in the last 10 years, and those are stories with relatively happy endings. Though I haven’t read Packer’s recent book (which I understand to be the best review of the misery of our fellow citizens today), my wife studies US poverty, so I know the outline of the crisis.

You then say:

“One can, as you seem resolved to do, help students and educators make the best feasible adjustment to that world. There certainly are far worse things one can do.”

I am, yes, trying to do just this. If I had to pick a single goal (I have more than one of course, but if I had to pick) I would say “I want to make higher education work better for the people using it for skills transfer.” (More on why in a minute.)

What makes me a polarizing figure in these conversations, small as they are, is that I am a tenured professor without having been socialized as one, and I have little patience for the pieties of my peers. It may make me more skeptical of the goals of a liberal education than I should be (my own education was decidedly in that mold), because I see so many other hypocrisies in the ranks of senior faculty.

In fact, the single biggest source of frustration my peers express about my stated views is not that I regard a liberal education as just one option among many (though I do do that), but rather that I regard the behavior and decisions of tenured faculty as a significant source of degradation of higher education for a majority of the students.

For people with jobs for life, tenured faculty can get awfully whiny; our current consensus conviction is that the administration is enriching themselves at our expense. I’ve looked at enough budgets from enough schools to convince myself that the only institutions of which is is really true are for-profits like Kaplans and Phoenix, whose business model is so abusive I believe it should be made illegal.

In non-profits, however, admin and staff costs largely rise with the size of the faculty and with the scale of our ambitions — new Centers must be staffed, new labs maintained. (The one significant rise in cost not tied to faculty ambition is better care-taking of students, as with new focus on mental health.) The net of all this is that savage cuts in both head count and remuneration of administration and staff would entail a loss of support services senior faculty would not tolerate, while still not being enough to fund a majority-tenure-track faculty and moderate student costs.

The subterranean cause of our current financial distress is cost disease, but it was made much much worse by our collective decision (or rather our forbears’) in the late 1940s, to allow for a massive expansion of higher education in the direction of job training, while being allowed to preserve the illusion that this was just business as usual, rather than a massive change in course. If there was a moment where your dream of college being for a liberal education died, it was 1947.

Since then, the basic hypocrisy of universities (and non-SLAC colleges) is that the tenured faculty have allowed the public and the government to pay us, on the assumption that our goal is to produce students bearing the fruits and certifications of an education useful in the world of work, even as we secretly assure one another than the money is being handed over to support us and our work outside the classroom.

You say:

“Or one can try to help people understand what political arrangements shape that world and account for the fact that their choices are so restricted. But that would mean getting ideological, and I fully understand that some people are allergic to ideology.”

I’m not allergic to ideology (one could hardly be a CT commenter with that allergy; you’d sneeze yourself to death), and my preferred way of improving live for US citizens low on the Maslovian hierarchy would be the creation of a basic income (sometimes called a guaranteed minimum income.) I prefer this in part because multi-ethnic societies have never been able to implement social democracy, and in part because I think that full employment is a unicorn, in market societies generally, but especially in market societies where cheap communications and machine labor are making the idea of a ‘non-tradeable sector’ largely illusory.

That, however, is a different conversation. In the one we’re having now, I think a big source of our disagreement is our respective time horizons. I face students every week, and I feel I am responsible for increasing what they are capable of in the world that awaits them this May.

This has made me very tolerant of the good being the enemy of the perfect, because I am worried that the trajectory we are putting those students on often doesn’t even satisfy the demands of being good enough to help them get jobs.

I don’t mean the time horizon is the only difference, though. We obviously have deep philosophical senses of higher education as well. I do not believe our work has a purpose or an essence or a core. I believe it has only two things: rationales and habits, and those have changed radically over time.

The most recent radical change, in this country, was that we transformed ourselves into institutions whose rationale and habits (and funding and population) are focused on training and certification for managerial jobs. We don’t have to like that deal (it was negotiated by our elders, not us), but we can’t cancel it without returning the money, and the idea of tenured faculty sharing any of the financial pain we are currently forcing on to contingent faculty or our own students seems to be a non-starter.

I recognize that I could take the olive branch option here, and say that I, too, think it’s “a damned rotten shame that a large and growing proportion of the young are so scared of not making a living that they choose dull courses”, because that is of course a shame.

But to be honest, if I had to make a list of shameful things that happen at US colleges, this particular complaint wouldn’t appear in the single digits — I’ll reserve things that are a damned rotten shame for the students who spend years with us and get debt but no capabilities that would help them earn their way out of it.

My peers seem to think that the future of higher education is best framed as the question “Whither Oberlin?”, but I am actually far more worried about the students at the Community College of San Francisco than about the SLACs, which will emerge from the spread of scalable education with a more differentiated product, which they can offer for a higher price, to a more global population.

So here’s what I want: a college education that produces something that employers will treat as analogous to a BA in Business or Computer Science or Health Services, that takes three years and costs less than $10,000.

If such a thing were to succeed, it would cause many mediocre departments of History and English to implode, because the grad students (who currently get PhDs but no jobs as professors) will no longer be needed to teach the distribution requirements of the students who go elsewhere for those skills. I don’t regard such an implosion as the goal of a cheap, scalable transfer of workplace capabilities, but if it happens, I won’t regard it as much of a tragedy either.


Random Lurker 04.03.14 at 11:21 pm

@Clay Shirky
You say that college today in the USA (and I think in the rest of the world) is focused on training people for managerial jobs.
However, the number of managerial jobs is limited; it’s not that if 90% of the people are trained as managers, then 90% of the people can be managers and the remaining 10% do all the practical work.
So if all educators train students as managers, all you get is that most of the students will not get the job they studied for, and the requirements for a managerial job will just be higer (for example, a title from a fancy school, arguably this is already happening).
I understand that, as you have a contract with your students, you want to give them a better chance, but this happens at the expense of other people’s students.
So while this is probably correct from you, this can’t be a solution for education in aggregate.
Also, Baumol’s disease says that wages in sectors with no productivity increase rise together with wages in sectors with productivity increases (in fact it is just a particular case of the labor theory of value), so it can explain why relative cost of education doesn’t fall, but it can’t explain by itself an increase of the relative cost.


LFC 04.03.14 at 11:35 pm

Clay Shirky:
The most recent radical change, in this country, was that we transformed ourselves into institutions whose rationale and habits (and funding and population) are focused on training and certification for managerial jobs.

Cards on the table: I don’t have an academic job and therefore don’t esp. care whom I may inadvertently offend in the academy.

Now to the comment. Training and certification are two different things. There is an arrangement of sorts in which many employers demand bachelor’s degrees because they claim or pretend to think that such degrees certify something; however, whatever a degree in English, German, history, pol science, philosophy, int’l studies, anthropology, or maybe even biology certifies is not, I would think, a set of specific job-related skills, most of which are presumably learned on the job. The ‘official’ line, perhaps sometimes accurate but often probably no more than a myth, is that the aforementioned kinds of degrees indicate the holder might have acquired certain (hard-to-pin-down) qualities (insert the usual clichés about critical thinking or whatever) that employers claim or pretend to find useful.

However, is there any actual evidence that someone with a bachelor’s degree in a liberal-arts subject is better equipped to do job X than a high school graduate who is able to write a grammatical sentence (which some of them, albeit perhaps a minority, can)? If there is no such solid evidence (and how would one even implement the necessary experiment to generate such evidence?), then the whole certification thing is, at best, dubious, and at worst an elaborate charade. It serves the interests of universities and colleges if a bachelor’s degree is seen as ‘needed’ for certain kinds of employment, but it doesn’t really serve anyone else’s interests. At any rate, it certainly doesn’t serve the interests of those students who (1) don’t care about intellectual pursuits and don’t want a liberal education, (2) are in college only b/c their parents or someone else has told them they “have to” be, and (3) are, for whatever reason, going through the motions of studying a liberal-arts subject.

So if Clay S. is right that the “rationale and habits” of U.S. universities are “focused on training and certification for managerial jobs” and that this has been the case since 1947 (!), then the system would appear to be quite screwed up, since apart from more or less explicitly job-oriented programs such as (to take C.S.’s examples) Business or Computer Science or Health Services, univs don’t offer actual job training, for ‘managerial’ jobs or otherwise. (Of course I realize that a great many students major in Business, Computer Science, and Health Services or something like that, but a lot of students don’t. And even if the latter group is only 15 or 20 percent of the total, it’s still quite large in absolute terms.)


john c. halasz 04.04.14 at 1:11 am

Clay Shirky @103:

If you are claiming that Baumol’s cost disease is the primary underlying driver of increasing tertiary education cost, then there was a thread a while back here, in which that claim was extensively examined and large holes were punched in it. (I’m sorry, I don’t know where it is to be found, as I wasn’t a participant in it, but it was within the last year, and maybe Josh Mason or somebody else remembers its title or location).

For the rest, a purely economistic/instrumentalistic account of the “value” of education, in denouncing any traditional account of “Bildung”, misses that there are general “skills” that go into the formation of specific “technical skills” and that form the basis of understanding the specific contexts of application within the broader world for more specific disciplines. Rather formalistically, the more general skills generally are referred to as “critical thinking” and a capacity for “reflection”, which go together in forming both a general knowledge and awareness of the world and the ability to consider the good and the goods involved in the applications of what one is doing. IOW it involves the “cultivation” of responsible citizens and agents, since the narrow development of purely technical aptitudes can obviously go badly wrong. (Adam Smith already noted the narrowness and stuntedness that the division-of-labor tends to induce in human beings, as well as, how, whenever trade or business men get together, their talk inevitably drifts into how they can pursue their own advantage at the expense of the broader public interest).

So while you might feel you’re being “generous” in equipping your indifferent students with the technical means-of-subsistence in an increasingly class-stratified society, you might just as well be rationalizing the status quo and occluding any broadly held critical perspective on it, until, of course, our robot overloads completely take over.

But the back and forth with geo, on how nothing is “intrinsically” valuable, rather misses the distinction between “internal” and “external” goods and why such a distinction, however inadequately formulated, might itself be valuable or needful. Perhaps it’s the unlearning and de-differentiations involved in “pragmatism”, with its appeal to criterionless “success”, that renders any reflection of human goods or ends in the world, however projectively constructed, as implicated in our activities, merely nugatory.


Clay Shirky 04.04.14 at 2:48 am

Working backwards, @John #106,

I have read or participated in every thread here about college cost mentioning Baumol’s cost disease that I know of (,,, and the two commonest objections were that BCD can’t explain the US higher ed phenomenon because prices at public colleges were flat and then spiked, or because there has been no astounding rise in professor’s salaries.

In the face of the work done by Archibald and Feldman, I am not persuaded by either of these objections. In the former case, people often confuse tuition for the cost of college rather than the price — in a field as variably subsidized as higher ed, we would not expect steady rises in cost to be accompanied by steady rises in price.

And, as A&F make clear, the BCD effect from compensation on those organizations is not mainly about senior teacher’s wages, but is instead spread among: increases in administrative and staff headcount, as managerial complexity rises; increases in wages and benefits for those employees, as they become more skilled; substitutions of high- for low-cost labor, in the form of increasing reliance on adjuncts and other contingent faculty; increases in student:teacher ratios, to spread cost among more payers; and, as always in the US, dramatic increases in health care costs for all employees.

On critical thinking, Pascarella and Terenzini have the best review of the research to date (, and they don’t find much evidence for a general category of ‘critical thinking’, nor do they find much evidence for a subject-specific tropism for the bundle of skills that gets grouped together under that name.

Instead, what they find is that critical thinking is not tied to subjects so much as teaching methods. It is possible to teach the 19th century novel in a way that does little to improve critical thinking, while it is possible to teach bench science in a way that does. This conflicts, as Derek Bok likes to point out, with almost all traditions of self-examination in the academy, which concern content and sequence of courses (which have very little effect on reflexive thinking, per P&Ts literature review) and rarely involve either examining theory or research into effective teaching, and almost never examine any give professor’s actual behavior in the classroom with an eye towards reviewing effectiveness.

If P&T are right, then any nod to ‘critical thinking’ is going to make headway only inasmuch as it involves an institution altering how its faculty teaches, rather than merely altering what they teach.

@LFC, this is in part the answer to your question as well. There is in fact evidence that college produces, on average, predictable positive outcomes on student abilities, along several dimensions. (Again, the most comprehensive literature review is Pascarella and Terenzini’s by far.) There are a sizable minority of students who exhibit little or no progress, but given that average progress is positive, this means that the students not on the party pathway or stuck in a lousy school are actually seeing real positive gains.

As for the idea that “a great many students” major in the sorts of categories I mentioned, this is true, but I don’t think that puts the case strongly enough. Something like 5 out of 6 students major in degrees like these — as Michael Berube likes to point out, the “crisis in the humanities” actually happened in the 1970s and 80s, when the percentage of students majoring in the humanities fell to something like 17%, and has stayed there ever since.

@Random #104, I should have said ‘jobs in managerial industries.’ The general turn from relatively predictable and replaceable labor, as with agriculture and simple manufacturing, to larger and more complex and highly managed organizations after WWII, created an appetite for better trained workers, even if they were not originally hired as managers.


LFC 04.04.14 at 2:59 am

C. Shirky:
So here’s what I want: a college education that produces something that employers will treat as analogous to a BA in Business or Computer Science or Health Services, that takes three years and costs less than $10,000.

For the record and in case it wasn’t clear, I think this is something that makes sense for those students who would otherwise spend four years and incur debt to get a degree in these fields. Why should someone spend more time and money if he/she could spend less time and money for the same (or substantially the same) outcome? My objection wasn’t to this proposal but to the broader claim that the main aim of the whole US higher ed system is job training, which seems an overly broad claim and one that neglects differences among different kinds of institutions, etc.


geo 04.04.14 at 3:04 am

Clay: thanks for your long, well-reasoned, and good-natured reply. I now understand better and continue to admire your determination to rescue students from an often crushingly expensive education which doesn’t leave them with decent job prospects. Insofar as your senior colleagues in the humanities care less about their students’ burdens than for preserving their own perks, you’re right to despise them. You’re right too, of course, about wanting to keep the perfect from being the enemy of the good. It would certainly be good for most students, compared with the present worst-of-both-worlds, to have “a college education that produces something that employers will treat as analogous to a BA in Business or Computer Science or Health Services, that takes three years and costs less than $10,000.” Best of luck with that.

But it’s that “different conversation” — the one you keep ruling out of court, about whether social democracy, full employment, and the preservation of non-commodified areas of life — that I keep wanting to have with you. It may be different, but it’s not unrelated. Fighting for the best possible accommodation to business domination of education, employment policy, and pretty much every other sphere of social activity is worthwhile, no doubt, but in much the same way that climate change mitigation is worthwhile. I can understand and possibly even admire someone who says: “Look, we’ll never get off the fossil-fuel habit; the forces on the other side are invincible. Let’s just concentrate on preparing for the tsunamis and crop failures and droughts and refugees and all the other catastrophes.” Better to be prepared for catastrophes than not to be, of course. But one should at least have the intellectual honesty to say while doing so: “You know, these future catastrophes are the result of some political arrangements that are in some people’s interest but not in most people’s. They’d be very hard to change, so we’d best prepare for the worst, but we might at least also give some thought to changing them.”

Maybe there need to be “institutions whose rationale and habits (and funding and population) are focused on training and certification for managerial jobs.” But that’s not to say that that training and certification ought to be the purpose of publicly supported post-secondary education. Maybe if we could get the 1 percent to pay a fair share of taxes, but since we can’t seem to, should we pay to subsidize their workforce too? And “we” didn’t transform the economy and polity from the moderate pluralism of 1945-1980 to the plutocracy of 2000-present. Oversimplification for oversimplification, it would be truer to say that the Business Roundtable and the US Chamber of Commerce are responsible for this transformation than that we or our “our elders” are. I don’t say one shouldn’t try to help people make the best of a bad lot. But one should tell them why their lot is bad. They deserve that much.

First, though, one has to understand, oneself, that it’s bad. I don’t think one can understand this without recognizing just how invaluable, how spiritually nourishing, it is to read great novels and poetry (not necessarily in Greek) and/or get some fairly substantial understanding of science and its development. Only then does one have a right to tell them: “Sorry, very hard luck, but make the best of it. I’ll help.”

Anyway, henceforth I’ll cease hectoring you, and will even wish you success. Just don’t take Tolstoy’s name in vain anymore, OK?


LFC 04.04.14 at 3:04 am

@john c. halasz:
Who could possibly object to critical thinking, to a capacity for reflection, and to a capacity for self-reflection with the aim of, as one professor of my acquaintance likes to put it, possibly fulfilling F.N.’s injunction to “become what you are”? A question, though, is how many programs or institutions that claim to be thus “cultivating responsible citizens and agents” are actually doing so.

A related question is how to walk the line between encouraging reflection and an “ability to consider the good and the goods involved in the applications of what one is doing,” on the one hand, and, on the other hand, forcing students whose goals are narrowly ‘technical’ to sit through required courses on moral dilemmas (or whatever). Do you (does one) go the coercive route, hoping that a gifted teacher might have an effect on the narrowly ‘technical’ students, transforming outlooks and lives in the way that countless official university puff-pieces tout? Or does one take the view that coercion is not appropriate and is probably going to be counterproductive? — as well as, of course, increasing the expense and time involved in getting a degree.


john c. halasz 04.04.14 at 3:28 am


Who was it that said that youth is wasted on the young, (GBS)? Something of the same goes for education. I’m not objecting to vocational training, (though that can occur in all kinds of ways, especially on the job and not solely at public, nor individual expense). But eventually education should be rendered available to all who have achieved the capacity for it, across a lifetime, not just reduced to an economic commodity.


Harold 04.04.14 at 3:31 am

“There is a view in which all the love of our neighbor, the impulses towards action, help, and beneficence, the desire for stopping human error, clearing human confusion, and diminishing the sum of human misery, the noble aspiration to leave the world better
and happier than we found it,–motives eminently such as are called social,–come in as part of the grounds of culture, and the main and pre-eminent part. Culture is then properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection. It moves by the force, not merely or primarily of the scientific passion for pure knowledge, but also of the moral and social passion for doing good …..

“And because men are all members of one great whole, and the sympathy which is in human nature will not allow one member to be indifferent to the rest, or to have a perfect welfare independent of the rest, the expansion of our humanity, to suit the idea of perfection which culture forms, must be a general expansion. Perfection, as culture conceives it, is not possible while the individual remains isolated: the individual is obliged, under pain of being stunted and enfeebled in his own development if he disobeys, to carry others along with him in his march towards perfection, to be continually doing all he can to enlarge and increase the volume of the human stream sweeping thitherward ….” — Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (1869)

The idea of “perfecting” oneself — along with the idea of progress now seems quaint — but this is one highly influential way in which a liberal education used to be justified. Learning, through literature and the study of history, how people lived and felt in other times and other places was commonly said to “enlarge the sympathies” and make one less selfish as well as expanding the understanding.


Harold 04.04.14 at 3:53 am

Without in any way endorsing Arnold’s particular viewpoint, I get the impression that many adults seem to have lost confidence that they have anything of value or interest to impart to the young, and while the over confidence and pomposity of the Victorian era may be ridiculous, is it possible we have gone too far in the direction of diffidence?


GiT 04.04.14 at 5:31 am


TM 04.04.14 at 2:29 pm

C. Shirky:
“So here’s what I want: a college education that produces something that employers will treat as analogous to a BA in Business or Computer Science or Health Services, that takes three years and costs less than $10,000.”

There’s a big problem with that vision: you are saying that the value of college education depends on what “employers” value. It’s a problem not because it’s insulting to the professoriate. It’s a problem because it’s far from clear what kind of education is really valued by employers (a category which obviously is quite heterogeneous). If employers really were looking for better job skills, they would train their workforce better. They might even establish a system of vocational training as is found in many European countries. But that’s not what they do. Empirically, employers are willing to pay a premium to (some) college graduates and a higher premium to those of prestigious institutions. But why? Certainly not because of the “job skills” and even less because of all the “critical thinking” baloney (employers want docile conformists; when they claim the opposite, they are lying). The best theory I have been able to come up with is that capitalism (like any stratified social system) needs a sorting mechanism. For historical reasons, in the US, the college system has come to be that sorting machine. The pretense is that that mechanism is “meritocratic”; it patently isn’t (parents’ SES remains the best predictor of academic success) but what matters is its social acceptance, which is remarkably high.

Here’s the problem for anybody wishing to improve their students’ job market appeal: you are up against a sorting machine. The best you can do is try to get that individual student ranked a bit higher in the system. But it’s zero sum. Try all you might to “transfer skills” to your students, you are not going to increase the number of decent slots available for them. Right now, the good slots are exceedingly rare, which explains all the hand-wringing about the need to “better prepare students for the job market”. It’s a fallacy, and a pretty obvious one: better “job preparation” cannot improve job market that is and remains poor.


TM 04.04.14 at 2:41 pm

I would also take issue with Clay’s assertion that administrative bloat in academia is a non-issue. I think there is plenty of evidence that is is an issue. The number of often highly paid administrators has increased more than any other academic job category and their pay also is increasing way faster than faculty and regular staff pay (e. g. and Some complaints about this tendency may be exaggerated (“Administrators Ate My Tuition”) but it is real and it also contributes to increasing inequality in the academic pay structure.


Trader Joe 04.04.14 at 3:10 pm

@114 TM
“It’s a fallacy, and a pretty obvious one: better “job preparation” cannot improve job market that is and remains poor.”

Not knowing your background I’ll take a chance and suppose you haven’t done a lot of job hiring in your life or you wouldn’t have said this in exactly this way. The biggest expense of a bad hire is not the salary that you pay the person who turns out to not be able to cut it – rather its the drain on resources this person becomes while they thrash around trying to make it work and others try to help them make it work before deciding to hire someone else and start again at point zero.

Better preparation reduces this hiring friction and most definitely increases the willingness to hire new grads rather than those that already have experience. Its true in jobs ranging from construction to professionals and is why so many employers demand “a minimum X years of experience” before hiring.

Tons of companies, particularly larger ones, very specifically recognize that no matter how well credentialed a new college grad is, they will need to do a lot of internal training and it will probably be +1 year before the hire will produce much return on the salary and benefits they are being paid (this does vary by profession to be sure).

This is certainly true in most professional jobs – doctors, lawyers, accountancy, finance and all have pretty well defined training sequences to both develop the hire and insulate the firm from any growing pains and all induct thousands of new grads every year. Part of the reason its thousands is that they know that despite their best efforts many will wash out in less than five years – which is also part of preparation a university can do. Kinda sucks to be an accounting major (for example) thinking that’s a “smart” degree to have only to find out that they hate dping the sort of jobs accountants do and would rather do something else, for which they now lack qualification.

I agree completely with your assertion that colleges are a giant sorting mechanism, but the reason they are is that for some professions some universities simply do a better job of preparation. Employers don’t owe new grads a job and only need to “take a chance” on those where there is a good potential for success. Since students pay top dollar to universities on the expectation that they will be prepared they have a right to expect that to be the case to the extent they’ve held up their end of the bargain (i.e. worked hard and tried to learn).


The Temporary Name 04.04.14 at 3:11 pm

There’s all sorts of vocational education out there already. Shirky just wants universities destroyed.


SamChevre 04.04.14 at 3:32 pm

I’m with Clay Shirky: what we have now is a vocational system pretending to be something else.

Here’s my thought experiment: who would the “real college experience” (four plus years of gaining deep knowledge of interesting things, exploration of the good, true, and beautiful throughout history, etc) get as students if it were of no more job market/social status to have done it than there was in being a good enough violinist to play with a community orchestra, or a bridge life master.

My guess is that it would not look much at all like today’s university.


TM 04.04.14 at 3:46 pm

TJ: “Better preparation reduces this hiring friction and most definitely increases the willingness to hire new grads rather than those that already have experience.”

Employers looking for experienced professionals will always prefer experienced professionals over new grads. No college to date has managed to graduate experienced professionals. I don’t see how that trivial observation illuminates the question of what education employers value. It seems that you are rehashing the “skills shortage” humbug ( There is simply no evidence that employers are desperately trying to fill plenty of open positions but they just can’t because nobody has the right skills.


William Timberman 04.04.14 at 3:53 pm

I have a lot of respect for the clarity of Clay Shirky’s thinking, but I also think that such clarity comes at a price. It leaves out — or sweeps under the rug — imponderables of all sorts which don’t seem to amount to much considered in isolation, but taken together are a real threat to his thesis.

Geo, to his credit, takes Clay to task for his neglect of those impoderables, even at the risk of seeming an old fuddy-duddy in such forward leaning company. Although I’m not as certain as Geo is of the value of classical Greek, intrinsic or otherwise, I agree that any agency which helps us forge ourselves at some distance from the implacable hammers of Moloch’s smithy is worth supporting.

I agree that present system of higher education is afflicted by wretched excess, that the responsibility for it can’t be laid at anyone’s door in particular, and that reform is both necessary and inevitable. Economic determinism disguised as pragmatism, though, is a bridge too far for me.


LFC 04.04.14 at 4:00 pm

SamChevre @118
You’re mixing up two different things: (1) actual job training/vocational ed. and (2) certification/credentialing/social status function. Two different things. A Wall St. firm, say, might hire someone w a BA in history or economics or whatever even though that person has zero actual training to do whatever the employer is going to want her to do.

In this example, this is not a vocational system at work; it’s a somewhat artificial credentialing system in which the employer and the university and the student collude in claiming to believe that studying European history or post-Keynesian economic theory or social anthropology or East Asian kinship patterns or whatever the **** inculcates certain “general skills” that are useful, even though they likely have no specific application to the job in question. Is that a valid belief or assumption? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. I suspect that occasionally it is and often it isn’t.

The point is it is an error to confuse, as your comment @118 does, vocational
education with credentialing education. There is no necessary connection between the two.


LFC 04.04.14 at 4:06 pm

The Temp Name @117
Shirky just wants universities destroyed.

This charge borders on the absurd, since Shirky has said explicitly that he sees liberal education as “an option,” which means exactly what it says, I presume. Of course, in practice “liberal education” also often or mainly serves the credentialing — not vocational — function mentioned above. (Along the way to the credential, someone might actually get a liberal education — or, of course — not. It depends.)


LFC 04.04.14 at 4:07 pm

p.s. Sorry for the stupid dashes in that last sentence.


LFC 04.04.14 at 4:13 pm

Wm Timberman:
I agree that any agency which helps us forge ourselves at some distance from the implacable hammers of Moloch’s smithy is worth supporting.

You can tell WT had a liberal education, what w/ the echoes of Joyce. ;)


bianca steele 04.04.14 at 4:20 pm

I love this point in the discussion: when a lone voice or two is shouting “you have no evidence” while the rest are waxing lyrical about the manifest dangers of “Moloch’s smithy” and so on.

That Krugman keeps making an argument about the economy in general and skills in general and employers in general doesn’t mean there’s nothing more to be said. I would expect that a decent college education would allow people to understand this fact about authority and its limits.

The fact is that it’s in academia’s interest for skills (whatever those are) to be imparted only within the university. It’s in their interests for no one to be employable if they’re less than five years from graduation or a special, costly refresher course, because things have changed so quickly. It’s in their interest to teach managers and HR staff to rely on university credentials.

It’s not really in workers’ interest to be taught “skills” that can only be used under the close supervision of the white-collar equivalent of a foreman. That’s what it means to train people for obedience instead of thinking for themselves. The idea that this is what anyone wants to train people for is a fantasy. The idea that there’s some amorphous white-collar kind of “skill” that can be mysteriously acquired, in college or anywhere else, and then wielded on the job, is a fantasy. The idea that it’s purer to be under the thumb of Moloch without any understanding, than to have enough understanding (at the risk of the appearance of a secret sympathy) to preserve yourself somewhat, is a fantasy heading for a crisis of some sort if it doesn’t actually describe your day-to-day life (and it’s in the interest of academia to promote it if it leads to late-in-life application to, e.g., law school).


William Timberman 04.04.14 at 4:25 pm

LFC @ 124

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls
and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable
dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys
sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!

Not Joyce.

PS: Difficult formatting, so I’m not sure if this blockquote is going to look right after I push the Submit button. Apologies if it gets screwed.


LFC 04.04.14 at 4:27 pm

The idea that there’s some amorphous white-collar kind of “skill” that can be mysteriously acquired, in college or anywhere else, and then wielded on the job, is a fantasy.

If it is a fantasy, it’s one that some people claim to believe in, so as to give ‘the sorting mechanism’ (see TM, above) some veneer of utilitarian justification.


LFC 04.04.14 at 4:29 pm

I was thinking of “I go to forge in the smithy of my soul” etc.
(Whatever. Sorry for derail.)


bianca steele 04.04.14 at 4:43 pm

LFC: You’re arguing that we need a falsified metaphysical explanation for why someone is “good at white-collar jobs (of this particular kind),” because otherwise TM’s unsupported assertions will make people sad?


William Timberman 04.04.14 at 4:46 pm

LFC @ 128

Echoes. Imponderables, none of which appear anywhere in the Big Data of the Race to the Top. What to do about that? This thread, and the one about my experiences with a MOOC, are milestones, I think. There’s much more to be done, of course — as always….


TM 04.04.14 at 4:55 pm

Oh please Bianca 125. I’m linking to a Krugman post so that I don’t have to rehash what he said, and he said it well enough and with sufficient evidence. If you have better evidence, let’s see, but accusing me of appeal to authority is laughable.

“it’s in academia’s interest for skills (whatever those are) to be imparted only within the university.” Really, you mean academia is keeping a monopoly on Greek and philosophy?

Tell us what skills you are talking about. “Whatever those are” won’t do it. What skills is academia monopolizing? The only thing that academia *can* monopolize to some extent is credentials. And people here keep mixing up those two very different concepts (thanks LFC 122).


bianca steele 04.04.14 at 5:01 pm

TM @ 131
If every one of Krugman’s blog posts is now supposed to be authoritative on its face until proved otherwise, he’d be better off stopping now. I hope he doesn’t believe that and would be appalled.

My comment was more addressed to LFC than to you, as LFC seemed to be claiming to agree with you–actually with half a sentence by you, or at least a word by you–without giving more detail. I take back “unsupported assertion” since you did give a lot of detail about how you came to your conclusion.


TM 04.04.14 at 5:15 pm

Well thanks. Still nobody claimed that Krugman is “authoritative on its face until proved otherwise” but maybe we can just return to the topic.


SamChevre 04.04.14 at 5:19 pm

LFC @ 121

I’m intentionally not disinguishing vocational aducation and job-market credentialling; I think that they are (for purposes of discussing “what is college for?”) versions of the same thing.

bianca steele @ 125
The idea that there’s some amorphous white-collar kind of “skill” that can be mysteriously acquired, in college or anywhere else, and then wielded on the job, is a fantasy.

I’m quite convinced that there is: it’s called “social status.”


Trader Joe 04.04.14 at 5:54 pm

bianca steele @ 125
“The idea that there’s some amorphous white-collar kind of “skill” that can be mysteriously acquired, in college or anywhere else, and then wielded on the job, is a fantasy.”

I don’t think this is true. Two simple examples 1) being able to write a well considered research opinion that takes a view, weighs objections and defends them and 2) presentation skills that allow the same sort of anlaysis in oral rather than written form.

I don’t care whether these skills are honed learning about greek philosophers, english poets or chemistry experiments – its a skill set appropriate to a white color job. An employer will willingly train as to “how we do it round here” appropriate to being a lawyer or a stock analyst or in corporate development or any number of professions -but they aren’t going to train “writing a paper 101” they look to universities to do that and the better success they have in recruiting from a particular university the more likely they will continue to look there.

This isn’t about skills mismatch – as TM suggested as he put words in my mouth – this is a willingness to invest in college grads. More companies would do it if they felt that the risk/reward was worth the effort, its as simple as that. Not all universities are equal at doing this and even those that do don’t always work for all professions.


TM 04.04.14 at 7:15 pm

TJ, seriously, you mean that companies would hire more college grads but unfortunately their writing and presentation skills are substandard so they have no choice but to go on hiring experienced professionals? I’m not disputing that the skills of many grads could be better. Of course they could. But that is not the point of the whole credentialing and sorting machine, now is it?


The Temporary Name 04.04.14 at 7:26 pm


This charge borders on the absurd, since Shirky has said explicitly that he sees liberal education as “an option,” which means exactly what it says, I presume.

Explicitly saying that is about as valuable as this gold that I am handing you right now.


Trader Joe 04.04.14 at 7:47 pm

I thought that’s what we were collectively addressing – what is the point of the credentialing and sorting machine. My thought is that every kid that comes throught he machine should have some reasonably ’employable’ skills regardless of what particular major they pursue and if more such units cranked through the machine there would be a greater willingness on the part of employers to higher the output.

The alternative case, as I try to digest the strand (of which there seem to be a few branches), is that the output doesn’t much matter since its only credentialing anyway – employers only hire the rich kids or the Ivy league kids or whatever.

I agree credentialing is certaintly part of what gets bestowed by the process, but if that were the only thing how would the ‘poor kids’ ever get jobs. There are any number of employers that say I’d rather have the top 5 kids from big state U than the bottom 5 from rich kids liberal arts school and they’ve reached that conclusion by having hired both and having gotten better outcomes from the former. The pros and cons of each do vary by profession fields like public accounting tend to be more egalitarian, fields like investment banking often less so.

You seem to suggest that freshly minted college grads are never hired when in fact thousands get hired every year from all levels of the university hirearchy. Those who aren’t placing their fair share should be asking themselevs why their “product” isn’t sellling.


bianca steele 04.04.14 at 8:01 pm

Trader Joe @ 135
Sure, and I think we mostly agree. But writing skills are very specific and not at all amorphous, and the way students learn them and are tested on them is straightforward and not at all mysterious. There’s no reason to mystify skills like those (I’d include, say, biology for nursing students, or calculus for computer science majors, and I’d also include ability to work on a team project), by pretending they’re not important and that they’re only there to mask a class distinction, or that because they haven’t been specified or they’re hard to explain they must be some almost automatic benefit and inexplicable benefit of being in some special kind of degree program.


TM 04.04.14 at 8:41 pm

TJ, I’m not suggesting that no grads ever get hired or that only the rich kids get hired. My beef with the way you frame the issue is that I observe that there are plenty of smart, educated people out there (not only fresh grads) who have those skills employers keep talking about – good writing, presentation, critical thinking, some of them even know how to use a spread sheet – and many of them find it very hard to get decent jobs. I find grotesque the idea that if only colleges reformed their curricula to become more employer friendly, then the job market would improve.


LFC 04.04.14 at 9:07 pm

bianca @127:

LFC: You’re arguing that we need a falsified metaphysical explanation for why someone is “good at white-collar jobs (of this particular kind),” because otherwise TM’s … assertions will make people sad?

This bears little — heck, it bears no — resemblance to what I said. I wrote nothing about TM’s comments “making people sad.” And a shared or tacit agreement to believe something (or claim to believe something) that may or may not be true (or may only sometimes be true) is not at all the same as “a falsified metaphysical explanation.”

Actually I think there’s somewhat more agreement among us (I mean various of the commenters) than may be immediately apparent. I agree that sometimes while going through the credentialing process one may learn skills like how to write a more-or-less coherent paper (if the person didn’t already learn that in high school) or how to give a talk, etc. But I also tend to think that the credentialing/sorting process has an independent role/function in maintaining social stratification. Of course it’s not a mechanical process, and employers may indeed find, on the basis of experience, that they prefer the top (in terms of grades or whatever) 50 kids from State Univ than a random 50 from Prestigious Univ. And fields do vary in their hiring practices. None of that need undermine the basic point about sorting/credentialing, however.

Also, there’s a lot I’m unsure of or don’t know here. I’m not a sociologist and I’m not familiar with whatever systematic research has been done on these issues in the last, say, 25 or 30 years. (Nor am I an employer, for that matter.) I’ve been a student and I’ve been an employee, and for purposes of this thread I assumed that that, coupled with the fact that I’ve occasionally thought about this a bit, gave me as much basis to opine as the next person. But I don’t claim any special expertise on these issues.


Ronan(rf) 04.05.14 at 1:09 am

re aesthetic pleasure and beauty

Unless I’m missing something, I think people are running with quite parochial perspectives here.
Is there an aesthtic pleasure to writing computer code ? A beauty to linear algebra ?
Altough I know neither, I’d leave Richard Feynman answer:

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

This is probably irrelevant. But I like the quote.


Harold 04.05.14 at 1:34 am

My son told me that cows dance for joy when they solve a problem. If it’s not true, it’s a good story.


Ronan(rf) 04.05.14 at 1:39 am

relatedly – i remember a friend telling me he used to drive out from the city into the country to ‘tip cows’.. i listened, acknowledged, and then explained this was a myth. Cows just get up.


godoggo 04.05.14 at 2:04 am

I think you misunderstand the science.

“knowledgeable people I checked with (a couple farmers, an animal science expert) claim cow tipping can’t happen. Apart from their sheer size (1200 pounds is typical), cows do not fall into a deep sleep while standing the way horses do (more on this below). Rather, they simply doze while chewing their cud. They are easily startled, making it difficult to sneak up on them.”


Ronan(rf) 04.05.14 at 2:10 am

There are many problems with cow tipping. Standing sleeping is one (false) premise.The inability to rise another.


godoggo 04.05.14 at 2:45 am

I think that what city slickers such as yourself are told aforehand is not that the cows cannot rise but that it’s necessary run like hell before they do. In other words, you misunderstand the mythology, in addition to the science.


Ronan(rf) 04.05.14 at 2:52 am

I am a cow.


PJW 04.05.14 at 3:15 am

Re: Cow Tipping

Beavis and Butthead pulled it off:


godoggo 04.05.14 at 4:53 am

Give me some milk or else go home.


john c. halasz 04.05.14 at 5:00 am

The most perfect reductio ad absurdum of a CT thread EVAH!


Clay Shirky 04.05.14 at 11:44 am

@George #109,

I was traveling and disconnected, and then the thread got all cow-tipping-y, so I’ll just say I take your point about not labeling mere accommodations to a discomforting present as ideal situations.

And given the increasingly widespread conversation about both social democracy and basic income, I imagine we’ll have a chance to have that conversation someday soon.


Main Street Muse 04.05.14 at 12:11 pm

Cow-tipping! Boys I knew at Kenyon apparently engaged in this as part of their academic training…

Anyway, this thread has detoured significantly from the MOOC-focused OP. We have MOOCs because there are serious issues today within the academy. One problem – 75% of the student instruction comes from poorly paid contingent faculty with no future in an institution that is not willing to invest in them (in salaries, training, sending them to conferences, benefits, etc.), and the remaining 25% of the instruction comes from the healthy number (as per JW Mason) of tenured faculty focused on research.

All the while, the cost for this education has climbed astronomically – far out of proportion to inflation-based increases. A conundrum that is not solved by cow tipping for sure.


Metatone 04.05.14 at 1:30 pm

There are lots of good comments on this thread, even amongst some (as is natural) bitter internet argumentation – and as someone upthread notes, I think there’s more agreement on underlying factors than meets the eye here.

Some underlying factors that caught my eye:

1) College costs have gone up too much for students – but at the same time a big part of the problem is that there aren’t enough jobs and not enough good jobs to justify educational costs, even at a lower rate. No changes at the college level can fix this, the economy/society is the level where part of this problem resides.

2) Once we notice that college is importantly about signalling and sorting, there’s a danger that MOOCs pretend to be about “learning skills” and don’t acknowledge that they will be categorised in the signalling and sorting as well – and not necessarily for the better – esp. in the “Piketty age.”

3) I do some teaching at a for-profit institution. It’s morally ambiguous because there are always mismatches between the aim of parents (who do a lot of the paying) VS the aims of students; and the realities of what it costs to make people fit for the jobs that would justify the costs VS the need for the venture to make money.

What’s clear to me is that for many of the students, what would benefit them the most is not so much a MOOC, but 2 more years of high school. When you talk about sorting out thinking, writing and math things, it’s the grading and the feedback and human commitment to explanation that seems to make the difference. It seems to me that high-school does the whole feedback intensive teaching at a lower cost than universities. (Of course there may be social reasons that you can’t make this model work.) Maybe 2 more years of high school and then MOOCs for job-related content.

e.g. So you want to be a bookkeeper? Take this MOOC on basic accounting content. – BUT before you do that, you better be able to read, write, do math and logical thinking and problem solving.


bianca steele 04.05.14 at 2:42 pm

LFC @ 141:

It sounds like you’re complaining that I think you introduced the idea of a falsified metaphysical explanation. But I was the one who introduced that idea, aka “a fantasy.” And you expanded, I thought, on a part of my comment you thought needed modification. Without suggesting in any way that you thought the word was inappropriate. So I’m not sure why you’re complaining that I think that’s what we were discussing.


LFC 04.05.14 at 3:44 pm

I’ll retract that part of my comment at 141. (I’m not sure “fantasy” = “falsified metaphysical explanation,” but since I don’t have the energy or time for such a debate right now, I’ll let it go.)


Harold 04.05.14 at 4:44 pm

Use your degree to make a difference:

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